Activist and writer Ashley Yates has lived in the St. Louis area since she was 15 years old, so the fatal shooting of Michael Brown hit close to home literally and figuratively. A young black woman in her 20s, Yates plays an instrumental role in mobilizing people who were fed up the with status quo long before Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown on August 9, around the epidemic of police brutality and devaluation of black lives. But she’s not new to organizing and leadership. As a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Yates was the political chair of the Legion of Black Collegians and was actively involved in community work. Now, she’s using her previous experience and passion for social justice to call for a paradigm shift.
Beyond the verdict
Yates told ThinkProgress that, with the activation of the National Guard, and Governor Nixon’s state of emergency declaration ahead of the jury’s announcement, “A lot of attention is concentrated on the verdict… due to the culture of fear [law enforcement and government officials] created, but it’s not the end all be all.”
While protesters are the most visible symbols of dissent, thanks to the media, there is a larger network of activists working behind the scenes to tackle specific problems impacting the Ferguson area, from a lack of books to housing needs.
Yates co-founded Millennial Activists United (MAU), a grassroots organization, with Alexis Templeton and Brittany Ferrell, after the three recognized an absence of women’s voices among organizers. “The omission wasn’t intentional, just something that needed to be addressed,” she said.
MAU hosts town hall sessions, during which local women of all ages express their grievances and community concerns. It also assigns affiliated supporters and activists to different task groups to present and work towards solutions to problems impacting black women. After one mother expressed concerns that nearby schoolchildren were not receiving counseling after the shooting and protests in August, MAU started working with mothers and schools to bring counselors in. According to Yates, “Women brought that issue to the table, so we are working to provide resources and solutions.”
On a Moral Monday, a progressive protest movement started by faith leaders in North Carolina, MAU also staged a protest in Missouri’s wealthiest mall — the only one with a Sacks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus. Seventy people wore black “Unarmed Civilian” shirts, met in the center of the mall, and chanted “black lives matter.” They also held signs with the words “Stop Killing Us” and “Indict Darren Wilson.”
The group acts in solidarity with groups waging similar campaigns in Dayton, New York City, Detroit, Oakland, and Chicago, with the goal of “connecting the systemic oppression that’s killing black people slowly.” It also began to centralize relevant news about the goings on in Ferguson, once the mainstream media stopped concentrating on the city. And it designates safe spaces for people who cannot go home due to law enforcement’s use of tear gas and rubber bullets.
Another St. Louis resident, Tory Russell, was also called to action when he saw the body of Brown on various social media platforms. “I got fed up. I said enough is enough. No one came with new or fresh answers to the problem. We had to go out and do the work ourselves,” he explained to ThinkProgress.
Russell, along with the Organization for Black Struggle, the homeless youth of Lost Voices, and rapper Tef Poe, co-founded Hands Up United, a coalition of organizers demanding an impartial special prosecutor review the Mike Brown incident. St. Louis’s prosecuting attorney, Robert McCulloch, was charged with the task of investigating the incident, but many are concerned about his deep ties to local police officers: he’s previously ruled in favor of law enforcement, and his close family members worked for the St. Louis Police Department. And when McCulloch was 12, his father, another police officer, was killed by a black man.
The space is also where local residents can raise specific needs of the community that do not necessarily pertain to police brutality, but are part of a greater call for change. After parents vocalized the need for books with characters and messages that showcase black and brown people, Hands Up started the Books and Breakfast program to provide meals and books for people of all ages. With the help of psychiatrists and art therapists, the coalition also gathered kids from the area, particularly those living in the Canfield neighborhood where Brown was shot, to paint and draw and express themselves. Russell and his colleagues also organized “chalk-outs” for artists to trace one another and commemorate black people slain at the hands of police, such as Brown and Vonderrit Myers Jr., who was shot and killed by a St. Louis officer.But Hands Up has national demands as well, including the end to police brutality and an increase in accountability among law enforcement officers. For instance, the group advocates the suspension of officers who use excessive force, without pay, and calls for detailed records of “racial disparities in stops, arrests, killings, and excessive force complaints.” Keeping those objectives in mind, the coalition set up shop in an unassuming building on W. Florissant Avenue, where the protests took place in August, and opened the doors to any and all community members.
