A Blues Ballad for Ferguson: Where Do We Go From Here?
On a new, millennial-led Black freedom struggle, police injustice and why you need to go to Ferguson
Words: Frank Roberts
Standing barefoot in the rain, on streets occupied by police officers clothed in bulletproof helmets and militarized riot gear, I hold my breath as I watch a group of young people stand their ground against a police brigade as they recite the words of Black feminist revolutionary Assata Shakur, in unison:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win
We must love each other and support each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains
This has been the scene in Ferguson, Missouri for the past 65 days. Last weekend, Shakur’s insurrectionary words—culled from the pages of her classic autobiographical memoir Assata—spoke to the freedom dreams of a generation of Black people who find themselves once again wandering in the wilderness; the hated, bastard children of the American empire.
The crisis in Ferguson—the shooting deaths of teenagers Michael Brown (on August 9, 2014) and Vonderrick Myers (on October 9, 2014) as well as the civil unrest that has followed—has primarily been portrayed in the corporate, national media as a kind of isolated nuisance, a scattered series of angry uprisings led by unlawful troublemakers who are motivated by a “reverse racist” agenda. What has been largely missing from most public conversations about Ferguson is a critical discussion of the ways in which the city has recently emerged as an unexpected ground zero—a Birmingham of the 21st century—for an emergent American social movement.
Ferguson is both an organized effort to dismantle the structural, juridical, and material forces that render Black life valueless (i.e. police departments that do not believe that the killing of an unarmed teenager warrants an arrest) as well as a militant youth-led call for a shift in the consciousness of Black America (“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. we have nothing to lose but our chains”). Building on the eloquent fury of the Civil Rights Movement as well as the structural critiques of American empire that have characterized Occupy Wall Street, what we might call the Ferguson Movement is a Black freedom struggle whose efforts currently center around yielding justice for the families of Michael Brown and Vonderrick Myers, but whose vision is by no means limited to these aims. What became clear last weekend in Missouri is that the Ferguson Movement is a jazz-like amalgamation of Malcolm X’s militant rage (“by any means necessary”), Martin Luther King’s righteous indignation (“the time for justice is always now”) Shirley Chisolm’s fierce political integrity (“unbossed and unbothered”), Audre Lorde’s feminist voice (“your silence will not protect you”) and Cornel West’s call for a politicized redefinition of love (“justice is what love looks like in public”).
Moreover, as I stood side by side with Palestinians from Gaza who walked the streets with banners that read PALESTINE FOR FERGUSON, it also became clear that the Ferguson Movement is also intimately linked and connected to a global third world movement for brown solidarity—a U.S. reincarnation of the Arab Spring.
Led by Black youth, the Ferguson Movement is a forceful rejection of the figures and institutions traditionally associated with the deacons of Black politics (which is precisely why Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and the President of the NAACP have all been booed in Ferguson in each of their individual trips to city). On the ground during this Weekend of Resistance, one could not help but sense an ever-present (but nonetheless productive) tension between the “old guards” of the Moses Generation vs. the new faces of the Joshua Generation. Thus, part of the story of the Ferguson Movement is the story of a changing of the guard in terms of the face and methods of prophetic Black political leadership.
As I marched through the streets with young brothers and sisters whose speech, style, and modes of comportment were dripping with the rhythmic poetics of hip-hop, it became clear that the “chains” in the Assata Shakur refrain that has become the movement’s anthem are easily references to the chains of Black respectability politics: the deeply misguided (but widely popular idea) that if Black folks simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps and adhere to a set of bourgeois behavioral standards, their humanity will finally be recognized.
On the contrary, Ferguson is a movement led primarily by the kinds of people referred to biblically in Matthew 25 as “the least among of us”: they are the faces at the bottom of the well. As I kneeled down to pray on the cement where Michael Brown’s dead body lay exposed for four hours (a violation that resonates with the rituals that were associated with the American tradition of lynching) the message that cried out from the grave was clear: adhering to respectable, “good behavior”— such as the kind that Mike Brown engaged in when he, in his final moments, raised his hands above his head in a “please don’t shoot” gesture—does not save Black lives.
When my flight first landed in Missouri at the Lambert St. Louis International Airport, the first person that I encountered was a white flight attendant. Upon learning that I was a native New Yorker (and evidently oblivious to the fact that protestors from around the globe had descended upon St. Louis that weekend to honor Michael Brown in a “Weekend of Resistance”) the woman inquisitively inquired: “Why would you leave a fun city like New York to come down to a place like Ferguson?” Her words, criminal in their intended-innocence, have continued to linger with me, cutting like a knife. But my answers are clear:
> I went to Ferguson for Michael Brown, Vonderrick Meyers, Trayvon Martin, Kathryn Johnson, Darren Rainey, Sean Bell, Renisha McBride, Amadou Diallo, Anthony Baez, Troy Davis and every other known and unknown person killed or maimed in an act of state-sanctioned violence.
> I went to Ferguson for my biological parents--both of whom died much too soon; both of whom spent critical portions of their lives wrapped in the clutches of the prison industrial complex.
> I went to Ferguson for my adopted parents---including a stepfather and a village-like community of aunts, cousins, grandparents, teachers, visionaries and dreamers who have prayed for me in private and loved me in public.
> I went to Ferguson for James Baldwin, Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hammer, Malcolm X, Martin King, Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Shirley Chisolm, Nina Simone, Zora Neale Hurston, Bayard Rustin and Rosa Parks---because I know that they would have been there.
> I went to Ferguson because I realize that Ferguson could just as easily be Flatbush, Florida or Fredricksburg---the names of the cities occasionally change, but the anatomy of the scenario do not.
> I went to Ferguson for all those who could not be there, as well as all those who did not know that they should be.
> I went to Ferguson for my students, whose visions for a new world resurrect my spirit.
> I went to Ferguson because I believe in the words of Howard Zinn, who reminded us that "protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it."
> I went to Ferguson because I realized instinctively that it might be the Birmingham of my generation.
> I went to Ferguson because in this age of mass-mediated apathy, most of us are just an event away from being a ?#?Hashtag?.
Quite simply: I went to Ferguson because freedom is my birthright; Democracy is my Battlefield and my voice is my weapon. As the blues-people Ferguson now await their justice, I find myself wrestling with the prophetic advice offered up by James Baldwin in his 1972 collection of essays No Name In the Street: “If you really want know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law's protection most— and listens to their testimony." The Ferguson Movement—its quest for justice for Mike Brown, Vonderrick Myers, and all those who are like them—is above all, a war fought on behalf of the unprotected.
This is a battle for the least among us.
And it is our duty to win.
Frank Leon Roberts is a Ford Foundation Fellow and Lecturer Professor at New York University. Visit frankleonroberts.com.