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

Note: this is the second post in a two-part series by Professor Stefan M. Bradley and his students at Saint Louis University. The first part is available here.

As I reflected on the past year and wrote the preceding blog post, it became clear that my students have provided the impetus for my participation in this moment in history. Two of them were kind enough to answer questions about their activism. Although they are not fearful about their identities being known, I have decided nonetheless to use false names for them. Marcus is an undergraduate student from St. Louis City and Grant is a graduate student from Ferguson. Both demonstrated in Ferguson. Grant appeared in news interviews with me, and Marcus was interviewed separately by national and local media outlets at my suggestion. Both also participated last October in Occupy SLU, six days of protest on the Saint Louis University campus that resulted in the Clock Tower Accords.

SMB: What on earth possessed you to leave your safe homes to go to Ferguson on August 9 and 10, 2014?

Marcus: It was emotion. After seeing a picture of Mike’s stepfather with a sign stating “they shot my son,” I was not only angry and confused but had friends with cars that felt similarly. Angry because young Mike’s family felt wronged and because the police surely had other choices than to use deadly force. Confused because I kept hearing news that the police and community were in tension because Mike’s body was laid out in the street for 4.5 hours in the sun. That image can cause trauma.

Grant: On August 9th I was actually in Atlanta (ATL) with my family for my sister’s birthday and we came back home the night of the 10th. I’m a Ferguson resident, so I was in Ferguson all along. I didn’t make it to West Florissant until later in that week when I heard that one of our African American Male Scholars (AAMS) members had been pepper-sprayed while peacefully protesting. It was but a 3-minute drive or a 20-minute walk for me to get to the area. Similarly, in November when the non-indictment announcement happened, my brother and I walked from my house to downtown Ferguson in front of the police department. What “possessed” me to be there was that I had an obligation to demand that my voice as an EDUCATED & CONSCIOUS Black male resident of Ferguson be heard. Also since my initial observations were from another part of the country, it was important for me to be there to gain an accurate and personal experience of what was taking place in my own city/neighborhood.

SMB: What was your reaction to what you saw in Ferguson? Were you fearful, angry, sad?

Marcus: Two things caught my attention: the police and the people. Organized in formation, stone-faced, and emotionally controlled, the police stood by, quarantining part of West Florissant while the people vented. Some people vandalized the nearby QuickTrip; many more screamed their hearts out at the frontline, smoked, drank, fought, cried, argued, mourned, laughed, and sang. This commotion was not all within the law, yet the law enforcers were just watching the crowd like tourists at a zoo.

Grant: Again, my initial reactions were based on what I saw via social media at dinner with my family in ATL. I saw the pictures and initially thought it was one of those spams from unreliable sources on social media. Then I got a text confirming it from my brother who was still in St. Louis. And, immediately, my heart sank. I read closer into it and found out that Mike Brown’s body had been lying in the street for several hours. Then I pictured myself in Mike Brown’s shoes. Knowing the location in comparison to my home, it became very personal, even from ATL, because Mike Brown very easily could have been me.

SMB: Why did you keep protesting even though it was unsafe?

Marcus: The reason is that it’s bigger than me or the next protestor – unfortunately, we (the protesters) are not the anomaly when it comes to state violence. While we do not wish to be harmed, we often accept that arrogance (of the state) and agitation (of the people) do not make the best formula for safety. I did not wish to be harmed the first time I was pepper-sprayed for engaging an officer with a sign and my voice. I did accept that anything can happen so—luckily, my partner had agreed to come with me, and after the assault she transported me away and helped me to health. As months go by, the police remain unpredictable; they know how to bend the rules while controlling the narrative in order to harass or incite us with impunity. We accept their position and move forward in the most strategic way possible.

Grant: I continued to protest because my main safety concerns weren’t with the protesters around me, but with those who were being paid to assure my safety (i.e., the police). The police made me the most concerned for my safety and I knew that should not be. I continued to protest because my community and I needed this all-too-common fearful perspective of the police force to change immediately. I continued to protest because I wanted to be a part of the modern Civil Rights Movement that was happening, inevitably, right in my backyard.

