Voices: Reflections on Ferguson

On the ground in Ferguson, Missouri one year after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Carlton Mackey 05T observes the power of community.

By Carlton Mackey 05T

Fifty-two years after the famed march on Birmingham led by Martin Luther King Jr., communities are still taking a stand for equality in civil rights. On the ground in Ferguson, Missouri on the one-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, Carlton Mackey 05T witnesses a community’s non-violent groundswell of support and love.

Mackey is an artist, a thought leader and visionary, and he is a keen observer of the nuances of humanity. He is the director of Emory’s Ethics & the Arts Program and assistant director of the Ethics and Servant Leadership Program (EASL).

This is his firsthand account of a significant moment in American civil rights history. EmoryWire presents this story as the first entry in the new Voices column.   

Fear and Nerves in Ferguson

From the moment I said yes to the invitation to visit Ferguson, my heart swirled with excitement, anxiety, and fear. Questions ran through my head. I’d consumed hefty doses of media. Would I be safe? Would I end up in jail? Would I get gassed? Would I get shot? 

And apart from the familiar fear that a black man harbors with regard to police encounters, more troubling to admit was that I was actually afraid too of the very people who made up the communities I was going to visit, many of whom looked just like me. I could not claim to be unaffected by the media’s portrayal of the people of St. Louis and Ferguson as violent, as looters. Mixed in with that fear was apprehension around whether my presence would even be welcome. Would everyone’s collective, righteous anger be so high that I would simply be interpreted as one more face to the many outsiders who wanted to “come see what was going on in Ferguson” as if it were a foreign country at best, or an African safari full of wild animals at worst?

So when my plane landed, I carried more baggage than the one I checked to transport my clothes from Atlanta. Though from the first moment, beginning with a warm welcome to St. Louis by a tall white dude named Dan who had volunteered to pick me up from the airport, fears began to dissipate and be replaced by a keen awareness of much more powerful truths.

Our first stop was to pick up a printed banner under which Dan and his community would march later that afternoon. Though the folds of the banner obscured its message, the mantra inscribed on it would soon become the theme of my entire trip.

Into the “War Zone”

On our journey, we weaved through town to a long tree-lined street with beautiful brownstones like those in Brooklyn. A corner building was draped in another banner practically as large as the building itself. It read “Reject Institutionalized Racism + Oppression.” This was my first glimpse of MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse. 

There, people busied themselves with the work of the day – preparing for a march to memorialize the death of a local teen, VonDerrit Myers, Jr., who also had been shot and killed by police two months after Mike Brown. On some level everyone’s preoccupation provided me an escape from both the natural anxiety of being in a new environment (especially in one characterized by mainstream media as a war zone) and from my shame of having never heard of VonDerrit Myers, Jr.

The Special Delegation

It wasn’t long before the owner of MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse came around the corner. Her name was Mo. She stood no more than 5 feet tall with short hair, wearing cargo shorts and the t-shirt that march organizers handed out to participants. Dan, who picked me up from the airport, introduced me and asked where the other people from the ‘special delegation’ were. “My house I guess,” she said. “Sekou has had guests in and out of the house all week.” 

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a public theologian and one of the main community organizers of the movement in Ferguson, has regional ties that run deep. He graduated from high school in St. Louis and began his ministry at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, the same church at which Michael Brown would be laid to rest many years later.

Mo’s voice sounded like coarse fabric – strained from overuse and what seemed to me to be years of cigarette smoke. She pointed to one of the ‘brownstones’ we had just passed. “Up the stairs, second door on the left.”

I smiled at her. We walked away only to turn around to the sound of her corrugated voice. “And don’t lock the front door when you leave. I won’t be able to get back in.”

Seeking Allies in the Pursuit of Justice

At Mo’s house, I reconnected with an attorney advocating for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Assembled by an American human rights organization and hosted by the St. Louis Palestinian Solidarity Committee (STLPSC), the two of us were assigned to chronicle the journey of a father, Siam Nowara, who had traveled all the way from Palestine to bear witness to this movement and to lend his voice to the thousands of others who united to proclaim that black lives mattered. 

In 2014 Nowara, too, had tragically lost a son, in his case to a soldier in the Israeli military. His son’s loss was caught on camera – a fact that like many cases in America has not meant that his ongoing struggle to seek accountability has been easier. His mission was to tell his son’s story to whomever would listen, to seek allies in his pursuit of justice, and to show solidarity with others who shared this unfortunate bond. He showed some reluctance, however, in the moment when our group convened and moved towards the door; the hesitation, no doubt a sign of a lived understanding of the risks facing those who demand justice.

Milk, Just in Case

Just before walking out of Mo’s house, Sekou pulled out two water bottles he had filled with milk from Mo’s refrigerator. Sandra, a Palestinian-American, and lead organizer of the STLPSC, sighed and began to mutter the words, “I don’t think….”

