It’s been one year since the murder of Michael Brown galvanized the Ferguson, Mo. community and forced the nation to face the horrors of police violence. And as the activist slogan asserts, the ensuing protests have become a movement, not just a moment.
“One of the most powerful things about the movement is how it started. It started with people coming out of their homes in mourning, and their state being aggressive. And those people…made a decision to stand up in the face of state terror, and not go home,” said DeRay McKesson, a well-known Ferguson protester and organizer, whose website WeTheProtesters.org has served as a hub for Ferguson-related information.
“And then more people joined, and more people joined, and it became a living movement without needing a committee to start it, without one charismatic leader to start it. The people started it. That is the enduring strength of the movement.”
On August 9, 2014, Cheeraz Gormon was in her hometown of St. Louis, just south of Ferguson, when people began texting her about the shooting.
“My baby brother was murdered on August 13, 2013. So right before the one-year anniversary of his transition, I’m getting all these text messages looking at Michael Brown laying on the ground all night,” she said. Her brother was 27, and was killed in the crossfire of a friend’s domestic violence troubles.
“I was already grieving, but basically this needed to be done. We needed to be out in the streets, we needed to organize. So my grieving actually got put on hold.”
The artist, activist, and award-winning writer took to the streets, like hundreds of other ordinary people in the Ferguson area. They first gathered that evening at the site where Brown’s blood still congealed on the asphalt. The following nights brought tear-gas and rubber-bullet police assaults on protesters, 33 arrests for looting, and the torching of a QuikTrip gas station at the protests’ ground zero.
The following week brought curfews, more military-like responses, media crackdowns, and mass arrests. Successive nights of protest followed days of community cleanups and service. The first day of school in the Ferguson-Florissant district was delayed a week. A grand jury failed to indict Wilson, and the National Guard was called in even before the announcement.
The movement went national, with shutdowns of major roadways, commercial boycotts, activist disruptions of White communities, community service efforts, and celebrity benefit concerts across major cities. It went international with trip to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to charge the U.S. government with human rights violations for police violence and the militarized response in Ferguson.
Gormon was on that trip as part of the Ferguson to Geneva delegation, along with Brown’s parents and a team of human rights lawyers and activists of color.
“It was surreal…to see that the [United Nations Committee] delegates were actually saying Michael Brown’s name, and recognizing his parents being in the room. But the United States government [representatives] didn’t mention his name, didn’t mention his parents, none of that,” Gormon said. “The part that was jolting was to see how our government could lie. The lack of accountability is telling, and you could see why we’re in the predicament we’re in.”
Today, the Ferguson movement has changed the way the nation talks about police violence and the system that enables it.
Samuel Sinyangwe and his knack for statistics are helping fuel this change. His first creation, MappingPoliceViolence.org, is a crowd-sourced database of all reported police killings since 2013. Launched in December 2014 in collaboration with We The Protestors, it also includes police homicide data by state and city; the races, identities, and death circumstances of each victim (starting in 2014); and national trends over time with monthly breakdowns.
“I think [data] changes people’s perspective. When we first launched Mapping Police Violence, it really made it clear that Ferguson is everywhere…. Very visually, we’re able to show that this is happening all over the country, it’s happening on a scale that a lot of people didn’t believe,” he said.
Sinyangwe said while storytelling is helpful in appealing to people’s conscience, data will be a key to institutional change.
“People in positions of power and influence are more receptive to data than stories. In their positions they hear all kinds of stories from all kinds of people, and they have to sift through what the trends are in order to set policy,” he said, adding that data coupled with activism is a “language” that gets the attention of the powers that be.
Over the past year, Sinyangwe and a team of volunteers have launched other sites. CheckThePolice.org is a still-developing registry of police union contracts, in effort to examine how police departments investigate themselves and hold their officers accountable. There’s also ProtesterProgress.org, which details the movement’s gains and victories, in terms of public opinion polls, legislation, and other wins.
And there certainly have been victories.
Sinyangwe, McKesson, and Gormon all say that people are much more politically engaged and aware, both in the St. Louis area and across the nation.
“There’s a new political community,” McKesson said. “People came together…a new community was born, with all the joy and drama of a family. That is a seemingly simple thing, but powerful.”
In Ferguson and other places, voter turnout and informed civic participation is up. The Justice Department has issued two reports on the area’s systematic racism, discrimination, and civil rights violations. And several states have passed laws addressing police conduct and accountability.
But much has remained the same. McKesson said the Ferguson Police Department has gotten worse. Gormon adds that most of the officials involved in allowing Darren Wilson to evade justice are still in place. And although police killings have declined since the movement began, police have killed 320 Black people over the past year; of the unarmed Black people killed in 2014, six were younger than 18 years old.
Over the weekend, many cities remembered Michael Brown with ceremonies, rallies, activism, religious services, and community service.
“A year isn’t enough time — we’re still in the throes of it. With everything that we’re dealing with…all the Black people that have died in police custody, recently – it’s just a lot,” Gormon said. “The trauma has not stopped. It’s weird how it just feels like one long day.”
Those on the ground have an eye toward the future.
Sinyangwe wants to create a database that analyzes police departments’ policies and procedures against their homicide rates to see what the best department policies are in preventing police violence.
“And developing a misconduct database of police officers would be huge, because again with these union contracts, a lot of times the records are expunged after a certain time,” he added. “A lot of these officers have committed the same sorts of brutality in the past, but they’re not being held accountable for that [and] they’re being rehired.”
McKesson believes that the next step is figuring out how to use new tools and collective voice to end police violence.
“We are all close to trauma in Blackness – in many ways we’re all on the frontline,” he said, giving thanks for his friends and stating that all Black people should practice self-care, regardless of their level of activism.
“I believe that we will win. I don’t know what that looks like. I want to believe that the police may look back, and might reflect on their role, but I have no indication that that will happen. I am tired, but not weary. The same spirit that began this movement in August and sustains it is the same spirit that I know will be pivotal to us.”
Thanks to NNPA for sharing this story with us. Connect with Jazelle Hunt on Twitter at @JazelleAH.