Ferguson October, From Moment to Movement
By Hannah K. Gold
After twenty hours on the road, we knew we had arrived at our destination when we saw the formation of cop cars blockading a narrow street. Their lights fanned out like wings fluttering madly, attempting to cut through the thick, nighttime fog. I let the wings fly about my face, sensing the red and blue lights as if they were not only colors but an entire vast force of breathless control and calculated survival. On the road that had led us from New York City to this place, I passed a million signs but hadn’t bothered to read them; shoved fistfuls of fries into my mouth with only a vague notion of being somewhere in Indiana. But I knew by the lights – as did we all – that we were in Ferguson, Missouri.
We parked in a lot near the protest, got out of the car and walked by a couple of cops to join the march down Ferguson Avenue. My first moments in Ferguson felt weighty. There was West Florissant, there was the McDonalds where so many (journalists included) had been arrested. There were the raised hands. I had spent months watching Ferguson from my computer, and being there felt at first like revisiting a familiar place. Now everything seemed oddly frozen. But it wasn’t. It had been 63 days since officer Darren Wilson shot an unarmed black teenager named Mike Brown to death.
Around 2 a.m., we drove to the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis to join the protesters who had headed that way after the march through Ferguson. This was where only a few days prior, officers had fired well over a dozen shots at 18-year-old Vonderrick Myers Jr.. His family claims he was unarmed, holding only a sandwich, whereas the police, whose story has changed multiple times, claim they later recovered a gun at the scene. The neighborhood is named after a white philanthropist named Henry Shaw who bought his plot in St. Louis in 1840. He too was just 18 years old when he first laid eyes on the land that would one day bear his name, illustrating the profound gulf of material privilege that separates the legacies of Black and white in America. Not much has changed today.
We pulled up to the protest across the street from a string of fifty or so cop cars. My friend who was driving the car stopped for a second or two to ask the people in the back which direction to go and that’s all it took for an officer to shine his flashlight through the front window and ask for license and registration. A crowd of protesters swarmed around us immediately, as did several other officers. An officer approached a friend of mine who was already filming the encounter from the outside, and shoved him repeatedly until he was forced onto the curb.
While the cop at the window was arguing with the driver over whether we had proper insurance (we did, the car was a rental and we handed over all the information immediately), another illegally opened the side-door of the van and began training his flashlight on the three of us still left in the back. He asked for our identification.
“You, in the Indiana hat!” he shouted at me, though I couldn’t see him now with the light in my eye. I forgot I had been wearing a hat that said “Indiana” on it – it had been purchased only five hours earlier from a Cracker Barrel we didn’t even end up eating at. After a tense couple of minutes we were allowed to drive away with an overpriced ticket for illegal parking and scornful looks from every cop in sight.
Why did I go to Ferguson in the first place? The question crowded my brain all weekend. Thursday afternoon, a friend of mine texted me asking if I wanted to go to the Ferguson October “weekend of action”, which turned into a phone call, and finally me dragging my feet and my bag at four in the morning to get in a van filled with young New York City-dwelling activists, journalists, and artists. Most of us had never been to Ferguson before. I ate package after package of dried seaweed chips from the gas station until I fell asleep and woke up in Pennsylvania.
St. Louis is a city where, like all cities in America, schools are named after slaveholders. Streets are named after conquistadors. St. Louis is a city where many still refer to these historical oppressors as founding fathers and explorers. On Saturday, thousands of us marched in broad daylight. For much of the action – the national “Justice For All” march and rally – we marched towards the Gateway Arch, or what a friend of mine referred to as “that clansman-ass arch.”
The arch is arguably the most recognizable symbol of St. Louis. It was designed to be a symbol of the endless western expansionism that people truly felt was possible in the mid-20th century when it was constructed. Unofficially, it also symbolized the racial discrimination felt by Black people of the time in St. Louis. It was built by Black Americans who were employed purely as unskilled labourers on the project, prompting a Civil Rights era protest by two Black men who climbed the structure and refused to dismount until Blacks received ten percent of the jobs at the site. This would lead to a series of actions that would eventually see the Justice Department file a lawsuit against the St. Louis AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Council for a “pattern or practice of discrimination.” Today, the AFL-CIO is a supporter of the resistance movement in Ferguson.
