Ferguson started a new civil rights movement

THE ST. LOUIS AMERICAN
GUEST EDITORIAL

Editor’s note: This editorial was originally published in the St. Louis American, the Black-owned weekly newspaper in St. Louis, Mo. that has regularly covers events in nearby Ferguson, Mo.

What has changed in the year since Michael Brown Jr. was killed by a Ferguson police officer? All of us who were in the thick of things in Ferguson last year have been asked this question by now.
With the anniversary of his death, countless people will voice their answer in media and on social media.

Obvious change
For us, the most significant change is obvious. Since the death of Michael Brown Jr. – and, in large part, as a result of his death – a new, diverse, incipient civil rights movement, led by young African-Americans, has emerged in this country.

This movement is dedicated to fighting the violently disparate impact of law enforcement on Black people. Or, to put it more plainly, in the words of the young protestors, “Stop killing us.”

The movement has raised this issue with protests in many cities, starting with Ferguson, and forced the passage of many changes in municipal, state and federal law and policy across the country.

Greater urgency
While the ultimate impact of these specific changes is yet to be seen, there is no disputing the new, greater sense of urgency being given to these life-or-death issues that have affected Black people for centuries and previously remained of concern only to us. Now, to some extent, it’s everyone’s problem.

The movement started in Ferguson with a diverse, but largely young and Black, activist base.

While a few of the movement’s many emerging local leaders were previously known, at least to readers of this paper, most were not. In fact, the Ferguson movement was startling precisely because it engaged two generations of millennial youth whose commitment to social justice previously had seemed minimal.

Youth radicalized
Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown Jr. and the provocative police response to protests radicalized many young Black millennials in the St. Louis region, young people many of us had dismissed as unserious and lost to the streets or clubs. The explosive awakening of these young people inspired a national movement, with a strong tone of positive racial consciousness and pride in being Black.

We are hearing renewed talk of Black beauty, even magic, and the reclaiming of Black spaces – from generations that some had foolishly branded “post-Black.”

We did not see it coming, and we don’t think anyone can predict with certainty where it is going.

One year later, the Ferguson movement can claim one major local victory in beginning the reform of St. Louis County’s unconstitutional municipal courts. This started with the awareness, first stressed by Arch City Defenders but later documented in detail by the Department of Justice, that Ferguson used its police force to raise revenue through its court by aggressive – indeed, competitive – ticketing.

With the passage and signing of Senate Bill 5, in the future it should be much more difficult for a county municipality – like Ferguson, though there are many worse offenders – to turn its police officers into armed, predatory tax collectors.

Systemic problem
But the problems throughout the criminal justice system raised by the Ferguson movement are deeper and more intractable than predatory municipal policy. Not every unarmed African-American killed by police lived in a town that practices predatory policing to raise revenue.

We are seeing a violently disparate impact of law enforcement on African-Africans in small towns, suburbs and large cities; on foot, on bike and in vehicles; on the streets, in parks and in stores; in every region of the country. Clearly, there are ingrained, systemic concerns with law enforcement’s implicit bias and racism.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar now may fight alongside protestors for municipal court reform, but we expect it will be much more difficult to get police leadership to seriously address issues of race and racism in police work and to successfully get our police officers the training in implicit bias they so desperately need.

Facing the problems
Almost every problem we faced a year ago, we still face today. But now we are compelled to face our problems together, as part of a national movement that did not exist a year ago and could not have been imagined at that time.

As the Ferguson protestor and rapper Haiku said, “Ferguson taught us we could do anything as long as we did it together.” That lesson alone is amazingly empowering and gives us hope for a more safe and equitable future for our people.

Because Black lives matter.

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