At the same time, Russell and Hands Up coordinate acts of civil disobedience, like disrupting the election night watch party of a local politician, and raising “Black Lives Matter” banners at a Rams football game.
Both Hands Up United and Millennial Activists United believe that the community is extremely receptive to the organizing going on. And they haven’t lost their passion. “People showed up and haven’t went home since,” Russell stated emphatically.
A Youth-Led Movement
But at the heart of this dynamic movement are youth who want both justice for victims like Brown and Myers and larger changes in the political and economic system. In conjunction with Thoughtworks, a software tech company, Kambale Musavuli relocated to Ferguson and helped to start Hands Up in August. Once there, he was floored by young people in the community.
“We came down and we were very inspired by the courage of teenagers. I have never seen that in my life. When I was 15 years old, I was not in front of the police and telling the officer, ‘That badge don’t make you a man.’ And I was looking at this 15-year-old boy and asked, ‘What’s making him be so courageous, to face this broad force in front of him?’ What I came to conclude was, he has nothing to lose. I even asked him and he said, ‘My brother’s 18, I’m 15. Does it mean in two years I’m gonna be dead?’ So if you’re already in that mentality, you’ll do anything to change.”
It is the youths’ energy and determination that keeps the movement alive, but many have to perform a balancing act. A number of organizers and demonstrators go to school during the day, and go out to protest at night. “What I think is victory is to see these young people going out to protest and then at 9 p.m. they are sitting in this room doing their homework,” Musavuli beamed. He views the commitment to grassroots work and dedication to education as a powerful engine to fuel change.
Indeed, the success of the movement stems from the youths’ ability to craft their message using social media and other youth-specific organizing tactics. One night in front of Ferguson Police Department, where protesters still gather every night, officers told people they could not stand still. In response, young men and women blasted Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” and danced, in a display of civil disobedience.
The founders of MAU are also in their twenties. Asked about youth engagement, Yates seconded Musavuli’s claim. “The youth are definitely driving it in more ways than one. We’re going out there, we’re spreading the message, we’re expanding this movement and telling people that this is not just a Ferguson issue. We’re not allowing it to be isolated to just Ferguson because they’re not just killing black people in Ferguson. This is active, conscious work to make sure that America recognizes it’s an American issue.”
Waging a Different Kind of War
As organizers charge ahead, some individuals and professional associations are developing ways to combat police brutality through more formal means.
For instance, reverend and state representative Tommie Pierson of Greater St. Mark Family Church is writing legislation to “govern police behavior.” He is pushing for psychological testing among officers, claiming “you cannot put police officers in our neighborhood who hate us to police us,” and trying to eliminate officers with ties to hate groups.
Prior to the election on November 4, Pierson registered and educated his church about the importance of voting and working to improve the current political and social climate, which he will continue to do after the verdict. He also noted that Committeewoman Patricia Bynes is active on the ground. Bynes called for a performance audit of the city of Ferguson, to learn more about hiring practices, contracts, and business standards.
Meanwhile, the National Bar Association (NBA) announced that it “is waging a war against police misconduct and issuing forth a call for justice” in cases of black men and women who died at the hands of police. NBA chose 25 major cities where the African American population is heavily impacted by police brutality — including St. Louis, Detroit, and Baltimore — and is disseminating open records requests to gauge the number of unarmed people who were killed, racially profiled, and wrongfully arrested and/or injured while pursued or in police custody. Upon a thorough investigation of those cases, NBA will request that the Department of Justice intervene in certain states, and will send preservation of evidence requests so that valuable evidence — videotapes, memos, incident reports, photographs, etc — is not changed or destroyed in any way.
The association is also pressing federal legislation to require officers on duty to wear body cameras, enforce federally-supported use of force training sessions, require de-escalation training in police departments, and ensure that officers intervene if their colleagues use excessive force.
Yet despite these conscious efforts to fight social injustice, activism in the Ferguson area is not without challenges.
