Report: Ferguson Is Woke

August 5, 2015  |  

Stay woke.

It has been 361 days since 18-year-old Mike Brown was shot dead by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.

As the hot August sun bore down on his uncovered body last year, the tension around the Canfield Green apartment complex also began to heat up. There were protests. A heavy-handed militarized response from the police followed. Then came the riots, tear gas, rubber bullets, and burnings. This small town on the outskirts of St. Louis with a population of 21,000 was aflame, both literally and figuratively.

Some thought the death of Mike Brown would become the tipping point in a national debate over the use of excessive force by the police, particularly against Black and brown people. However when a grand jury decided that it would not indict Wilson, most of the country would move on. But not St. Louis County. Instead, many people found their purpose.

In a small communal room inside the local headquarters for the International Union of Operating Engineers, activists Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou and DeAndrea Nichols lead one of the final planning meetings for the weekend of activism they have prepared. The events are in commemoration of the one-year anniversary of Brown’s death and the Ferguson uprising. They take turns running down the schedule of events: There will be dozens of parades, marches, art installations, concerts, community dinners and notable figures in town, including Dr. Cornel West, Bree Newsome, and Dr. Marc Lamont Hill.

The space is standing room only, filled with activists and organizers of all races, genders, sexual orientations and ages. Rev. Sekou pauses for a moment from talking logistics to ask everyone in the room to introduce themselves. “We want to know what groups are represented and why are you here.”

Nearly 50 groups and coalitions are represented. Among them are Black Life, Ground Support, Justice Not War, Operation Hush or Help, ARTivist, Veterans for Peace, Don’t Shoot, Queer and Trans People of Color, Hands Up United, Amnesty International, the National Lawyers Guild, the Unitarian Church, the Quakers and the Catholics too. One thing is for sure, St. Louis is organized.

Seated in the back of the room are *Jane (this is how she wanted to be identified) and her son Michael Hassell. Unlike the other smiling faces present, Jane wears a look of annoyance. It is too hot in the room, and she is ready to go.  She says that she is just present to be supportive of her son’s activism and is kind of upset that she is missing her aquatics fitness class. However, after talking to her some more, she reveals that she too is engaged in the movement. Not only has she participated in marches and protests, but she regularly canvasses door to door, urging people to vote.

Jane’s introduction to the movement is both by chance and by fate. Her son Michael videotaped the last moments of Kajieme Powell’s life. The 25-year-old mentally challenged man was shot and killed by police 10 days after Michael Brown was murdered.

Hassell just happened to be hanging out in his neighborhood of Jennings on August 19, 2014, when he heard a commotion around the corner. He grabbed his smartphone, thinking that he might capture something funny to laugh about later. “Instead, police showed up and shot him dead,” he said.

Hassell said it was Powell’s murder that called him into activism. And in the last year, he and Jane participated in dozens of demonstrations against police brutality and injustice both locally and nationally in other hotbeds of activism, including Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York and Baltimore. Powell’s death would also lead Hassell to form Black Light, an organization that provides logistical help and support to other activist organizations.

Admittedly, his activism, at times, is hard work and time-consuming. However, Hassell says that it has also given him a sense of purpose. And he plans on being active in the movement until he dies. “This is my therapy. This is where I get my medicine. To be active and motivated is how I show my loyalty to my friend Kajieme. I think of it this way: if I wasn’t active, I could genuinely be up there with the other names like Mike Brown and Kajieme,” Hassell said.

Nabeehah Azeez can relate. Prior to Mike Brown’s murder, the recent college graduate was working as a corrections officer in a state-operated prison. She got into the field believing that she could reform the system from the inside out. But after six months on the job, she said she felt unsatisfied. “There were too many discrepancies and injustices happening there. I got depressed and I cried a lot, even at work,” she told me.

A couple of days after Mike Brown’s murder, Azeez found herself amongst the hundreds of people who had come to Ferguson to demand justice. It was a friend from church who suggested that she channel the negative feelings she had about her job into something more fulfilling. She went expecting a peaceful protest, but instead she received a face full of tear gas.

Azeez said such an experience with the police made her realize that the real fight to change how the criminal justice system treats Black and brown people is happening in the streets. Soon she was spending her evenings after work in Ferguson, passing out water and working with a jail support street team who wrote free legal help numbers on the arms of protesters – just in case they got locked up. Her dedication to the movement would eventually lead to a job offer Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (M.O.R.E). She officially quit her department of corrections job just one day after the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. “I went from a job that was about locking Black men up on a regular basis to a job that was about helping them get out jail.”

A year later, Azeez is among dozens of behind-the-scenes activists who are helping coordinate events for the one-year anniversary of the Ferguson uprising. Her new job has given her both satisfaction and a new direction in life. She said she never did any activism work prior to Mike Brown’s murder. Now she spends every waking moment engulfed in the movement, including her after-work hours.