We continued to march by the Old Courthouse, gleaming white, where the Dred Scott decision came down. Widely considered the worst Supreme Court decision of American history, in it Roger Taney upheld that slaves could never have the rights of citizens. Even before that, slaves were sold on the courthouse steps. The sheer physics of inequality built into these massive monuments to power felt like a challenge. How do you walk right up to this thing, this arch that is never supposed to end, and then walk through it?
That evening we marched again to a police department in Ferguson. But this time the night ended in a dance party rather than a souped up traffic ticket, which, on a purely selfish level, was a whole lot better. Protesters produced a sound system and had a dance party just twenty feet back from the frontline, where a line of cops stood staring us down from the parking lot. Later, they moved the system closer to the frontline and blasted “Turn Down For What” at the riot cops, occasionally remixing the music with chants of “No justice, no peace! No racist police!” until the music and protest blended into a single sonic movement. The scene would take on additional meaning the following day when I watched youth from Lost Voices sing and dance for the people in line to see the big hip-hop show (Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, and Jasiri X, were slated to perform).
Before heading down the street to lead a new march of their own, a young woman from Lost Voices proclaimed to the crowd, “Y'all don’t know that the most revolutionary thing we can do is dance in the enemy’s space.”
No one tried to break through the frontline of cops in riot gear, despite the stories of the rock thrown by a lone protester (stories in which the size of the supposed rock escalated tremendously throughout the news cycle). Protesters did occasionally attempt to get the cops to break into laughter though. One of the guys I was staying with at the hotel gave them some good career advice: “You could have been a division three basketball player in college!” He addressed them by the name on their badge (the cops weren’t in full riot gear and still had them on): “You pretty, Perry. You could have been a model.” The crowd exploded into righteous laughter. “McDonald, you could have been…you could have been…”
Around 3 a.m., I went out with a couple of friends to a sports bar where I watched white people shake their bodies to Nelly until they literally fell over. I had forgotten, or maybe not cared, amidst all the chanting and jumping around to Lil Jon in order to feel less cold, that it was still Saturday night in the ‘Lou. I realized I had just protested hard, possibly partied harder, and that for the first time in my life it didn’t seem meaningful to distinguish between the two. Not long after coming to this realization, a couple of cops walked into the bar to unwind after work. Class warfare, battles fought along racial lines, this is a way of life that is palpable throughout America. Yet here the tensions between repression and play, between fantasy and fucking shit up, broke through to the surface of things visibly, like some young thing beginning to grow wild.
This is why I went to Ferguson: because there was something out there that was bigger than me. Not the way God is bigger, or the Lincoln Memorial. Bigger than me because the story takes so much more than just me to tell. What the Black youth of St. Louis is building from the pain of another slain body is a new symbolism, a proactive hope, and a language that can love deep enough to fight capitalism, racism, sexism, transphobia, and xenophobia, with open fists. Hands up. Don’t shoot.
Throughout the weekend, at nearly every event I attended, from rallies, to marches, to the hip-hop concert, the notion that this weekend was helping transform the protests in and around Ferguson from a moment to a movement was invoked often. Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. But I like the idea that a protracted and meaningful journey can emerge from what seemed initially like a series of random pit stops. The organizing going on in Ferguson demonstrates that the the more time you take to stop, the more time you spend with that piece of the ground where Mike Brown lay for nearly five hours after Darren Wilson shot him to death. It cannot be disconnected from where Myers was shot in Shaw, cannot be disconnected from Kimani Gray, cannot be disconnected from Eric Garner, cannot be disconnected from Oscar Grant, cannot be disconnected from Renisha McBride, cannot be disconnected.
Stopped lives and parked cars, red lights and blue lights, occupied Walmarts and walkways. None of these really end; they are the points of collision that create movement. They are the force that shuts shit down.