Ferguson and Beyond: How A New Civil Rights Movement Began – And Won't End
We did not discover injustice, nor did we invent resistance last August. But the terror of police violence continues. So, too, does the work of protest
Mike Brown should be alive today. He should be home from his first year at college, visiting friends and enjoying summer as he prepares to return to campus.
The movement began one year ago as Brown’s body lay in the street of Canfield Drive here in Ferguson, Missouri, for four and a half hours. It began as the people of St Louis came out of their homes to mourn and to question, as the people were greeted by armed and aggressive officers. And the movement was sustained by a spirit of resistance that refused to be silent, that refused to cower, that refused to bow to continued hostility from the state.
We did not know each other’s names last August, but we knew each other’s hearts.
I will always remember that the call to action initiating the movement was organic – that there was no organizing committee, no charismatic leader, no church group or school club that led us to the streets. It is powerful to remember that the movement began as everyday people came out of their homes and refused to be scared into silence by the police. It is powerful, too, to remember the many people who came to stand with us in Ferguson, the many people who were radicalized in the streets of St Louis and then took that deep spirit of resistance to their own cities and towns, leading to sustained unrest across the United States.
In those early days, we were united by #Ferguson on Twitter – it was both our digital rallying cry and our communication hub. Back then, we were on the cusp of learning how to use Twitter as an organizing tool in protest. And once the protests began to spread, we became aware of something compelling and concise, something that provided common language to describe the protests: the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
As marginalized people, we have always faced erasure: either our story is never told, or it is told by everyone but us.
If not for Twitter and Instagram, Missouri officials would have convinced you, one year ago, that we simply did not exist. Or that we were the aggressors, rather than the victims. That we, and not they, were the violent ones.
But social media was our weapon against erasure. It is how many of us first became aware of the protests and how we learned where to go, or what to do when teargassed, or who to trust. We were able to both counter the narrative being spun by officials while connecting with each other in unprecedented ways. Many of us became friends digitally, first. And then we, the protestors, met in person.
Social media allowed us to become our own storytellers. With it, we seized the power of our truth.
There is nothing romantic about teargas. Or smoke bombs, or rubber bullets, or sound cannons.
I will never forget the first time I was teargassed, or the night I hid under my steering wheel as the Swat vehicle drove down a residential street. I will never forget that it was illegal – in St Louis, in the fall of 2014 – to stand still.
I remember these moments because they happened. Not because I enjoyed them, or because I want to re-live them. I remember the way the teargas made my face sting – I remember the time that officer shot pepper spray into my left eye as I was leaving a protest – because these things happened. They happened in 2014, during a period in America when many were seduced into believing that the police were infallible or that these things would never happen in America.
These moments continue to happen to us in 2015.
I am often asked what it is like to be on the “front line”. But I do not use the term “front line” to describe us, the protestors. Because everywhere in America, wherever we are, our blackness puts us in close proximity to police violence. Some of us have chosen a more immediate proximity, as we use our bodies to confront and disrupt corrupt state practices. But every black person is in closer proximity to police violence than we sometimes choose to acknowledge: in many ways, we are all on the “front line” – whether we want to be or not.
We did not discover injustice, nor did we invent resistance last August. Being black in America means that we exist in a legacy and tradition of protest, a legacy and tradition as old as this America. And, in many ways, August is the month of our discontent.
This August, we remember Mike Brown. But we also remember the Watts Rebellion, and the trauma of Katrina – three distinct periods of resistance prompted or exacerbated by police violence.
Resistance, for so many of us, is duty, not choice.