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Ferguson and the fire next time

Robert Stephens II speaks to Black organisers about their responses to the Ferguson uprising and where Black politics can go next

October 1, 2014
10 min read

On 9 August, officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department shot and killed Mike Brown, an unarmed Black teen, while he walked in the street to his grandmother’s home. In the days following Brown’s murder, protests, riots, and violent police repression became regular occurrences. People from all over the country flocked to Ferguson hoping to take part, help out or simply observe events. A small suburb of St Louis, Missouri, captured the world’s attention.

‘Ferguson’ has become synonymous with rebellion and repression, white power and Black death, exposing once again the racial fault lines that define life in the US. By now, the riots’ embers are almost extinguished, the media trucks have moved on to their next story and Brown’s body – like the Ferguson rebellion itself – has been laid to rest. It is time to ask: was this merely another spectacle illuminating injustices that some already know too well and others still refuse to acknowledge? Or might Ferguson signify something greater?

Any social unrest able to capture global attention, as Ferguson did, is bound to create a sense of excitement and optimism. ‘Ferguson will reshape America,’ Rev Al Bernstein, a pastor and community organiser in Richmond, California, says confidently. He believes the Ferguson uprisings will bring an end to what he calls ‘plantation-style governance’. Similarly evoking the US’s history of white supremacy, lifelong St Louis resident Rev Rodney Winters declares, ‘This area is an apartheid community.’

Winters’ claim seems apt. Ferguson is just over 60 per cent Black, yet virtually all of its elected officials are white, and only three Black officers serve on its 50-person local police force. Ninety per cent of those arrested in 2013 were Black. ‘These [municipalities] were white communities. They moved out, but stayed in power,’ Winters explains. In such a context, where a white minority governs and brutalises a Black majority, it is unsurprising that Winters is frequently stopped by the police while driving through the many Ferguson-style municipalities in the St Louis metropolitan area. ‘You don’t know when you’ll get pulled over. You learn survival skills driving through that area,’ he says. Winters believes that ‘any’ Black person could have been Mike Brown.

It is difficult to predict if the social unrest after Mike Brown’s murder will alter Ferguson in the long term, and impossible to say how. Likewise, it remains unclear whether recent events will have any lasting impact on Black political organising in the US more broadly. But despite the uncertainty, many seem hopeful that political solutions to pervasive problems might emerge from this tragedy.

A vote for change?

Antonio French is one prominent voice attempting to seize the momentum following the rebellion. French is a local alderman who rose to national fame during the early days of the Ferguson uprising. Before his 2009 election, French was a local political blogger. He put his media skills to use while tweeting prolifically about the aftermath of Brown’s murder and the Ferguson demonstrations. While community members like DeAndre Smith told news cameras at the scene of a burned-down QuickTrip shop that rioting was both necessary and politically effective, French actively attempted to quell such activity. In addition to labelling agitators ‘troublemakers’, one widely-shared online video shows French apparently physically attacking a rioter and shoving him to the ground.

Capitalising on the prestige of his political office and a profile heightened by thousands of retweets, French founded and now heads a new non-profit organisation, Heal STL. Its Twitter profile claims Heal STL is ‘turning a moment into a movement’. French has secured a six-month lease for a local storefront to serve as Heal STL headquarters. As reported in the Riverfront Times, French and his team are focusing on voter registration drives and other ‘get out the vote’ initiatives. ‘There has to be a way to be heard without setting something on fire,’ he says.

The emphasis on electoral politics coming out of Ferguson is perhaps understandable. For decades, Ferguson’s political climate has been fogged by a severe lack of appropriate political representation. Rev Winters likens the situation to apartheid. Yet South African apartheid was not merely a crisis of electoral representation. And while South Africa now has substantial Black elected representation, these electoral gains have not translated into a substantial shift in economic power for the majority of Black South Africans. This is the neoliberal gambit, an increase in the appearance of power for marginalised groups while the entrenched ownership class remains thoroughly in control.

Nila Nokizaru is a Black anarchist currently living and organising in Philadelphia. Nokizaru, like many others in US Black communities, vehemently rejects electoral strategies and says the emphasis on voting in Ferguson is wrongheaded. ‘Moving away from immediate struggles that provide for people’s material needs and giving that power to [politicians] seems like a step backwards,’ Nokizaru says. While recognising the representational issues that Rev Winters and others have observed, Nokizaru argues that the problem with the current political system is not disproportionate representation, but simply disfunction: ‘Whoever plays the institutionalised roles will still perpetuate white supremacist ideals whether they intend to or not. I’m not interested in [whether I’m] being directed by a Black or white cop.’

