Girls to the Front—Women on the Frontlines of the Struggle in Ferguson
By Michelle Zei
In times of crisis, the term “protect the women and children” might still come to mind. However, when police responded to Ferguson residents with the excessive force of rubber bullets, tear gas, and arrests, women stood their ground and took a place at the frontlines of a long fight to challenge police brutality rooted in racism.
Although Mike Brown was a young Black man, the steady participation of young Black women in Ferguson isn’t a mere act of solidarity. Women too face brutality from police that is often unaccounted for by the system and unnoticed by the public. Renisha McBride’s murder and the recent discovery of Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball dead by a Jacksonville, Florida road cry for attention and outrage at violence against young Black women, along with their male counterparts. Racism isn’t neatly divided or contained by gender and thus requires unity to construct solutions and demand changes.
Women have always played integral roles in social movements and turning points in American history. For example, women in the Civil War revolutionized the nursing profession that we know today. Prior to the Civil War, it was seen as obscene for women to be around illness and especially to care for wounded men. However, women were willing to get their hands dirty and fulfill an immense need that men alone couldn’t meet. Despite the contributions of fearless women throughout history like Eleanor Roosevelt, Angela Davis, and Dolores Huerta, women are often remembered in the margins as wives and supporting roles while history celebrates their male contemporaries with more distinction.
The bravery of young women in St. Louis makes the powerful statement that women are resilient and fully capable of leadership – a statement that still receives skepticism in the United States, where we’ve yet to have a female president, and women only account for 99 of the 535 seats of the current 113th Congress, and women of color hold 30 seats (14 belong to Black women). The vast majority of women serve in the House of Representatives. Only 43 women, two of whom are women of color, have been elected to the Senate since its establishment (Center for American Women and Politics).
Alexis and Netta: Carrying the Weight
Alexis Templeton and Netta Elzie are two of many young Black women that have claimed their rightful seats at the table to demand national accountability for police brutality. Both Templeton and Elzie have close ties to not only St. Louis but Ferguson specifically: Templeton was born, raised and currently resides in Ferguson and Elzie lived in Ferguson for a period of her childhood.
Elzie first heard about a young man left dead on the streets through Twitter and quickly learned that young man was Mike Brown.
“My best friend and I, after gathering more information, went down to Ferguson to Canfield to the actual street where Mike Brown was shot and killed. We could still see the blood on the streets even though they said they had washed it away with soap earlier that day, it was still there and still dark. You could tell he had been there in that position for a long time because of how dark the blood was in the streets. That was an instant call to action for me.”
Templeton was traveling in Arizona when she first heard of Mike Brown’s death. She came home a few days later and immediately took to the streets to get involved. She’s been arrested twice since Mike Brown’s death.
Templeton described early female participation in Ferguson.
“I’ve always had a connection to issues like this as far as reading about it, especially about the Black Panthers and the Civil Rights Movement, but I’d never gotten to participate in anything. This was beyond my reading and my understanding and my history. I had the opportunity to actually get out there and participate.
When things first started, I saw women doing everything- making sandwiches to pass out to the protesters that were hungry, I saw them handing out water. I saw them on the frontline protesting and protecting their kids, they had their kids not because they didn’t care about them but because they cared enough to let them see: this is going on, this is history, this is scary, this is the real world. So I saw them do all of that. There were a lot of men but I also saw men run away from action and I saw women going forward. I saw a lot women step up together, if you’re not gonna do it then we can do it. That was amazing to see.”
In early days of protests, Elzie and Templeton wanted to help in whatever way they could: they passed out water and food – simple and kind gestures. However, the aggressive reaction of police toward protesters heightened the situation from peaceful protest to conflict. Even at that time, women remained firmly committed to taking a stand in Ferguson.
Elzie described the excessive police force she experienced the Monday night after Mike Brown was killed.