Rev. Sekou’s gaze cut her off before she could finish the sentence. Though this, as all of the marches planned by the group, was to be peaceful, it was clear there were never any certainties. Both Sekou and Sandra described the police’s use of tear gas and pepper spray as indiscriminate on one hand and directly targeted on the other. They recounted with vivid detail their memories of earlier in the year when cops deliberately gas bombed MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse, breaking windows and filling the building with the toxins simply because they knew it to be a safe haven for artists and activists in the movement. 

My already raised anxiety rose even higher.

Voices

UNITED WE FIGHT

Upon arriving to the start of the march, I saw Dan again. He had already unrolled the banner we picked up just after leaving the airport. The phrase UNITED WE FIGHT written in bold white block letters stood out beautifully against the black background. 

People began lining up near the banner. To the right, just in front of a red and white house was a mass of people. Camera phones were all out and pointed in one direction. Following Sekou, Siam and I weaved through everyone to find a family gathered next to a makeshift memorial, much like those you see on the side of the highway to mark the place where someone had been killed in a car accident. Sekou whispered to the family of VonDerrit Myers, Jr. and pointed to Siam.

With arms outstretched, the father turned and started walking toward us.  Siam walked forward and received the embrace. The fathers turned to all of the cameras, their matching expressions revealing their grief and their strength, and VonDerrit Myers, Sr. said, “I want to have this picture.”

The March Begins

The voice of a young black woman named Kayla emerged from a bullhorn, commanding attention not simply because of the amplification but also for the authority that innately rested within her. This was clearly not her first time leading a demonstration. She knew exactly what she wanted from the crowd and exactly how to communicate that to us. The sound of the drums and cymbals from a youth marching band filled the air. There were no police in sight. 

The Myers family led the way, followed by the band. Dan picked up the banner with other members from his group. Siam, who had been invited to lead the march with the family decided to march behind the UNITED WE FIGHT banner. Holding up a sign that read “Palestinians for Black Lives Matter,” we walked as much in quiet observation, as making a statement. 

As we walked, the crowd grew thicker and thicker. Nothing had prepared me for what I was seeing. Dozens had swelled to hundreds, hundreds to nearly a thousand people -- a vast sea of people with no clear majority demographic. Everyone was adorned with a colorful combination of t-shirts, some distributed at MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse, others homemade with iron-on photos of local and national black youth slain by police, and an array of slogans affirming the value of black life.

A Common Goal and the “Beautiful Struggle” 

The mood was as surprising as the makeup of the audience. It seemed like more of a celebration of a birth than the mourning of a death.  It was as if a movement now in its first full year of action was just beginning instead of coming to an end. Kayla’s voice drove both the pace and the mood with chants of “No Justice No Peace” and the hook of the Kendrick Lamar song that has now become synonymous with the movement. “We gone be alright” rang through the streets of St. Louis and sounded like a contemporary mantra of King’s description of the ‘Beautiful Struggle’.

More than a Moment of Silence

The march concluded in the square with the family on stage and Kayla leading the longest moment of silence I have ever participated in. Four and a half minutes, representing the number of hours Michael Brown’s bullet ridden body lay uncovered in a pool of blood in the middle of the street in neighboring Ferguson. 

For nearly five minutes, 1000 people stood in absolute silence. The silence itself joined the crowd as a physical presence; its cloak tangible enough that it seemed like it could be touched. The only break in the silence came toward the end. The mounting of memories pressed forward to be released through whimpers and tears. Everyone realized that this moment was no longer about any particular individual. It was about our collective death and our collective failure to work hard enough to prevent it.

In a move that again showed Kayla’s alignment with the crowd, she asked us to stretch our hands toward the family on the stage, calling upon the ancestors and all of our collective energy to be released and directed both to the Myers and Brown families . . . and to the world.

Carlton Mackey

Carlton Mackey 05T

Day Two of the Ferguson March

The next day the organizers focused on the Brown family. The feeling was markedly different. Police cars and officers lined the entrance to Canfield Drive. All eyes focused toward the center of a large circle, and on the man whose son bore his name. Michael Brown, Sr. said few words. The few words he did utter made clear that the question, “How do you feel?” was not one that he appreciated being asked. “How would you feel?” was the best response he could offer. 

A drone, presumably flying to capture aerial footage and powered by someone in the crowd, hovered overhead. On more than one occasion I could hear people murmuring about it. The gentleman in front of me leaned back and expressed how much he wanted to swat it out of the air. The moment of silence for Mike Brown observed a few minutes later was marred by the sounds of the drone – a symbol of the uninvited presence of surveillance. 

Following the memorial, the crowd was asked to walk in silence to Friendly Memorial Missionary Baptist Church. Dignitaries who had been invited to speak at the memorial such as Bree Newsome and Dr. Cornel West began to exit before the Brown family. Rev. Sekou accompanied the public figures and brought them to meet Siam. They shared a quick embrace of condolences, and rushed along to join the march. Twenty minutes later Sekou sent another text requesting that we attend a private meeting with Dr. West and Bree back at Mo's house.