One concern is the difference in how younger and older generations approach local activism. Regarding the youth in the area, Russell explained, “We have a right to be angry. If older people come out and tell us to calm down, go in the house, go pray, go vote, what do you tell young people like me who do vote? Or people like Tef Poe who not only registered people to vote but helped canvas and campaign? Just praying and just voting…that made us timid and passive.”
On the other hand, individuals like Reverend Pierson believe prominent figures like Reverend Al Sharpton are best at keeping demonstrators and organizers on message. “I respond to them favorably; without national figures, nobody would be coming here,” Pierson asserted. “You need somebody to keep everybody on target. I think that’s what Al Sharpton does: keep us focused on the real issues.”
There is also a general distrust of government and state-backed oppression of people of color, which actually contributed to mixed feelings about voting on Election Day. Activists participated in Get Out the Vote initiatives by canvassing and registering voters, but locals were not convinced that the main candidates running for St. Louis County Executive would address the immediate needs of the community. Nineteen-year-old college student Brianca Bulley told ThinkProgress, “I haven’t heard anybody talk about what they’re going to do to help with the police system.” Christopher Woods also expressed his concern with the word “reform.” “[It] is such a dirty word. It doesn’t necessarily mean change. It could add something or take away something, but it doesn’t necessarily address all the main issues.”
So as black government leaders like Pierson and Byrnes have developed priorities relevant to the cause, they could fight an uphill battle. Youth want their priorities and demands heard as well. Musavuli summarized the situation as thus: “Youth are the most authentic voice in this community, so it was a radical move for us to tell everybody [that] these young people are going to be part of the coalition.”
But aside from the age gap and skepticism of government officials, there is also wariness of large, nationally-recognized organizations. Yates claimed, “Tensions or differences come from organizations that are larger [and] more established. They also haven’t been as active. But now that they see that this movement has been sustained, and largely through the efforts of young people, now they’re willing to jump on board. But they’re not willing to jump on board in a way that’s supportive of young people…but in a way they see fit.”
Younger activists are not backing down. Russell recently told NAACP representatives in Ferguson that the organization needs to channel its resources and finances to jobs in the community, and steer individuals towards careers in social justice.
If there is one thing everyone can agree on, it is that the mobilization in Ferguson is part of a burgeoning global movement against the devaluation of black lives and an epidemic of police brutality.
“I think the mood has changed a bit. It’s more of a global issue now and not just Michael Brown. I think that’s how it has shifted. People are coming here from across the country,” said Pierson, when asked about the general atmosphere in Ferguson. “[It] has become bigger than MB because there are Fergusons all over the country, and [people] identify with what happened. It happened in their neighborhood, but it didn’t get this kind of publicity. So this is a time to rally around this, in order to help their own communities.”
Just last week, the parents of Michael Brown went to Geneva and urged the U.N. Committee Against Torture to recommend both Darren Wilson’s arrest and for the nation to “improve accountability for police’s use of deadly force, particularly in black and brown communities.”
MAU and other Ferguson organizers sent a contingent of volunteers to support the Brown family in Geneva. There they highlighted the issues at stake and connected Ferguson to the realities in Chicago, in conjunction with Chicago Cop Watch.
Hands Up United also connects young activists with their peers overseas. In the realm of political education, an important part of Hands Up’s work, Musavili, who was born and raised in Congo, sets up Skype calls between Ferguson and Congolese youth to share their experiences and talk about the work they are doing. “We see that global movements, like right now in Hong Kong, are happening around the world; that there are young people who want to have a say in the decision-making process,” he explained.
Yates is adamant about continuing the grassroots work, no matter the grand jury decision.
“The movement does not stop with this announcement. This movement does not even stop if we were to be entirely optimistic and actually believe in the state. If we were, and could potentially think Darren Wilson would go to jail, this doesn’t stop. We don’t stop until another family doesn’t have to suffer the tragedy Mike Brown’s family suffered through. We don’t stop until we have to stop taking the streets to say ‘Hey, you can’t kill our black kids and get away with it.’”