By Rebecca Rivas
Special to the NNPA from the St. Louis American
Growing up in Brooklyn, 20-year-old Keeshan Harley has been frisked more than 150 times since he was 13, he said. He often chooses to stay home rather than chance an encounter with police, he said, where he could be stuck in the back of a cop car for an hour. Even a walk down the block to the corner store can end in being roughed up by police for no reason, he said.
When the Brooklyn college student heard that Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, he immediately felt drawn to come to Ferguson.
“Everything in my body said it’s where I needed to be,” said Harley, youth leader with the New York-based nonprofit Make the Road. “There was that innate sense of urgency. Being a young black male, I understand what that’s like. That could have been me just walking home from the store.”
Harley came to St. Louis in October for the Weekend of Resistance. What he experienced, he said, helped prepare him and other New York organizers for this week of protests following the December 3 grand jury’s non-indictment decision of a New York City police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
The importance of spontaneity was one of the crucial things they learned in Ferguson, he said.
“Understanding that things don’t have to be followed in a rigid way, where there’s one person speaking,” he said. “In Ferguson, there was a profound sense of responsibility. The people were fed up. If someone said, ‘Meet up at 9 p.m. in Shaw,’ the people just knew they needed to go.”
The Ferguson movement’s hallmark element of spontaneity hit new levels last week as thousands of protestors worldwide walked out of schools, shut down highways, occupied retail spaces and took to the streets to demand police accountability.
The day of the grand jury’s announcement in the Garner case, thousands poured into the streets and marched throughout Manhattan. They caused lanes to be closed on the Brooklyn Bridge, West Side Highway and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels.
“None of that was planned,” said Carl Dix, co-founder of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network. “People came out in anger and figured out what they were going to do.”
Several groups also staged mass die-ins in other parts of New York City, drawing from what they’ve seen in Ferguson, said Dix, who also participated in Ferguson October.
The St. Louis activist group Tribe X – which has since splintered into Black Souljahz – orchestrated the first Ferguson die-in action on November 16 in the University City Loop. It has now spread nationally as a staple of the movement.
Tribe X president Alisha Sonnier said in all the actions they have led, including the historic occupation of Saint Louis University’s campus, “You have to be flexible and let the action take its course. Spontaneity is our friend.”
This week, New York organizers have called for a “Week of Outrage.” On Monday morning, activists stormed the Verrazano Bridge during rush hour and carrying banners that read “Eric Garner,” “Mike Brown” and “Black Lives Matter.” They also laid coffins on the freeway, which connects Staten Island to Brooklyn. The shutdown was symbolic because many NYPD officers travel to work from Staten Island, where Garner was killed.
“Someone can tweet, ‘Meet me at Union Square at 6 p.m.,’ and even that has been a successful tool,” said Jose Lopez, lead organizer with Make the Road. “There have been so many groups and individuals organizing actions daily. There are folks using different tactics. It’s partially why we will be able to sustain the movement.”
Lopez was among a handful of young organizers who met with President Barack Obama on December 1 regarding issues of police brutality. In New York, the public safety conversation has largely been focused on investing money into the police department and precincts.
“And that’s the wrong conversation to be had,” Lopez said. “If we have funding that could be spent, is it not better to resource individuals and organizations and cultural institutions that are more responsible for the safety of the community than a local precinct might be? How do we deal with the fact that people of color are targeted, stopped and frisked daily?”
Dante Barry, executive director of the New York-based Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, has traveled to Ferguson about seven times since Brown’s death. NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner in a chokehold on July 17, less than a month before Brown’s shooting death. However, the reaction that New York witnessed in Ferguson “helped propel” their own response, said Barry. Million Hoodies was started after Trayvon Martin’s death.
“Ferguson provides a model for what resistance can look like,” Barry said. “We are seeing a collective response all across this country that is recognizing that direct action is the avenue to go to change culture but also to have a conversation.”
Barry is fighting for two things. First, he wants an end to “broken-windows policing,” where police arrest people of color for petty crimes, such as selling loose cigarettes or falling asleep on the subway. And second, he wants demilitarization of police.
“In every sense, Ferguson is everywhere,” he said. “You can see conditions that you see in Ferguson all across the country.”
DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie were among two Ferguson protestors who traveled to New York after the grand jury’s decision, as a way to return the support they received in Ferguson. Mckesson said it was humbling to see Ferguson-originated actions play out among thousands of people and amid the city’s skyscrapers. He learned a lot from New Yorkers, as well, he said.
Like many activists, Mckesson expressed the importance of a decentralized movement.
“The power structure doesn’t want to deal with all of us,” McKesson said. “You cannot co-op one person and say, ‘Stop the protests.’ It makes them responsible to the people en masse.”
What was so amazing about Ferguson, Barry said, was that so much of the community rose up.
“There’s always a role for someone in this movement,” Barry said. “It’s not about having a chairperson. It’s about having low ego and high impact. It’s an issue that affects a lot of folks, and it’s organic.”
And it will be the people who continue to lead the movement, Harley said.
“The community will escalate things until something systemic and substantive has changed, until we see our police officers are held to high esteem,” Harley said. “I don’t think there’s one young black male in Brooklyn who isn’t fed up and ready to yell through the streets. We are not going to be overlooked. And we are not going anywhere.”