While the rain came down, came down in sheets of grey and white, the police in yellow and black came out of the back of vans and assembled along the edge of the car park of their own building. Across from them, surrounding the squat brick side entrance and access ramp of the entrance, the protesters sang Let My Tears Bathe, something between a hymn and a full spiritual. Five hundred of us here, about 300 black and 200 white and Asian. Local activists, kids, kids become activists, pastors, Sunday-best Christians, a few Occupy types in feralwear, Marxist activists in dress down, Quakers in pantsuits. Forty or so press, threading through, deeper in than they’d otherwise be (no great valour — it’s simply clear from past months that the Ferguson cops would arrest everyone everywhere, so might as well).
We’d sung We Shall Overcome and We Shall Gather and we’d heard the names read of black kids killed by police bullets, read from the centre of the crowd by Michael McBride, megaphone held up for him, list on a smartphone, scrolling and scrolling with his finger — Michael Brown, Kendrec McDade, Steven Eugene Washington, dozens more, most recently Vonderrit Myers, shot dead in Ferguson last week, police say holding a gun, family say unarmed — beside him a rabbi, the Bishop of Missouri and Cornel West, dapper, in black three-piece suit and grey scarf, waiting to get arrested.
Every 10 minutes, the rain seemed to redouble its energy and hammer down harder, and a second line of police threaded behind the first, county cops, in all black, half lost in the rain mist, with black billy clubs three feet long, braces of plastic cuffs hanging from their belts, and at each end of the line a gunman, with a double barrel and a bandolier of shells. The singing finished but the rain didn’t, and then the leadership said, “We’re moving forward”. This was Columbus Day, the last day of “Ferguson October”, and it was two months after the killing of Michael Brown a few hundred yards away, and three days of uprising that followed, and now, things were about to go one way or go the other. Those to be arrested first started walking forward, pushing a little against the clear shields the state police were standing behind, and, as negotiated, they arrested Reverand Osagyefo Sekou and Cornel West and escorted them to a waiting van, as more came through to be arrested, while the chant started: “This is what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like.”
Last night also, that chant had started up — at a stadium at the University of St Louis and from the bleachers, directed at the stage below and a row of dignitaries: West, NAACP leaders, radical priests, angry poets, all looking either increasingly uncomfortable or grooving on the anger. Sometime around the 15th speech, hip short sermon, slam poem — “When the machetes come down” — some kids in one sermon had started shouting the speakers down. No one could hear much what they said, so they stood up and turned their backs, two three then four rows of them. Then they started coming down the aisles, shouting, “Listen to us, listen to us”. They’d sat respectfully while the rabbi spoke and the Unitarian, and especially Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor who’d been in the civil rights movement since 1948, and it was only when the NAACP leaders went to the podium, men in sharp suits, one lawyerly, dressed down, the other, a a preacher, in a shirt-tie combo like an explosion in a disco, and began to speak in the rolling, oracular, once-inspiring but now shopworn phrases of the movement that they really lost it.
They came down the aisles, they besieged the stage, and, it being that sort of gathering, they had half the official speakers on their side, standing up, fists in the air, chanting “Let them speak!” The MC gripped the podium a little tighter, spoke hurriedly to a couple of people around her, thinking fast. They couldn’t deny these kids a chance at the mic, but once these meetings open up, they have a way of getting out of hand. She raised her hands for quiet and then said, “We will change the order and the list somewhat” and half the speakers on the podium left the stage to give a dozen or so kids a seat. Kids is no slight on them — they were 17, 16, 14. They were from Ferguson — Ferguson, God, the US.habit of citifying burbs has misled us, Ferguson is St Louis on the unfashionable north side, Ferguson is Moreland, Ferguson is Parramatta — and they were angry. “Y’all weren’t there when we needed you!” “Y’all have to get out of your churches, out of your synagogues and come down to the street!”
