The passion, emerging power of Black youth fuel demands for justice
by Richard B. Muhammad
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (FinalCall.com) – A moment borne out of angry Black youth facing heavily armed police officers, snarling police dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and armored military personnel carriers in the streets continues to grow into a movement.
“Missouri is the new Mississippi,” said Tef Poe, a young activist and hip hop artist from St. Louis.That moment has captured some of America’s attention and exposed the country’s oppressive policing, racial failures and national shame to the world.
Conditions and protests over two months in the streets of “New Mississippi” mushroomed into a weekend of civil disobedience, protests, marches rallies, prayers, hip hop performances and rebellion. The Weekend of Resistance, Oct 10-13, “#FergusonOctober,” drew young people, activists, organizers and elders from across the country.
Their presence flowed from Ferguson, Mo., a predominantly Black suburb, where Michael Brown was shot down by a White police officer in early August to St. Louis, which had a police shooting just before the gathering.
When social media beamed videotaped images around the country and the world—Black resistance had begun.The Ferguson teenager’s body lay in the street for over four and a half hours and a swift, militarized police response stoked outrage and a backlash from Black youth fed up with racial profiling, humiliation, targeting and abuses by police. White officer Darren Wilson, who remains out of public view, shot the unarmed 18-year-old to death. Local police say the young man charged the officer after an encounter and struggle initiated because of jaywalking. Instead of ending up with a traffic citation, the teenager had at least six bullets pumped into his body. Witnesses screamed that the police were lying and an autopsy paid for by the family seemed to verify what witnesses said happened that Saturday afternoon. Mike Mike was shot with his hands up, said witnesses.
‘No justice, no peace; no racist police’
While “Turn Up Don’t Turn Down, We Do This For Mike Brown!” was an initial battle cry, by Monday, Oct. 13, “Justice for Vonderrit!” was added to the cry. The 18-year-old Black male was killed by an off-duty officer in St. Louis who was moonlighting as a security officer in the city’s Shaw neighborhood. Police chief Sam Dotson told the media the youth was killed after firing a weapon at the still unnamed officer. The shooting victim’s family denies the young man was armed. All he had was a sandwich after exiting a shop in the multi-racial neighborhood when the officer aggressively approached him and friends, they said.“Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” chanted demonstrators regularly throughout a weekend that drew Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, labor, socialists, Muslim and Palestinian and other groups to St. Louis and Ferguson. The weekend was organized by the Organization for Black Struggle, a longtime activist group in St. Louis and new youth groups born out of two months of protests, arrests, pain and struggle. These groups include Hands Up United, Millennial Activists United and Lost Voices, which was composed of young people who literally slept on streets in early nightly standoffs against rubber bullets and tear gas in Ferguson, less than 15 miles from St. Louis.
Protestors gathered in the Shaw neighborhood to call for justice for Vonderrit Myers, Jr., and Michael Brown, Jr. They stopped traffic and sat-in at a convenience store. Police responded in a militarized fashion to peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience, activists said.
“I didn’t come here to speak, I came to get arrested,” he had said at the Chaifetz Arena on the campus of St. Louis University. His word was made bond the next day as police took him away in handcuffs.Protestors took to streets for Moral Monday and engaged in civil disobedience outside Wal-Mart and other targets in St. Louis and massed Oct. 13 outside the Ferguson Police Dept. Dr. Cornel West, who spoke at a program the previous night and participated in a 2 a.m. sit-in at St. Louis University, was among those arrested.
The crowd chanted its agreement and young people took to the stage. On stage, Tef Poe offered his street level assessment of issues and problems.Sunday evening at the arena Dr. West was to be keynote speaker. But the interfaith program was interrupted by young people who demanded to be heard instead of simply listening while religious leaders and national figures like NAACP President Cornell William Brooks and the Rev. Jamal Bryant spoke.
So-called gang members like the GD’s and the Vice Lords are not on this stage, he noted. But it wasn’t the professional people or academics out on the streets protecting us, it was the brothers with tattoos and their shirts off, he declared.
We are not professional activists or organizers but we are real people dealing with real problems, he said.
“I don’t need Don Lemon to tell me what happened. I was there,” said Tef Poe, referring to the CNN newsman.
Elders were challenged to listen to, respect and support this emerging crop of fearless young leaders, who have not stopped their demands for justice.
When a White man shouted from the audience about contributions Whites had made to Blacks, the mixed race crowd started to boo. “Get your people! White folk get your people, collect him,” shouted a Black woman standing near steps inside the arena.
A midnight march for justice
The evening ended, however, with solidarity and audience members holding hands and invited to join a protest that started at the place near where Vonderrit Myers, Jr. lived the last moments of his life. It ended on the campus of the prestigious St. Louis University, one of the city’s major educational institutions.
“I thank everybody for coming out. My son was loved and he still is loved,” said Vonderrit Myers, Sr., in the early morning hours of Oct. 13, with his wife Syreeta by his side and surrounded by family members and a huge crowd that marched about 40 minutes to the university campus. The trek included a standoff with police armed in riot gear, holding and beating shields with batons. After some negotiations and insistence that protestors had the right to march on sidewalks and talks with legal observers, police pulled back and the group was allowed to proceed.