“Black Liberation Means Liberation for Us All”

Again in the living room of the raspy-voiced, 5 foot tall white woman, we sat for an hour with one of the nation’s most preeminent black intellectuals and one of the country’s most recognized activists whose single act of defiance in climbing a flagpole in South Carolina and personally removing the confederate flag made her a national symbol of inspiration for some and the object of hate for others. 

I realized then that this living room was as much a part of the movement as the memorial services, the marches, and the direct actions of civil disobedience. Here, and in the coffee shop where strategies were developed, were sojourners of all backgrounds who found a resting place to refuel before going back into the streets to face any challenge that may come.

In this sacred space we sat and communally shared experiences of loss and of love, of learning and of letting go. We discussed points of connection between all of our struggles and of the unique clarion call that this particular community chose to answer. In a single phrase a young Palestinian woman named Suhad summed up the entire movement. “Black Liberation Means Liberation for us all.”

Artivists and Racism Still Lives Here #fightback

The following day we saw the execution of plans likely developed in the very room we were just sitting in. A diverse group known as STL Artivists staged a surprise art installation on the federal grounds of the old St. Louis courthouse. At this historic landmark, Harriet and Dred Scott petitioned for their freedom, and the decision was made they (and all African-Americans) were not citizens of the United States and could not be granted such rights from the court. 

The artivists painted the words “Racism Still Lives Here. #Fight Back” onto a giant banner which they had tied between two 10-foot by 10-foot weather balloons. Two women, wearing rock-climbing harnesses, served as anchors as their crew directed the banner upwards until it flew above the courthouse.

The federal park officials who had run out of the courthouse upon seeing the quick action decided not to intervene. None of them called for additional law enforcement. Instead they looked on in silence as the group worked diligently to guide the massive installation. Their quiet acceptance, and even at times, overt support of the action, spoke to the undeniability of the claim, and the power of asserting the truth.

Police Barricades and Freedom Songs

After the artivists lowered the installation, we ran to the other direct action led by Rev. Sekou, Dr. West, and a large group of local clergy and supporters on the steps of another St. Louis courthouse. A row of over a dozen armed police officers had erected barricades blocking the group from coming onto the federal steps. They stood facing the crowd, many dressed in stoles and robes now singing songs and drumming. 

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” went one refrain. At a calculated time, and after telling the officers that they had no right to prohibit their peaceful assembly and block their access, Rev. Sekou and Cornel West climbed over the barricade. A group of nearly 60 people followed suit. 

The Weekend Culminates in 50 Arrests

After forcing others from the group back behind the barricades, officers began arresting each of the citizens who crossed the barrier. Officers lifted Rev. Sekou from the ground, hands tightly tied behind his back with plastic restraints, and led him away from the group. Looking in my direction as he was taken away, he winked and continued to sing. 

Dr. Cornel West was apprehended next. His tall slender body was draped in his signature black suit, tie, and scarf. His afro sat high and proud like the sun that beamed on all of us who had gathered to witness.   

The action was coming to a close, with police moving down the line arresting the some 50 people who had engaged in civil disobedience to disrupt the status quo and challenge state violence against black bodies. I walked away from the crowd not knowing when I would be back to this city or when I would see Rev. Sekou or Dan or Sandra or Cornel West or Bree or the people of Ferguson or the Myers family or Kayla or Elizabeth or Suhad or any of the wonderful people from this diverse community who had welcomed me, so I turned for one more glimpse. Hands in the air, singing in a raspy voice barely heard, the last person I saw to be arrested was Mo.

Each Person’s Fate is Connected

Mo is a symbol of one of the most beautiful, diverse, tight knit, committed to justice and equality communities I have ever witnessed. Over the weekend, I saw White people, Palestinians, the LGBTQ community, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, join together and put it all on the line as if their very lives were dependent on the proclamation of "Black Lives Matter."

This unity wasn't a show for a weekend display of their ceremonial parading of guilt and confusion and despair of not knowing what to do in the midst of "someone else's claims" of injustice. It was a committed, sustained way of living by a critical mass of people that was rooted in conviction and framed by an unwavering principle that each person's fate was connected to the other. They operated as if they had been operating under this conviction for a long time and had no plans of turning back.

Every act was activated by groups of people with (from my frame of reference) no identifiable majority. The community shared a singular focus. Though each person had their own struggles, they channeled it into a single effort.

Uplifting the value of black life and doing what they could to dismantle systems that didn't, even if they benefited from them, was their charge. It was as if everyone knew that at this particular moment in history and in this particular place this was the call they must answer. It was as if they knew, without saying a word, if the call were to change and the focus needed to be shifted to anyone else in the group, they would all collectively answer it.

Editor’s Note: Mackey is the founder of Beautiful in Every Shade, “a grassroots empowerment movement affirming and celebrating the beauty found in every human being.” To learn more about Mackey’s projects, please visit http://www.beautifulineveryshade.com.

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Michelle Valigursky