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Ferguson, USA: A Historian’s Collision with History, Part One

bradleyStefan M. Bradley is the director of African American Studies Program and an associate professor of history at Saint Louis University. He is the author of Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s (University of Illinois Press, 2009), and a coeditor of Alpha Phi Alpha: A Legacy of Greatness, The Demands of Transcendence (University Press of Kentucky, 2011). He is currently writing a book entitled, “Blackened Ivy: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League in the Postwar Era.”  

Note: This two-part post was written with the assistance of two courageous student-activists at Saint Louis University. Part Two features an interview with them.

Some years back, I read an important biography of a civil rights legend. In the epilogue the biographer, an esteemed scholar, mentioned a controversy over whether the scholar’s university should create a monument to that person. The biographer believed that it was the place of scholars to remain disinterested in such current, controversial matters and to observe and record them for the sake of posterity. I could not understand that sentiment. Three of my scholarly heroes are the late John Hope Franklin, Derrick Bell, and Vincent Harding, who used their talents to benefit the Black Freedom Movement. With no disrespect to the biographer, I say thank goodness some scholars chose to wade into contentious waters on behalf of righteousness and justice. In the recent campaigns and events surrounding the Ferguson crisis, I have consciously chosen to use what few abilities I have to help the community address issues of justice.

“Now do you understand how we felt?!,” a participant in the now famous 1968 rebellion at Columbia University asked me on the night in late November when St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced that he would not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown Jr. After shortstopping an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, crawling under the fence of a locked-down compound to race to my smoke-filled car twenty feet from the burning Public Storage building, driving on the wrong side of the road to avoid burning garbage cans, seeing police and National Guardsmen everywhere, and hearing the wails of grief, frustration, and pain from mothers (including Brown’s), the screech of tires, and the angry declarations of young, hopeless people, I had finally felt what I had written about for so many years.  During the interview with Hayes, I had explained that, more than being angry or shocked, I was saddened because the narrative of that night would be about the lawless, ungrateful, black youth delighting in destroying other people’s property. The real narrative I understood from my interactions with the people on the ground was one of hopelessness because of the poverty-stricken circumstances in which they lived and powerlessness in the relationship with the justice and political systems.

I thought I had done a decent scholarly job of researching material for my book Harlem vs. Columbia University; I spoke with many of the right people and read the right documents and papers. But I could only imagine the frenzy of the moment and write about it as best I could. On the night of the non-indictment, when the Columbia alumnus called, I felt the anxiety and fear and anger that so many others had felt a half century ago when demonstrations and rebellions were more commonplace—when young people had a problem with a system, a president, or a war, they took to the streets, took over a building, or noisily voiced their displeasure. The Columbia alumnus told me to be careful but more importantly not to expend all my energy because there would be plenty more nights to demonstrate and many more emotionally charged issues to protest. He said that I should prepare for a protracted struggle for freedom and justice. That was sage advice.

* * *

On Saturday, August 9, 2014, I got a text from a former student, telling me a young black man in Ferguson’s Canfield Green apartment complex had been shot and people were starting to get rowdy. I hoped it would not get out of hand, but the boy’s body lay in the street for what seemed like an eternity in the miserable heat and humidity typical of St. Louis in August.

Earlier that day my father, Command Sergeant Major (retired) Alphonso Bradley, had come to visit and I had gathered him from the airport, which is quite near Ferguson. The next day I delivered a lecture on the “History of Education in the Black Community” at Washington Tabernacle Baptist Church, a St. Louis landmark where both Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Davis had spent time. I started off by wishing my father a happy birthday and asking for a moment of silence for Michael Brown Jr., yet another young black man who had been shot dead.

That Sunday night a current student notified me that the QuickTrip was burning. I knew people had to be out of their rational minds to set fire to a gas station. I received a phone call from the same student just after midnight; he said he was afraid for another of my current students who had been in a confrontation with the police near West Florissant Avenue. The police had pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, and shot my student with rubber pellets. When I heard “shot,” I started getting dressed and reached for my knife. The student reported that his friend had just made it to another mentor’s home where he was trying to wash the pepper spray off his skin and out of his eyes.

I heard from my students Monday morning, and they had, prayerfully, lived through it all. They said they were headed back out that evening; I told them not to go and that I did not need them to become martyrs to know that they cared about justice. They were, however, “turned up” and not listening to my dissuasion. Even though I had taught them about the Black Freedom Movement, my students had now experienced something that changed them forever; they were resolute about hitting the streets again. I knew then that if I could not stop them, I would have to join them.