“I refuse to have my children grow up in this world,” he said.“We are here to destroy systemic racism and White supremacy,” said one of the protest organizers as the crowd applauded and cheered. That isn’t anti-White, it is anti the 99 percent who exploit the masses of the people, he added.
Hardship forging new leadership
The boldness of Black youth was on display throughout the weekend as was the political and organizational growth of young people who two months earlier were living normal lives.
Joshua Williams, 18, is one of the emerging young leaders and lives in Ferguson. According to the young activist, Michael Brown was a first cousin.
Keep in mind that Mike Brown died for an unjustified reason, he said. “That could have been your son laying in the street,” said Joshua. “Hands up means I surrender, don’t shoot me down in the streets.”
“God allowed me to be here for a reason,” he said. “God allows us to be here for a reason. In our path we are supposed to serve our people, confronting his evil,” he said.Calvin Green stood outside the Ferguson Police Station as hip hop music played and police lined up in riot gear. A thin yellow tape separated Mr. Green from the armed officers. He came in with a group of students from Kalamazoo, Mich., that included students from Western Michigan University and activists.
“Our main weapon is love which is what I am showing to people in Ferguson,” Mr. Green added.
Expressions of love and support came from stages, through megaphones and through one on one conversations and group discussions.
Parents are too busy, schools punish them and police and adults want them to go away, she said. But, added the Caucasian pastor, it’s time to stand with them. “The whole damn system is no damn good,” said Rev. Lamkin, echoing a chant youth have shouted day and night.The system tells Black children to be quiet but these are our children and they are crying out in pain, said Rev. Renita Lamkin. Instead of telling them to be quiet, we should be attending to their needs, she said.
Tory Russell of Hands Up United marveled at how far things had come in a little over 60 days. Speaking after the major Saturday rally that drew thousands to downtown St. Louis, he described himself Oct. 11 as a conscious person before Mike Brown’s death. But he and the young people are maturing in activism. They remain strong but more disciplined, more focused, and perhaps more committed.
Mr. Russell, in his twenties, is an organizer and part of a movement that has international reach. People have to go home and work, organize against police violence and injustice where they live, he said. This young movement has veteran activists talking about poverty, racism, voracious capitalism and universal rights—but it started with young people making a single declaration: “Black lives matter!”
Their work remains undone, justice has not come. There has been no indictment for the shooting of Mike Brown and the shooting of Vonderrit Myers, Jr. has been written off as justified by some.
But this movement didn’t start with approval from the police and the powerful and youth leaders say disruptions will continue. We won’t go back to business as usual, things will never be as they once were, they vow.
They have not left the streets—and there is no sign that they will.
But this movement didn’t start with approval from the police and the powerful and youth leaders say disruptions will continue. We won’t go back to business as usual, things will never be as they once were, they vow. They have not left the streets—and there is no sign that they will. They want justice.
They are unafraid of police and have little patience with those seen as apologists for injustices they face and the murder of their brothers and sisters. When mocked outside a Cardinals baseball game, young demonstrators chanted: “Who do you want Darren Wilson? How do you want him? Dead!”And while youth are organizing and pursuing peaceful protest they are neither in a compliant mood nor in a mood to capitulate. Their peaceful protests are nose-to-nose with police officers and youthful rage over injustice is nearly boiling over.
Youth who are not necessarily part of the organizations want justice too. When police shootings have happened in St. Louis, their cry has been, “Hands Up! Shoot back!”
If justice is not done, nothing may be able to contain the explosion, and law enforcement agencies are already planning for potential riots.
“Missouri authorities are drawing up contingency plans and seeking intelligence from U.S. police departments on out-of-state agitators, fearing that fresh riots could erupt if a grand jury does not indict a white officer for killing a black teen,” Reuters reported before the Weekend of Resistance.
Meetings are held two to three times a week with FBI involvement and Missouri law enforcement officials have been in contact with police chiefs in Los Angeles, New York, Florida and Cincinnati, Ohio and other jurisdictions as they prepare for the grand jury decision, according to the report.
“If charges are not brought against Wilson, police fear an outbreak of violence not just in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, but across the greater metropolitan area and even in other U.S. cities, according to St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and others involved in the planning meetings,” said Reuters.
“Brown’s killing sparked days of protests in Ferguson in August and looting that caused millions of dollars of property damage. Police were sharply criticized for what was seen as a heavy handed response to the protests, firing tear gas and arresting hundreds of people,” Reuters said.
The grand jury empanelled by county prosecutor has until January to decide if charges against officer Wilson are warranted.
“Adam Weinstein, co-owner of County Guns, said sales were up 50 percent since Brown’s shooting, mostly among white residents fearful of riots who are buying Glock, Springfield and Smith & Wesson handguns, and shotguns. ‘They are afraid the city is going to explode,’ Weinstein said,” according to Reuters.
During a session with lawyers Blacks also expressed anger. “ ‘We are tired of dead bodies in our community,’ Mauricelm-Lei Millere, an advisor to the New Black Panthers, shouted at the audience. ‘We are not going to take it anymore,’ ” Reuters reported.