“So many people I have encountered are just like me. In one year so many of our lives have changed. We are just answering the call,” Azeez said.

Answering a call is exactly how DeAndrea Nichols describes her introduction to the movement. She had come to St. Louis to work on her start-up design firm and spend most of her days in business suits catering to corporate clients. A self-proclaimed humble person who barely raises her voice, Nichols said she had never thought about protesting before, particularly against the police, which she generally had positive interactions with. But when Mike Brown was killed her entire perspective changed.

“It was the image of his body laying out in the street for hours which I couldn’t get out of my mind,” she said.

Her first protest happened on August 12, just two days after Brown’s murder. There she met noted activist Tef Poe who was trying to calm down marchers. They had grown agitated by riot police who had been pointing guns and shooting rubber bullets at them. Bottles were being thrown. Threats against the police were being made. And a random woman who had become so overcome with grief fell to her knees and started speaking in tongues. To help calm the crowd, Poe ordered the marchers to put their hands up and join the frantic woman on her knees.

“Here I am kneeling down on the ground in my business suit with my hands up and my eyes closed. It felt like prayer. It was almost like a religious epitome,” Nichols said.

It was hard for Nichols to sleep comfortably after that experience. She was paranoid and having nightmares about her own brothers meeting their demise at the hands of the police. In one particular dream, she kept seeing a mirrored coffin. She told other activists about it, and together they helped Nichols channel her anxiety into an art project that would serve as a powerful symbol for the movement.

“I was having health problems also. So I was laying in my hospital bed when I heard that the mirrored coffin was being carried through the streets of Ferguson,” she told me. “They had been hand delivered to the Ferguson Police Department. It was so surreal that something I had envisioned and dreamed about had become real.”

Earlier this week, representatives from the Smithsonian accepted the reflective coffin for display at the museum. And today, Nichols is using her design background as well as her dreams to work with other artists to create art for the movement. Besides the coffin, she has also worked with activist Charles Wade on a photo project called Faces of the Movement, which is currently on display at the Regional Arts Commission in St. Louis. “To me, art is a great way to talk about race, class and privilege in this country. It can also be used to change the narrative, which has been presented to the masses about what this movement is really about,” she said.

Nichols is among several activists involved in a newly-formed coalition called ARTvists STL, which does pop-up art installations, or art builds, around the theme of social justice. One of the founding members of the coalition is Elizabeth Vega, who, prior to the Ferguson movement, taught poetry to local children and attended college as a full-time student majoring in counseling.

Vega said she got word of Brown’s murder on social media and instantly knew she had to get involved. “I was on such a roller coaster of emotions as I just got done celebrating the conviction of Renisha McBride’s killer in Detroit. I was asking myself when do these killings of Black and brown people stop? And what can I do to make this stop?”

Armed with a stack of poster paper and magic markers, she immediately went to the Ferguson police department and began helping angry demonstrators channel their energy into making signs for protest. The following day, she would go to the Canfield Green apartment complex and set up an art station only a few hundred feet away from where Brown had been killed. Then she waited. It wasn’t long before she was surrounded by neighborhood children looking for an outlet for the trauma they were experiencing.

“The stories that the kids told me just impacted me. In particular, there was a 3-year-old boy who was sobbing like crazy. He was a resident of Canfield and had known Mike Brown personally. I asked him what was wrong. He said through his tears that he was scared because they killed Mike Mike. I gave him some markers and told him to put his feelings on paper. That is how the story wall came about,” Vega said.

Vega and other members of ARTivist are responsible for a lot of the recognizable visual imagery that has come out of the protests. Much of the inspiration for their projects comes from an old Mexican Zapatista movement quote: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

Some of the art they create is whimsical like the Pignata of Brutality, which is a pig-shaped pinata that had been rolled on a wagon in front of riot police standing guard at St. Louis City Hall. Some of it is ironic, like the Clayton Pumpkin Smash, which was a riff on how the mainstream media referred to the protesters in Ferguson as rioters while simultaneously calling the rioters at the predominately White New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival revelers. And some of it is downright bold, like the Monday Morning Wake-Up Calls. The ARTivists blast Kanye West’s music and hand-deliver swag bags full of Black Lives Matter paraphernalia to the homes of area politicians, including St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay.

Vega has made a lot of sacrifices for the movement, including her last semester in college for which she accepted an incomplete. “It was hard to focus on theories when we had real-life action happening in the streets,” she said.

However, she has also gained a lot from the movement, including a new family. “What happened early on in the movement was people who were trying to find their places would join one group, and go to another or create their own. And one of the exciting things about the movement now is that, a year later, we’ve found our people. I found my people.”

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