Many of you know that I recently took a trip to Ferguson, Mo. I published an article recounting my experiences there on my Huffington Post blog. An excerpt is posted below. For the full article and pictures from the trip, click here.
To learn more about how to support the ongoing efforts for change, visit www.handsupunited.org.
One Woman’s Witness: 24 Hours in Ferguson
6:30 p.m./ Lower Manhattan
It’s hard to describe the trepidation one feels when purchasing a gas mask for the first time.
As I sift through the options, the disturbing images that have flooded the nation’s TV screens for more than a week flash through my mind: the countless expended canisters of tear gas; the riot gear-clad military personnel; the fury that flashed in the face of the policeman cameras caught screaming to the peaceful crowd who had assembled to protest the killing of an unarmed teenager just steps from his grandmother’s home: “Bring it you animals… I don’t give a f***!” I shudder at the memory of his rage and add safety goggles and an empty spray bottle to my cart. I’ll use the latter to carry the mix of Maalox and water that helps to restore vision if you’re hit.
I’m in the midst of Manhattan as I assemble these items, nearly 900 miles and a world away from the uprising in Ferguson, Mo. I notice the head of a fellow customer jerk back in surprise when I ask the hardware store staff about which of their products is best suited to fight off the effects of tear gas. I guess somewhere inside I’m a little surprised too… file this under things I never thought I’d have to do. When I get home I pack my new purchases, my freshly charged camera and computer, and a change of clothes into a small waterproof backpack. I won’t carry anything else.
It may seem crazy that I’m voluntarily choosing to enter a zone where any of these protective preparations are necessary, but as I’ve spent hours on my couch in Brooklyn watching the coverage of this situation, it just feels like I can and should do something more. This is a moment that deserves witness and work. I need to be there.
6:00 p.m./Canfield Green Apartments, Ferguson
I’m standing in the smoldering street where Mike Brown’s 18 year-old bullet riddled body was left to lie in state, while guarded by agents of the state, for over four hours of public viewing. In the immediate wake of his death, it’s been reported that police cars crushed the burgeoning memorial and let one of their dogs urinate on the flowers his mother had placed at the site. As scholars have noted, the community trauma inflicted by this series of events was reminiscent of leaving lynching victims to rot in the trees as a warning of the repercussions of resistance. Today, this notion of public punishment operates hand in hand with the biggest, largely privatized prison industrial complex in human history, where whole segments of our populace are secreted away. This is what I know. What I feel is a profound sense of sadness. For Mike Brown (St Louis), Eric Garner (Staten Island), John Crawford (Ohio), Jonathan Ferrell (North Carolina), Ezell Ford (Los Angeles), Aiyana Jones (Detroit), Oscar Grant (Bay Area), Sean Bell (Queens) and all the others who’ve fallen.
I join the steady stream of visitors in whispering prayers for them, for their loved ones, for us all.
12:00/Greater St. Louis
The surreal daytime dynamics we’ve observed makes it feel like the militaristic occupation of this American town is being sold as a new normal. Soldiers lining up their riot shields in the taped off Target parking lot. Families strolling past bomb resistant army tanks without a second glance. Earlier, I witnessed a policeman encouraging a young girl to pet the large German Shepherd caged within the police K-9 unit van. I’m dumbfounded by the sight. It stays with me as I travel home.
6:00 p.m./ My Living Room, NYC
The clearest lesson of my brief journey to Ferguson is that this a love story… It’s about the deep and abiding love of a family for their son, and the love of a community for their friend and brother. It’s about a people’s love for all of our Mike Browns and for the black and brown bodies we come in. It’s about the love of life itself. This love is what allows us to make beauty where there was blood.
With signs that declare I am a man, I am a woman, I am not a number, the people of Ferguson are demonstrating that we have a desire to live — not simply survive encounters with the police. We want to live. We don’t accept that our lives are expendable.
At its core this is a righteous indignation, a resurgence of the human spirit against atrocious conditions, a claim to the human rights we are all entitled to. I think of the young boy so moved by the flower strewn memorial to Mike Brown that he took off his little baseball cap and added it to the site, while his mother shook her head in pride. I think of how the local residents, even in their mourning, seized every opportunity to affirm their humanity– to each other, to the visitors, to the police, to the media that now floods their town.
I think of the courageous people organizing peaceful protests night after night. How remarkable it is to push through your grief, repeatedly enter into hostile conditions knowing tanks, guns, batons and gas await you, and to do it with nothing but gumption on your side. But this is our tradition. Through enslavement, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, and into the 21st century, Black people have historically shown a commitment to the ideals of the American project and a fierce desire to push this country to actualize them.
As the news cycles have begun to turn, hundreds of new school Freedom Riders from around the country are spending Labor Day weekend in solidarity with the people of Ferguson to show that #BlackLivesMatter. People from around the country have committed to keep a spotlight on these issues, to take collective action against injustice, to declare a communal vision for the future. With the leadership of the Ferguson community, we are driven by love to say “another world is possible” and here is what it might look like.
That love is why, in spite of it all, I believe that we will win.