“This is the beginning of a new civil rights movement,” they’d said last night, and again this morning, and it may well be. But it hasn’t taken off much beyond St Louis, and one city does not a movement make …”
It was a little unfair — a fair few of the 1500 or so people gathered had been down — but it made the divisions pretty clear. The Ferguson protests had come together in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, quickly, spontaneously, from the streets of an area that had no strong tradition of civil rights activism. Activists had joined with them in the third and fourth days, and from that time some of the local kids had become activists, got some training and a wider view. That was what was making “Ferguson October” possible, but it was a work in progress still. Much of the organising had been done by OBS — the Organisation for Black Struggle, a St Louis group that emerged in the early ’80s after the destruction of the Black Panthers and the decomposition of a national civil rights movement. That happened elsewhere, but the OBS has kept it together better than most, one reason why Ferguson became Ferguson.
The rest of it has been socialist and anarchist groups. So the meetings that rolled through Saturday and Sunday have been real encounters, Ferguson kids who’ve organised themselves into copwatch groups and street-by-street councils, meeting and arguing with student activists white and black, conveying what it’s like to live in an area which has become one of total surveillance — a once white-dominated suburb become largely black, with a white police force. CCTVs, stop-and-search, militarised cops, the full deal. A local, about 20, told us all about it at a meeting mid-Sunday afternoon, impassioned but cool and analytic as well, immersed in the detail. But but but, the meeting was in the BB Bakery, an anarchist co-op cafe over on Cherokee Street, a once black inner-city area, now alternative, soon to be hipster. There I’d wondered if the Ferguson event had not been co-opted a little, thought it all the more at the start of the service in the stadium, decided I didn’t know enough to really form an opinion, had it answered for me by the small revolution within the revolution in the bleachers.
About the last of the youf speakers there was a girl who’d spoken at the BB Bakery, asked what the bigger strategy was, got no answer. She asked the same question to a full stadium and a stage full of leaders, challenged the emphasis put on witnessing, suggested inspiration might have tipped over into indulgence. “We want to know what the strategy is or can be, so that this doesn’t just dissipate!” she said. This was no young v old thing, this was someone asking for leadership. By now the meeting was starting to fray, people were witnessing from their seats — “No justice, no peace”, “Shut it down” — and others welcome, a black separatist, yelling from a doorway, a burly woman resisting attempts to shush her — “We want 20 states! Give us 20 states and leave us alone” — and then an eerie silence before a voice: “People of colour your struggle is just, but do not forget all that we have given you!” and the rest of it was lost in uproar. It was a big white bloke about four rows down from the back where I was standing, 60ish, schlubby, dark glasses, surrounded by angry voices, and then by half a dozen marshals with “Peace Keeper” T-shirts on. No one had made a move towards him, but no one was taking any chances, clearly. Where did this guy think he was? Was he blind? Turns out he was. Escorted politely but firmly out, tapping his stick up the concrete steps to the exit, he asked for a face covering before facing a dozen or so photographers who had gathered round the door he was about to come out of. Some activist lent him a keffiyeh, it was wrapped wholly round his head, and thus masked, like Tiresias, with some strange message of confusion and plaint, from the depths of white America, he quit the arena.
And then Cornel West got up to speak, knowing I guess that he had to hit one out of the stadium, began “I didn’t come to St Louis to speak, I came to be arrested …” and through the roar took us through MLK and Malcolm X Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, did 20 minutes of his trademark mix of southside preacher and the cat in the hat, and got the meeting round again, urging solidarity with everyone from Kurdistan to the workers of Walmart for years of struggle. But as to a strategy for the next day, he didn’t have one, either.
In the rain this morning, I looked for the girl who’d spoken, asking for a strategy, for leadership, but didn’t see her. That didn’t mean she wasn’t there. Across the late morning and afternoon, across Ferguson and greater St Louis, a vast hulk of a city, rotted and blighted by seven years of depression, its old inner core empty and falling apart, actions went off everywhere, at a strike at an electricity company, at a city hall meeting invaded, at a minimum wage protest at Walmart and more. At the Ferguson police building, the arrests went into the tens then 20s, by evening 50 or more, then the crowd regrouped, and the rain cleared for a while, and then started again. So not the fire this time, and, yes, the dissipation. “This is the beginning of a new civil rights movement,” they’d said last night, and again this morning, and it may well be. But it hasn’t taken off much beyond St Louis, and one city does not a movement make, and there are is a lot more heavy weather to get through yet.