I have written about black revolutionaries like H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), but I am no revolutionary—I vote and wear ties to go to work at a predominantly white institution. I am not easily given to marching in the streets or fist-pumping, but I knew I had to be where my students were. I drove my car to the AutoZone on West Florissant and called my wife to let her know where it was parked, in case I got arrested or worse. As I walked up to the burnt-out QuickTrip, I saw two young black women writing on the asphalt with chalk. When I approached them, I read three of the most profound and unforgettable words ever: “Black Men Matter.” (This was before the phrase “Black Lives Matter” became prevalent.) It was so simple but so crucial for the moment.

As I took that statement to heart, I met up with my students. Then representatives of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes called to interview me. I told them that I would be glad to do the interview as long as my students could be there too. This was important to me because the portrayal of young black people in the national media to that point had been of “young black thugs” who were not following police instructions and refusing to be quiet after their friend had been shot and laid out in the street. The news was not showing young black men who did not have tattoos or who were in college or who could coherently communicate their rage to an audience that automatically stopped listening to black men when they saw dreads. I did not believe that college students were any better or more respectable than other youth, but I brought my students (one of whom happened to live in Ferguson) to provide some diversity to the portrayals of black youth.

Together we explained that something had been waiting to happen, that black people had been mistreated in North County since they had begun to move out there forty years ago. I listened while a Missouri state senator tried to explain to Hayes that race had nothing to do with the crisis. I disagreed, knowing the history of how black people moved into the area, first as they could afford it and later as postwar public housing closed in the city. Black people in the St. Louis metropolitan area also implicitly know that it is risky to drive a car in the county because police frequently write tickets that provide revenue for the small municipal governments. Furthermore, black residents knew that the municipal court systems were nearly impossible to navigate. For anyone who has ever been to one of the courts, it is clear that, yes, race had something to do with it.

As people took to the streets, they were exercising maybe the last piece of power they had—their constitutional rights. The feeling among the crowd was electric, because the people believed they were right. I saw old people carrying signs and young people squaring off against the police because they believed righteousness would protect them. While out one night, I encountered a friend I had not seen in 12 years and we stopped to catch up and talk about what we were witnessing. At that moment, an officer with a rifle approached us and said that we had to keep moving—that we could not stand in one spot for more than five seconds. There is, of course, no law against talking on a public sidewalk while not obstructing anyone. Despite my clear knowledge of this, the officer’s rifle was persuasive. I chuckled because, again, I hardly fathomed myself, in my spectacles and tie, as a threat, but I realized that the situation was deteriorating. Later that night, my students and I tried to outrun the armored personnel vehicles, belching tear gas canisters, and the police clad in riot gear.

That first night in Ferguson, I made it home safely to find my father still awake. He asked, “How did the CN gas taste?” He told stories about how he would have a good laugh at the soldiers who were exposed to the gas during training; I did not find his stories funny that night. As we had driven through Ferguson the previous day, had heard the thumping of helicopters, and had seen the heavy police presence, this combat veteran of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts had remarked, “This place is occupied!” He told me to be careful and that he was proud that I was taking a stand.

I saw on the news that police were deeply concerned that some of the people protesting had firearms. Of course some people had firearms: Missouri is proudly a concealed carry state, and guns are everywhere. All citizens have a Constitutional right to bear arms, and some have been known to exercise that right in proximity to the President of the United States without police donning riot gear. The threat posed by members of a mostly black protesting crowd having firearms, however, must have been quite frightening to the police and the rest of the nation. Part of this may have to do with how some people envision citizenship as a narrative that requires flag-waving or not ever criticizing the State rather than one that recognizes and protects equal rights, as expressed in the Fourteenth Amendment. I realize that it is hard for some to believe, but even loud, tattooed “thugs” are U.S. citizens, deserving of freedom rights. If U.S. citizens abroad had been treated the way some of Ferguson’s citizens were on those nights, our country would have sent drones to ensure their safety and freedom.

The community mobilized quickly during those days and nights. I became part of a group of young black and progressive professionals that included a leader of a nonprofit college readiness service, a city treasurer, two state representatives, a college president, two college professors, a teacher placement administrator, an aeronautical company executive, a psychologist, diversity trainers, artists, activists, and others. We called ourselves the Young Citizens Council of St. Louis, and our goal was to ensure that young people were being heard. We met with faith leaders in North County and the Missouri Governor; some of us met several times with a U.S. Senator; others spoke with the U.S. Attorney General and the Senior Advisor to the President. Members organized events for the youth to share their experiences. We met constantly, but all the while, our nights were spent in the streets. Sometimes, feet aching from walking up and down West Florissant, we stopped for a bite to eat at the Ferguson Burger Bar. We provided commentary to international and national news networks, demanding that the mayor and police chief of Ferguson step down; that police wear body cameras; that the Ferguson police force increase the number of black officers; that a community policing model be implemented throughout the county that included residency requirements; and that a civilian review board with subpoena powers be instituted. We always tried to have young people flanking us if we were on television; if not, we instructed the interviewers to speak with specific young people. We spoke with the representatives from the Department of Justice and U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and met with the U.S. Secretary of Education. Members even went to the United Nations to discuss the crisis. Eventually one of our members was chosen to serve on the Ferguson Commission and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

