Sunday, October 12, 2014

What I learned when #FergusonOctober came to #Shaw

This is a (hopefully) ordered explication of what went down last night, why every person in Shaw should have been there and why Vonderrit Myers doesn’t have as much to do with it as we think.

What I thought before: Watching the news closely for the past few weeks I had developed a picture of the protests as disorganized and violent and characterized by lawless elements doing awful crap. Then I started watching Twitter and that impression was only reinforced by the flood of emotion-laden tweets that included “they do this because…” “they are racist because…” etc. Sorry, but making blanket statements about things going on inside other people’s heads doesn’t convince me. You might be right but you might be wrong too.

News coverage from the Post Dispatch and local TV stations has been incomplete. Even a casual reader with the intelligence of a Q-Tip might suspect that much of the real stuff is not getting reported. We all know only the most salacious details get featured, the violence, the crying, the drama. That’s just how they do that thing they do to sell ads. Even so, my overall impression of the protests was not a favorable one - probably because the messages coming from alternative media are too diverse and chaotic to present an intelligible counter story.

When I headed down to the protest early in the evening I wasn’t feeling it. I was going to see what might happen and to help keep some of the more fearful neighbors informed through the security committee. I was a little apprehensive but was determined to see what was going to happen in my neighborhood. What happened was this:

The protestors assembled and marched straight out of Shaw. They reassembled at the QuickTrip on Manchester, over on the edge of the Grove, had a sit in, marched back to the store at Shaw and Klemm, had a quiet debrief and went home.

I doubled back to the neighborhood during the sit-in but rejoined the group about twenty minutes later. During the march I was impressed with the calm, collegial atmosphere that was all around. I did not see a single person who was violent, there was no haranguing of the police and I did not see any negative behavior directed towards the neighborhood. My view of the protestors as volatile and potentially violent was challenged by every moment I spent with them.  The most interesting part of the night was the debriefing and it put it all into perspective for me. By “all”, I mean #Ferguson, #Handsup, #MikeBrown, #Shawshooting and #FergusonOctober. But first, this:

I started getting really interested in the Twitter feeds around the protests a while back. As mentioned, lots of that is over the top but a few individuals really popped out of the flow as level headed, passionate and whip smart. When I walked down to the protest yesterday I already knew that four of them were on their way to Shaw and Klemm and I made up my mind to try to find and meet them if the crowd seemed approachable in general. I’m not going to gush about personalities because that’s stupid but, as usual, my intuition was dead on. These folks were exactly as I had hoped - focused and clear headed, but also nicer than I had expected. As I talked with them my mind went back to the leaders and organizers I worked with in #ACTUP way back before there were @ and #’s. I was still a little apprehensive about what the night had in store for the neighborhood but as I accessed old memories about the world of direct action I could see the signs of planning all around. Nothing was left to chance. This was not a riot.

In my previous post I voiced confusion about why the previous protest in Shaw seemed so disconnected from the death of Vonderrit Myers. Why is he already barely even a ghost? This might be the biggest thing I got from last night. The protests are not about him. This protest wasn’t even about Michael Brown. This was about the living, about us. The organizers chose the QuickTrip, not Shaw. We were the staging area. The police were ready but the protesters had them outflanked before they even came to Shaw. People in the crowd were from Shaw, from all across our city and from elsewhere. I met people from many states, of various ages and races. The organizers kept it clean and calm and let the police demonstrate their intimidation and brutality for all those people to see. It worked. Apparently the reporters on the scene don’t understand but I totally get it. I wish all my neighbors could have seen that too. You might feel some of the admiration I felt for those kids last night.

When I got up this morning I read the Post Dispatch just for kicks. Wouldn’t you know it, they did it again. They talked about the arrests, the sit-in, but there was almost no sense of who the protesters are and what the night was like overall. Reading the article I couldn’t recognize my experience in that “news”.  There was that glaring blank spot in the middle of the article too. To paraphrase:  cops said move, protestors chanted, police advanced on protesters, protesters were detained.

So what happened between the advancing on the protestors and the detentions? The police chief said rocks were thrown. Plenty of videos and photos from the event are out there and I don’t see any rocks. Of course no one can see everything at once in a big event like this and I wasn’t there at the moment so I guess anything’s possible. What I do know is this:  If you can watch that and not be upset I don’t know what to say. I also know that before and after QuickTrip the crowd was calm and the atmosphere was one of solidarity and love. That’s amazing after what happened at the QuickTrip.

When I rejoined the group the arrests were in progress. The protestors were walking back to Shaw in several clusters. They were still calm, moving quietly and staying on the sidewalk, not chanting. The organizers were in control and were managing the crowd. The police presence was tremendous though and very intimidating. I would not be honest if I didn’t say this was the worst of the night for me. I heard that marching sound and the chatter of their batons striking boots from the top of the Manchester bridge, long before I caught up with them at Vandeventer and Sarah. The armored formation was marching the protestors out of the Grove. This much was viscerally clear: leave now or we are ready and able to fuck you up. Pretty basic. That message was in no way proportionate to the spirit of the protest and I can’t logically defend any other conclusion: we’re not as free as we want to believe. This is the message the organizers wanted to demonstrate. They set it up and the police did the work for them. My moment: All the burned flags in the world can't protect us from our own police.

So Shaw neighbors, why should you have been there? The protestors were not violent. It was as much a community event as any I have ever been a part of in Shaw. I have wondered why some people have taken their children to the protests. What I saw last night was a family friendly environment (aside from the police action). I wish you had all been there and had brought all your kids to see and be a part of that crowd. That crowd was our neighbors, not thugs defending dead criminals. That got redefined for me last night because I was there, I participated, I felt it all. 

The fear you feel is real but in my opinion it is not based on our city's reality. Our peace and property is not threatened by a handful of smart and organized young people who will undoubtedly transition into political leadership soon. Our security is threatened by the inability of our police protectors to know us and love us the way we need to be known and loved. I’m still a law-and-order guy. I don’t want bad guys with guns running around Shaw. These folks aren’t - and that is not what they are defending. They are defending us and we need to find some way to be a part of that effort.

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