SMB: What did it mean for the movement to come closer to Saint Louis University (SLU) and the Shaw neighborhood?

Marcus: Opportunity and relevance. For one, students and residents are likelier to go to areas closer to where they live–VonDerrit’s dad is an employee at SLU. When VonDerrit was shot in early October, it happened to be around the time of Ferguson October, a massive call bringing local and national activists to designated local areas. SLU agreed to host Cornel West. Without these events and several others, Occupy SLU would not have happened.

Grant: It meant Ferguson was/is not just a Ferguson issue. It meant the beginning of some crucial progress on SLU’s campus through the raising of the students’ consciousness and administrative involvement through the Clock Tower Accords.

SMB: What were you hoping to accomplish with Occupy SLU? How did your peers react to you? What about professors and administrators?

Marcus: To pop the SLU bubble and get the Clock Tower Accords. From Tribe X’s perspective, this meant educating, empowering, and organizing. We educated by hosting teach-ins about student-activism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and policing. We organized by helping galvanize many liberal students through education alongside direct action such as the Grand Street shutdown and occupation. We empowered by creating an atmosphere where the university was willing to negotiate. Peer reactions varied; some were against it, for it, and indifferent. Protestors, particularly non-students, were insulted (called “thugs” or “unpatriotic”) by people with negative extreme views, harassed by Department of Public Safety staff by being stalked around campus, selectively asked for their I.D., and denied access to bathrooms in university buildings recently made inaccessible to non-students. A lot of snide comments and threats were made towards me or passed along, but none to my face. Professors’ reactions also varied; some letters of support for the occupation bore faculty signatures but there are many more faculty at SLU than signatures on those letters. I had more positive experiences with my professor in African American studies who took her students to the occupation to better inform the class. Those who mattered in university administration were welcoming. President Pestello, as a representative voice of administration, even added clarifying line items to the demands for CTA.

Grant: As an M.S.W. [Masters of Social Work] student, my academic experiences were different than what I know happened for many undergrad students. Social workers (i.e., my peers and professors) tend to be very socially conscious and active people, so they were very passionate about the actions taking place, and many spent late nights at the Clock Tower dialogues along with me. From a professional standpoint as a graduate assistant in the Cross Cultural Center under the Student Development Division, I was hoping to assure the students I serve that they have a powerful voice and that I could not be more proud of them for their work and diligence in this movement on campus. I wanted to actively listen, so that I could accurately present the perspective of the students and occupiers to those who were watching from afar with a dangerously skewed perspective (i.e., parents, alumni, co-workers, community members, etc.)

SMB: What did you learn from all of this about yourself and your peers?

Marcus: That we’ve got to continue to press forward. Reverend and activist Traci Blackmon once stated that the Clock Tower Accords are the only tangible institutional change made since the movement began. We need a timetable for each line item. With the Ferguson movement, we need more gains.

Grant: I learned/reconfirmed that everything that happened in my life leading up to August 9th happened for a reason that’s so much bigger than me alone. Becoming the AAMS graduate assistant on SLU’s campus as a born and raised Ferguson resident who is studying to be social worker, I have been placed exactly where I need to be for the betterment and empowerment of my people and community, which also means the betterment/empowerment of myself. Prior to this situation I knew that my various mediums of privilege gave me obligations to serve those who may not have the same privileges. After all of this, it became very clear that while my privileges and gifts have been given to me for the benefit of all in need, I have an obligation to represent, serve, and grind for Black communities in a unique and special way. As for my peers, let’s just say my true friends and family are still around.

These young people may not know it, but they have been effecting change in the region and all over the nation. In early June, I read about the new civilian review board that the City of St. Louis is establishing. Several of the smaller county municipalities have revised or are revising their court procedures and fining systems, and some are even combining police departments. The Ferguson police chief stepped down and the Ferguson city council now has two new black members. There are several more progressive steps that have been made possible only because young people took action. By challenging the nation to reconsider how it polices black bodies, they are rescuing American democracy.