The role of officer Ron Johnson during the Ferguson riots illustrates Nokizaru’s point. This Black policeman became the public face of the Ferguson Police Department’s efforts to tackle protesters in an obvious ploy to silence accusations of institutionalised prejudice and anti‑Black brutality. Johnson and other officers brought hugs and smiles as they marched with crowds in the daylight and in front of the cameras. His employers, meanwhile, continued to fire teargas and make arrests at nightfall. Representation does not necessarily equal change.

Organising against the establishment?

Rev Winters notes that Black political leaders have historically failed to address the economic forces that facilitate and profit from racial subjugation. After Ferguson, he says, ‘those systems are being critiqued’. Yet, Winters doubts that recent analyses will translate to coherent political action. ‘The Black community is fractured,’ he explains, ‘[and] not organised enough’.

Winters holds Black churches responsible, at least in part, for fostering political impotence in Black communities. Pastors command great respect in Black communities across the US. ‘We can’t keep preaching pie in the sky theology,’ Winters declares. ‘You’ve got to get involved in the political process that governs our lives.’

He believes that state and local authorities have been strategically biding their time during the weeks of protest. ‘[Demonstrators] must go back to work, that’s why they’re waiting them out. [They’re] going to have to wait a while. We won’t know about the impact of community organising in Ferguson until November.’ Momentum is currently high – there was recently a ‘record turnout’ at a town hall meeting. But Winters has reservations about whether the protests’ energy will last; while he is confident that the demonstrations have ‘shaken up the establishment’, he says the extent of that shaking remains to be seen.

Matt McGlory, a political organiser in Minneapolis, feels that Brown’s death was the result of ‘political problems’. It therefore requires a party-political platform in response, capable of challenging the forces that produced those problems in the first place. McGlory believes that many Black communities lack appropriate political mechanisms capable of turning outrage into a sustained movement. This weakness is, for McGlory, a direct result of ‘legacy organisations’ such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League, founded in 1909 and 1910 respectively, being ‘co-opted by the Democrats’ – politicians who, according to McGlory, ‘are very much implicated in why the political social, and economic structure remains oppressive’.

McGlory’s party, the Young People’s Party for Freedom and Justice, sent a delegation to Ferguson during the uprising. It was tasked with observing and supporting political work in the community. McGlory says that 16–25 year olds participated most in organising efforts. ‘Young people are willing to push forward, but there’s no apparatus to sustain them and help them grow,’ he reflects. ‘It seems that a majority of the young people in rebellion may not know how to move forward politically.’ He remains optimistic, however, that organised struggle will emerge in Ferguson. ‘Black people in Ferguson and around the country are more open to alternatives. People are upset, and there won’t be tools that can pacify those feelings,’ he says. ‘After Barack Obama, people will realise that we tried [simply voting for a Black representative] before, and nothing happened.’

Nile Nokizaru is similarly upbeat, arguing that ‘Ferguson showed that other methods of struggle exist’, and that as a result of the revolt ‘there’s more room to consider being more confrontational.’ There is still a widespread preference for an ‘image of victimised Black people’, however, as represented in the use of the ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ motif, Mike Brown’s reported final words and the slogan of Ferguson solidarity protests nationwide. ‘It’s not useful to identify with victimisation and not leave room for attack,’ Nokizaru argues.

In addition to victimisation, Nokizaru also identifies how a rhetorical erasure of Black radicalism has dominated popular narratives surrounding Ferguson: ‘Painting Black radicalism as white anarchism [by claiming ‘outside agitators’ fuelled the Ferguson riots] is a subtle way to say Black people don’t revolt and only privileged people do . . . It’s paternalistic.’ As a result, ‘revolting in the ways that are the most spectacular and are drawing the most attention are going to get pushed out of the dialogue.’

Diverse responses

Reflecting on the words of different Black organisers, one thing is obvious: Black communities are heterogeneous and we don’t all agree. A diversity of political analysis and tactical responses is on full display as people try to figure out what to do next not just in Ferguson but around the US. Yet it is not always useful just to celebrate such diversity. If the revolt translates into little more than a ‘get out and vote’ initiative, it is unlikely that Black politics will take the step forward that so many hope for. Identifying and meeting community needs appears more pressing right now. The most appropriate political mechanisms will emerge from this.

Taking Rev Winters’ apartheid comparison seriously, Black electoral representation alone cannot overcome entrenched white power. The Obama presidency demonstrates that token representation is not the same as group empowerment. After Ferguson, and in the last throes of the Obama administration, we must dream bigger than elections and demand more than accountability. We must imagine a new politics unrestrained by convention and committed to fundamentally challenging the white supremacist understanding of citizenship and power in the US.

Robert Stephens II is a writer, activist, and editor of He lives in Washington DC