“While we were standing on the street at Nesbit and West Florissant, the armored trucks were advancing up the street and shooting tear gas into the actual neighborhood, not just up and down West Florissant but shooting directly into the neighborhood… and shooting the tear gas canisters directly at bodies when these people had their children outside, there was old, young, everyone in the community was outside, period. And they were shooting rubber bullets directly and people and beanbags directly at people. We saw a man get shot in the chest with a teargas canister while trying to run, it was just crazy. We all experienced some type of injury. I got shot in the left shoulder by a rubber bullet…after that they deployed the tear gas… with no time to think or act on how to protect yourself other than run. And the SWAT team was yelling return to your homes and the people in the community were telling them to go home, you don’t live here, you go home, you’re in our neighborhood. They didn’t allow people to mourn the death of Mike Brown, that’s been the whole problem since the start of it. They haven’t allowed the people to mourn the loss of someone in their community without invading their space and bringing force and militarized police forces into the community when simply everyone just wanted answers and they wanted direct actions.”
Amnesty International human rights observers were also on the ground during this time to document and report human rights violations at the hands of police in Ferguson.
Both women have suffered mistreatment from police as a result of their non-violent protest. While Elzie was hit with a rubber bullet, Templeton received hostility from police the second time was arrested.
“The second time we were told to get out of the street and I was standing on the curb so I thought I would be okay. Next thing I know I was arrested…they put me on a corrections bus and took me down to the jail headquarters. In jail I asked to make a phone call and they said fuck my phone call and when I said it’s my right to make a phone call she said I didn’t have any rights. I was released five hours later with no paperwork,” Templeton said.
Elzie and Templeton shared their thoughts on their personal feelings on police brutality against Black men and women.
Elzie: “Mike Brown could one day be my son. I don’t have children but that could be my child one day and I definitely don’t want anyone to kill or hurt or harm my children and definitely not leave them out in the street for four hours. They pick up animals quicker than they picked up Mike Brown off of Canfield. That’s disturbing, it’s shows there’s no care for Black life, especially a young Black man’s life.”
Templeton: “Police brutality happens to us as women as well, in ways that are more sexual and ignored and it can’t be ignored. If Michael Brown was a female, do I think it would be ignored? Yes, I do. I don’t think there would be much of a call to action for a Black woman.”
The Fight Continues in Ferguson
“I feel like the community in Ferguson is angry and emotional and rightfully so. We’re waiting for some emotion to die down. People have to put that emotion into place to be effective. We have to give it time, but people are starting to get restless and to the point where they want to move forward, and that’s when we all have to come together and make our demands in large numbers.”
“We started an organization called Millennial Activists United to empower the community. We’re hosting a series of discussions to bring people together to stand in solidarity. We haven’t stopped protesting, I make sure I go out everyday and show my solidarity because presence is important. If we don’t have presence we don’t have anything. You have to be there and tell how you feel and get on that mic and make sure people hear you. You have to tell what you’ve been through and what you’ve experienced and how you’ve been mistreated…We’re not going to stop fighting. We expect answers and we’re going to get them. We will be heard and we’re paying attention. This isn’t going away until we feel justice is served,” Templeton said.
In addition to their physical presence, the women in Ferguson have been vocal and visible, serving as consistent sources of information through Twitter and other forms of social media. (You can follow Templeton (@MusicOverPeople) and Elzie (@Nettaaaaaaaa) on Twitter for updates on Ferguson).
“I’d been looking and wondering how I could use this “platform” of having followers that have lots of followers and now I have lots of followers on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr. So basically it was just me and my cellphone and I went out in the streets just to record what was happening. I had a feeling that the media would not be portraying the story correctly mainly because it’s a Black community and when Black communities are involved or when Black boys are killed dead in the street, it’s usually some type of slander or a smear campaign against the victim and not against the person who actually committed the crime,” Elzie explained.
Ferguson women are vivid reminders that when women are given (or take) positions of power, they rise to the occasion and push movements forward. If you’re still in doubt, look no further than Liberia, the Civil War, Civil Rights Movement, and fight for AIDS research – you just might have a to dig a little deeper to find their names to compensate for generations-old gender bias. These women aren’t just wives, it behooves young women and men alike to know their struggles and borrow their strategies.
If you feel so moved, please consider supporting Alexis through at MillennialAU@gmail.com and Netta at firstname.lastname@example.org.