“You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway.” ~Steven Biko
The events surrounding the one-year anniversary of the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by Officer Darren Wilson brought many to St. Louis It was both inspiring and challenging to live for a few days, in a police state, with local people. As Wellspring Baptist Church Senior Pastor F. Willis Johnson explained, “the sanctuary met the streets and the Socratic.” Together, we commemorated the tragedy of Brown’s death, while openly rejecting state violence through a cocktail of prayer and direct action protests.
Almost everyday authorities in the United States kill a Black or Brown person. The trauma associated with living under the constant threat of death because of non-compliance has enveloped people of the African Diaspora since 15th century contact. African people have responded by defending themselves against the tyranny of oppression, while helping to define democracy. The killings of our family members and children, in the streets are the 21st century’s bitter seeds of the strange fruit Billie Holiday hauntingly testified about to the world.
As a Scholar-in-Residence with the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference I was summoned to Ferguson to document events and to stand with and behind local organizers. Getting up-close and personal with youth, whose bodies have constantly been used by the prison industry and so-called “War on Drugs”, elicited many emotions and feelings. The worse of what we learn(ed) about authoritarianism in universities and from our ancestors came to fruition in Ferguson. The systems of white supremacy are pervasive, consistent and enforced locally by detention, surveillance and murder.
“Eric Garner means we got to fight back. Sandra Bland means we got to fight back. Tamir Rice means we got to fight back. Your little brother means we got to fight back” ~Ferguson activist, Alexis Templeton
Standing with the local youth of #HandsUpUnited, #BlackLivesMatter, Millennial Activists United, and others afforded an experience not easily forgotten. The emotional turmoil that comes from positioning oneself where Mike Brown met God, shot dead by a gun carried by someone charged with protecting him was almost too much to bear. Compounding the pain were the persistent testimonies; story after story of the trauma of gazing his body on the pavement for 4.5 hours is couched in the familiar narrative of the lynching era.
The utility of Black flesh, used as weapons of terror, were all too recognizable to me. Spectacle death has an epistemology in U.S. history: The 1916 mob lynching of Grandpa Anthony Crawford imposed decades of transgenerational trauma on our family and his village,, especially after the mob ordered the community to leave his bullet-riddled body hanging from the tree or else my grandmother would have been also killed.
Dead Black bodies remind those left behind that our lives don’t matter. Rev. Traci Blackmon was called to Canfield Drive by a young resident and reported she could ‘recognize Mike Brown’s parent because of the familiar wail of a grieving mother.’ Not only will she suffer, but future generations of families and witnesses are left grappling with the spectacle of Black race-based executions.
We are all changed because we made the sojourn to Ferguson. We know the state works to criminalize our bodies in order to justify killing unarmed people. The framework began hundreds of years ago most recognizable in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, solidified by Plessy in 1892, reinforced in 1955 by the lynching of Emmett Till, reconstructed by the 1969 state killing of Fred Hampton, re-enlightened by the 2012 police shootings of an unarmed Rekia Boyd and reconstituted on August 9, 2014 with the state-agent murder of Mike Brown, also unarmed.
“There has been no justice in this case” ~Unidentified youth in Ferguson.
The final day was filled with local youth activists working with and most-often leading clergy and other activists from around the globe. We spent a few hours in a friendly church located close to the federal building which housed the Department of Justice. After locking arms we marched, chanted, danced, and sung in the streets to the federal facility. There, on the steps of the federal building, clergy delivered a strong declaration proclaiming to take back dominion over our lives and our bodies. As protesters kept singing, chanting and hopping fences, the government constructed to deny them the ability to deliver their message to the protest, 56-people were arrested that day. Youth along with seasoned veterans, theologians, scholars and activists prayed with their voices, and their feet.
Walking to that building and seeing guards defend a false border will reposition your soul. They denied us access to that which we pay for, the government. They stopped us at the stairs, not even the door, a metaphor of living on the edge of town, as Toni Morrison describes. On the margins…
If we take our children to Philadelphia to see the U.S. Constitution, or to Washington DC to see the federal monuments, and as Muslims are required to go to Mecca, then all Black people need to go to Canfield Drive in Ferguson to see our America and God.