An Australian in Ferguson: 'They are not broken'

September 25, 2015
Memorial for Mike Brown at the site of his murder by police.

I had no intention of going to Ferguson, the flashpoint of the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality. It was the United States’ dirty problem, not Australia’s.

Then I read a piece about Black Lives Matter activists taking the mic from Bernie Sanders while he campaigned for Democratic presidential candidacy. Parts of the crowd booed.

The August 10 article asked: “If black America's endurance of decades of lower life expectancy, mass imprisonment, lower wealth, police violence … hasn't awakened the establishment to the urgency of the crisis, is it reasonable for Black Lives Matter to expect that it's grievances will be heard if it politely waits its turn?”

This resonated with me because only weeks earlier, Australia’s most successful Aboriginal footballer finally had enough of being heckled by racist sections of Australian football crowds. So he did an Aboriginal war dance.

After this, he was routinely booed, kicking off Australia’s own anti-racist twitter hashtag #IStandWithAdam. It posed questions about Australian racist attitudes towards indigenous Australians that perpetuate similar socio-economic problems to that of African Americans.

“I Stand With Adam” was one of the many movements that followed the Ferguson uprising. Maybe by visiting the Missouri town where 18-year-old Black man Michael Brown was shot dead by white police officer Darren Wilson, I could learn something.

St Louis

As I drove into Ferguson it became apparent it is very small. It has two main roads: one where the predominantly white part of town resides (North Florissant Ave), and one where the mostly Black part of town lives (West Florissant Ave).

It is evident that public funds make their way more easily to the white area, which is clean, green and well maintained. Conversely, West Florissant Ave has crumbling footpaths.

I parked my car on the outskirts of town. American flags hung from houses, mixed with symbols of broken dreams such as businesses closed down and bordered up.

The perceptions of locals were interesting. They were worried an opportunity for change could be lost to vested interests, thanks to politicians who only care when media is watching, and from media who don't report the truth. They were worried there would be a missed opportunity to create new, fairer laws such as not going to jail for minor offences and building better relations with police.

They were also worried that when the media leaves, the police will go back to doing what they “normally” do.

I came across a Fox News crew. They told me not to go where Brown had died because I would not be safe.

I had already decided the Ferguson stereotype of the angry, out-of-control Black man was wrong, so I went there.

The first house I saw had a sign on the front reading: “We must stop killing each other”.

A memorial to Michael Brown came into vision, moving for its sheer number of gifts and messages. It is located where he lay dead for four hours, while his mother wailed because police would not let her get to her son's body.

That was the first time I felt the community pain surrounding Brown's death.

Night movement

I spent three nights with the protesters. There were cops everywhere. Behind, in front, and to each side, behind bushes and walls.

As I arrived the first night, a car was reversing back from the store where Brown had been accused of stealing. It had “No Justice No Peace” sprayed on it. A store employee was telling the driver they could not park there anymore.

I walked another 30 metres to the group of protesters. I walked up to one, Dante, wearing a T-shirt and scarf around his face. Underneath, a mask for the gas.

He told me stories of being gassed by police, having guns drawn on them, how police try to irritate them with gestures, such as driving up close and waving at them in an antagonistic fashion (I witnessed this several times). He pointed out empty lots, where buildings once stood before they were torched.

One protester I met was a white woman named Linda Tirado. Like some of the citizen journalists, she was in Ferguson when it heated up.

There is a deep distrust toward the media throughout Ferguson. Many feel they care about the blood-filled stories, and nothing else.

Tirado introduced me to a group called Lost Voices. They were leaders, but not in the typical corporate sense.

The highest status is given to those who had spent the most amount of time on the “front line”. This was evident when protesters introduced themselves. For example, some would say, “I started a week after Mike Browns death”, others would say “two weeks”.

I heard stories of the fear of having pincer-style moves used against them, corralling them into a small area — before having a loud speaker blast at them, ordering them to leave immediately, or else.

I saw footage of one member with an open wound after being hit by a police baton.

Most are very young, and I would guess, traumatised by their experiences. How could they not be? But they are not broken.

There are factions, but when the trouble starts the protesters come together. I heard someone yell: “The police are going through our cars.” I looked up, and cops were sheepishly walking from the car park.

Leaders of the protesters got over there. The police chief came over in his vehicle — never getting out — and tried to calm everyone down. He made motherhood statements. Clearly he has a tough job. One protest leader told him they did not believe a word coming out of his mouth.

I spoke to Ned Alexander from Lost Voices. He said: “You can’t get a good education, get good health care, or get on a good government program when you’re poor in Ferguson. I’ve got nowhere more important to be.”

Having nothing to lose by being out there each night was a theme echoed by other local protesters. It was the death of Brown that brought them together, but it was the issues behind Brown's death that unites them.

Another member of Lost Voices, Chey, said the protests had united the local area, giving the example of Bloods and Crips gang members protesting together side by side, seeking to bring attention to the same issues.

They have melded into a family. I witnessed continual affection among protesters, offering each other water, food and cigarettes. Or just a friendly: “How are you holding up?”

But “the movement” is about more than protesting. It is a protest movement at night and a charitable movement during the day.

Day movement

I visited a group called Operation Help or Hush. It is a safe house for children and protesters.

The group started off helping on the protest lines, doing things such as bringing water to protesters. Then they organised donations via Twitter and now organise direct help for the community.

In practice it works a bit like this: Children might normally get away from family pressure by playing basketball. However, now there may be an academic there waiting with a clipboard, or there may be a news crew. Therefore, Help or Hush provides a space to play, get some nutrition, do their homework, and mingle among each other. They help to normalise children's lives in the potentially traumatic chaos.

At night, they are a safe house for a different reason — providing somewhere for protesters to escape.

The future

In Ferguson, I did not find the irrational young black youth that protesters are purported to be. Instead, I found a passionate and dedicated group of young people, with citizen journalists in support.

They do not have the huge resources of a state behind them, but they have the intangibles — a spirit that comes when you deeply believe what you are doing is right. This is hard for cannons to destroy.

The question of whether it could happen in Australia ran through my mind. If there was a perfect storm of a town or city with an ill-prepared police force, who make a host of mistakes, mixed with a community who feel little hope, with the advent of Twitter to spread the message, it is possible a similar movement could occur.

As I write this, far from Ferguson, from the comfort of my apartment in Brooklyn, I see a picture of Chey on social media pointing to blood on the ground. Another young Black man had just been shot in the back by police and died.

More protests kicked off. Armoured police vehicles and tear gas came out. I now understood what they meant by things changing when the media leaves.

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