In those days, I also accepted numerous requests for lectures. When speaking in the fall as part of the Harris-Stowe State University symposium on the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, I noted that we were once again waiting on a Brown decision—the decision regarding the indictment of Officer Wilson—and remarked that perhaps Missouri homeboy Mark Twain was right when he wrote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I described how attorneys like Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, scholars like John Hope Franklin and Kenneth Clark, parents like Gardner Bishop, and students like Barbara Johns were all necessary participants in the movement toward school desegregation and black freedom. And I made the point that it would once again take people from every walk of life to achieve justice. At Washington University, I talked with young people about historic and current representations of black and Latino youth in the media as well as the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. At Clark University in Massachusetts, I spoke to the need for young people to be aware of life outside campus for others their age who could never attend a private university. I spoke to the lingering effects of the War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism when I testified to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about the events in Ferguson. At California Western School of Law, I challenged the aspiring attorneys to value justice as much as the law, to never put policy before people, and to make righteousness, not right, their ultimate goal. I spoke with an organization of Missouri social workers about the 1968 Kerner Commission report and how poverty, policing, institutional racism, and a dearth of quality education make for a dangerous mix. I spoke with an educational policy group about how the crisis traumatized school children who could not breathe at night because of the tear gas or could not sleep because of the noise of the helicopters, protesters, flash bombs, and sirens. I told them how mothers were afraid to let their children play outside because there were always strangers in the neighborhood. At the First Unitarian Church in St. Louis, I spoke about the “Democracy Experiment: Black Youth in America” and explained that, historically, the nation has used black youth as test models to find out the limits of policing and justice. And, of course, I carried on with my professorial duties.

In the midst of all of this, in early October, St. Louis City police shot dead VonDerrit Meyers Jr. He was the son of a Saint Louis University employee, and the incident took place just blocks from the campus. Later that week, when scholar/activist Cornell West came to a campus arena as part of an event sponsored by the university and a local ministerial alliance, young people rebelled against the decidedly older religious leadership and the politics of respectability. After commandeering the microphone from their elders, some protesters lambasted the event and eventually left. When marching down Grand Avenue they decided that they would take the protest onto the university’s campus. That was the beginning of Occupy SLU. During that period, as mostly black demonstrators camped out near the clock tower in the center of campus, I could not help but think of the campus demonstrations of the 1960s. The administration was frantically trying to figure a solution to the occupation. Parents called in with the most vitriolic messages imaginable, while students reacted in different ways. Some students joined the effort of the demonstrators; some observed; others were noticeably annoyed at the disruption of their midterm study time. Several faculty members from the African American Studies Program, including myself, were in constant contact with the protesters, including some students, who identified themselves as Tribe X. After some effort, I was able to get some Tribe X members, their community advisors, and SLU president Fred Pestello in the same room. It was an incredible sight that made me think of college and university presidents S.I. Hayakawa (San Francisco State College), Grayson Kirk (Columbia University), and Kingman Brewster Jr. (Yale University) and their meetings with black militants in the 1960s and early 1970s. After six tense days, the occupation ended with the Clock Tower Accords, a 13-point agreement that addressed issues of diversity on campus and SLU’s role in the surrounding black community.

On March 11, the night that the Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announced his intention to step down, I was with the people at the police station. The crowd on this night felt very different from the one I had witnessed on the night last fall when the non-indictment was announced. The tone of this spring demonstration was celebratory and relatively light; there were even people grilling in a parking lot. Believing that all was well, I left 45 minutes before two police officers were shot. I felt terrible for the officers, and I was also fearful that the narrative would again shift to lawlessness, with the actions of one representing the behavior of the many. My fears were realized on some cable news networks, but I was reassured that the demonstrators’ progress regarding reform was not lost on some news organs like the St. Louis American.

To answer the Columbia alumnus who called on the night of the non-indictment, I have now felt at least some of what those demonstrators at Columbia and in Harlem felt in 1968. Some may think that it is not appropriate for me to play a part in the Ferguson crisis and Occupy SLU, but I would argue that history collided with me. As a historian, I know that there were many who thought that people like me should never have had the opportunity to read, to be admitted to college, or to have access to a program in Black Studies. However, because the people I most admire paved the road by choosing to act when they observed injustice, the least I can do is  represent the voices of those who may otherwise not have the opportunity to be heard. I doubt that anyone will remember me as an esteemed scholar, but I hope that someone will remember me as a person who used my little talent and influence to help others toward freedom and justice. In that way, I hope I am living in the spirit of Franklin, Bell, and Harding.

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