5 Lessons I Learned About Race After Being Arrested In Ferguson

Ferguson is still happening.
Publish date:
October 27, 2014
race, police, arrest, Ferguson

We quickly huddled together, still locked to each other around the elbow, liberation chants ringing in the background.

"The police are on their way here, are we still all in?" one of the fellow protesters asked.

We all looked around to gauge the other and gave silent confirmation with nods and firmed up grips around where our arms locked. With me was Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, my dear friends Shona and Larry, and a few members of the Show Me 15 labor union.

We had all gathered in front of Governor Jay Nixon's office in downtown St. Louis to demand a meeting with several asks, including the de-escalation of the police, and an immediate withdrawal of National Guard Troops. However, when met with a blockade of police officers refusing to let us into the building, several of us committed to occupying the space in front.

We stood there for about 45 minutes, chanting while community behind us spoke about why they were there that day. Those of us deciding to occupy the space directly in front of the building were face to face with police officers.

Chants grew louder and more urgent as several more cops showed up to arrest us. They took us one by one.

When they came to Ms. Epstein, she clenched on to my arm even tighter, refusing to go calmly. Eventually we would all be shuttled into a police wagon, all nine of us, and we would not go quietly. By the lead of the courageous women of Show Me 15, we began stomping on the metal floors and chanting, "Who do you serve? Who do you protect?" The community could hear us on the outside and echoed our songs louder. We even sung Hedy Epstein "Happy Birthday" on our ride to the station.

She turned 90 the Friday prior and told us "I wouldn't spend my birthday any other way. I did this in the '60s and I did this in the '90s. I didn't think I'd be still doing this in 2014. But I'm here so you won't have to do this when you're my age."

We would all later be charged with failure to disperse.

Later released, we became a part of long list of protest-related arrests. Almost every night the jail cells piled up with people exercising their right to humanity, none of them Darren Wilson. Expecting mothers, students, clergy, organizers all arrested to protect the freedom of not only Darren Wilson, but a guilty system. Since my arrest I've had plenty of time to sift through the things America can learn about race because of Ferguson. Here are my observations, and I hope you will join in this conversation with me:

1. "Looting" is a racialized term, and most certainly a political statement.

The mass media was all too eager to cover what some would call “looting” while I was in Ferguson. The act of breaking store windows solicited more outrage from some than the actual murder of Michael Brown. It sent a deafening message to those of us watching: loss of property is violence but loss of a black life is not.

I was out one night and came across a group of men standing in front of the broken door of a beauty supply store and decided to stand with them. Reporters came around with a sort of amazement in their speech, asking “are you here protecting the store from looters?” One of the young men standing there replied, “No. I’m here protecting my people. I am tired of reporters getting it wrong and criminalizing us. It has nothing to do with protecting a business, it’s about us.”

Looting and rioting are a part of narrative that both aims to distract and reinforce the image of violent black communities, and especially criminalizes black youth. It is never seen as an adequate or justified response to violence. It is never seen as a political statement, but it is. It may not code switch and use “sophisticated” talking points, but it can be intentional and strategic.

While being shown around by some local residents I was able to take inventory of which businesses were hit -- every once in a while a storefront would pop up undisturbed, and my local friends would explain “that’s someone from the community, they know them so they didn’t touch their store.” Perhaps the best response to the racialized and derailing question of looting is, “Would the people have been heard if they hadn’t?"

2. White supremacy can be perpetuated without a single white face around...

One question that came up a few times from those struggling to recognize why police violence is anti-black racism was, “What if the officer was black? Would it still be about race?” Yes. The attempt to erase the impact of racism simply by stating there is no physical proximity to whiteness ignores institutional racism. White supremacy is so insidious and ingrained in our institutions, especially in terms of police culture, that by virtue of simply being trained in these institutions you can carry out racist policies and procedures, it is racism by proxy.

3. …and having a black face, whether it be President Obama or Captain Ron Johnson, doesn’t fix systemic issues.

Akin to the last point, people also make the mistake of thinking a black face on a faulty and racist institution makes the problem go away. Again, the issue with this line of thinking is that we forget racism in America is deeply rooted and systemic. It’s like restoring the outside of a house with a weak foundation.

We saw proof of this in Capt. Ron Johnson’s inability to offer any sustained peace to the people of Ferguson. While Johnson was certainly more empathic than Chief Jackson, marching with people and embracing peaceful protesters, he still worked for an institution responsible for the anguish and righteous anger of a community. He, alone, is not able to answer the deeper question around state sanctioned, institutionally supported, anti-black violence.

4. We’ve felt more paralleled experiences with marginalized people in other countries, than white people in America.

Tear gas is a horrifying experience. It burns the inside of your nostrils, and sends infantries of fire ants down your lungs. It momentarily chokes you, and leaves you incapable of seeing through the burning sensation that envelops your eyes. My first time sharing this experience on social media elicited responses all the way from Palestine. Many of us received tips like “walk with the wind when they throw the canisters” and “use milk, it helps much better than water.”

5. There is no “After Ferguson.”

Or a “post-Ferguson,” despite some of the theoretical discussions that have cropped up to imagine what transformative peace might look like. Ferguson is still happening. Even when the cameras go home the people are still there fighting an unjust system. The conditions that allowed for this kind of tragedy and police response to happen still exist, and not just in Ferguson. The response from the community in Ferguson wasn’t a surprise, the fact that it hasn’t happened many times over, is.

There is no “After Ferguson” because the discussion on race in America does not end with the indictment or release of Darren Wilson.