Marching through Ferguson

Marching through Ferguson September 1, 2014

It’s strange, perhaps, for an activist to admit they do not enjoy marches. Marches and rallies – so often the go-to response when a community wishes to demonstrate power, generate solidarity, or express outrage – make me deeply uncomfortable. The emotional energy, the collective passion, the chanting and shouting and call-and-response: all of it makes me uneasy. While at a concert or a dance I can fully throw myself at the experience, giving myself over to the crowd, at a rally I remain strangely reticent, hesitant to raise my voice, parsing all the chants to check if I agree, detached, private. Perhaps it’s the potential volatility of any highly-charged gathering, or the reserved Englishman in me – I don’t know, but marches make me nervous.

Yesterday I marched anyway. I went down to Ferguson, MO – the town just outside my new home of St. Louis recently wracked with unrest after the fatal shooting by police of unarmed teenager Michael Brown – with Anya, a member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, and we marched together. Under glowering clouds which soon broke open into storm, we marched from the QuikTrip (“ground zero” of the protests, after being completely destroyed by looting) to the site of the shooting, where local clergy called on God and Jesus, giving voice to the protesters’ anger and stoking religious fervor in equal measure. Then back to the QT and on to Forestwood Park, where speakers urged action: some wanted the crowd to register to vote, others to boycott business, yet others to stage repeated acts of civil disobedience. Tomorrow (Labor Day) protesters plan to halt traffic on the highway for four and a half minutes, starting 4:30pm, in reference to the amount of time Brown lay on the street after being shot.

Memorial for Michael Brown

Hundreds attended the march. Billed a “National March on Ferguson”, local organizers had reached out online to invite people from across the country to the city. The call was heard: this was the largest of the protests in Ferguson to date, marchers filling the streets and sidewalks for several blocks, a forest of signs with a canopy of flags bearing witness to a community’s outrage and commitment to change. Banners bore the names of people of color gunned down by police, acronyms for organizations committed to fighting racism and police violence, and symbols of religious sects.  I met older people who had been marching for decades, veterans of the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s. Young people, some of them involved in organized activism for the first time, many of them leaders in the movement coming out of Ferguson. And I saw children: tons of children, clutching their parents’ hands or being pushed along in strollers, a couple sitting playing games on an iPad while the clergy made their calls for justice. At one point I stood on a balcony overlooking the march, and the crowds stretched far as I could see.

Crowds in Ferguson

I sat in the car on the drive back, noting how quickly St. Louis shifts from dilapidated to affluent and back again, thinking of the march and the speeches, the anger and the energy. But mostly I thought about the children I had seen, marching beside their parents, sitting oblivious in their strollers, or just hanging out on the sidelines playing games. How many parents in that march are afraid that their child will die like Michael Brown did? How many of those young people, when pulled over by the cops, think – even for a second – that they might not survive the encounter, as one young woman reported at a vigil I attended soon after the shooting?

Stolen Lives

I don’t have to think like that. As a relatively affluent young white person who identifies and presents as male, with a British accent and fairly mainstream fashion sense, I don’t generally expect to have any interactions with the police at all. I go through life hardly thinking about the police – except in situations where things go wrong, at which time I feel comfortable calling on them to help me. While it is certainly possible that I could be subject to abuse of power at the hands of the police – as a gay man I’m perhaps more vulnerable than some – it is not something that is part of my everyday experience or part of my mindset. When I speak to police they call me “sir”. They ask me how they can help. I am not an immediate suspect: I am a citizen, to be protected and served. That is the sort of experience everybody should expect from the police. No law-abiding person should fear the police as a matter of course, and no one – including people who have committed crimes – should fear summary execution on the street. Far too many people of color are subject to everyday indignities at the hands of people entrusted to serve them – and this is not a “Ferguson problem”, but a problem which runs through every aspect of American culture. Note that word: “indignities” – violations of their dignity, their very humanity.

I moved to St. Louis in June. Michael Brown’s shooting occurred just a couple of months after I arrived. The shooting, the subsequent protests, the looting and extreme police response all spoke to a truth which has become increasingly clear to me even in the short time I have spent in the city: St. Louis and its metropolitan area are profoundly racially segregated. Moving from Boston to St. Louis the difference was palpable immediately: as a non-driver I often take the metro and the bus, and quite frequently I am the only white person in the carriage. Different parts of the city are clearly split between majority black and majority white areas, and wealthy urban enclaves (like the area in which I live) quickly descend into urban decay. Economic and racial dynamics interlink to create some ugly and alarming divisions in the city.

These facts, crystallized in my mind and heart by yesterday’s march, have encouraged me to examine my own racial privilege. This is not something I am comfortable doing: I used to (years ago) be one of those people who “didn’t see race”, and who spoke about “getting beyond race” to the point where we are all “just people”. Over time, as I thought and learnt more, I came to realize how inadequate and oppressive that position is, erasing as it does genuine systemic iniquities which systemically devalue some people’s lives due to the racial category into which they are placed.

But, if I’m honest, a deeper intellectual understanding of the structural nature of racism has not led me to greatly change how I live my life in order to combat those structures. The vast majority of my friends and colleagues are white. I’ve almost exclusively dated white people. Most of the media I consume is made by and for white people and stars white people. I am a very well-educated person who has lived in the USA for seven years, and yet I know very little about the history of African Americans, less about that of Hispanic and Latino Americans, and next to nothing about that of Native peoples. When I’m referred to as white – even when I hear the term “whites”, I feel a little twinge of affront, as if somehow I’me being “labelled” in an illegitimate way. I’m embarrassed to admit that often I feel uncomfortable and out of place when I am in a space which holds predominantly people of color – so I’m faced with the disturbing possibility that in addition to the general nervousness I often feel at marches and rallies, I was particularly nervous at this one because I was surrounded by black people.

This is racism, and it exists in me. I hope this is the result of of social pressures and cultural influences, and not of a deep-seated personal prejudice – but actually that is beside the point. Because, whatever the reasons I live my life the way I do, the fact remains that my choices, when aggregated with the choices of many millions who live like me, have widespread consequences – consequences which, for some, are ultimately deadly. Marching through Ferguson was, for me, a reminder that this is not acceptable – and I hope this post might remind some other people too.

I’ve struggled writing this, partly because it requires painful self-reflection and partly because I don’t think I address matters of race effectively or well in my writing and work as a Humanist activist. I don’t like this part of myself and my work, and I’d prefer not to look at it. I don’t think the Humanist movement always addresses racial issues well, and it certainly doesn’t give them the prominence and sustained focus they deserve. But I came to St. Louis to work with a congregation dedicated to the ethical improvement of individuals and of society, and that process has to start with me. I want to be open about my own failings as an activist in order to encourage myself to do better. If I want to be a “leader” of an ethical community, then I must identify areas of my own ethical practice which need to be improved. My approach to issues of race, in both my professional and personal lives, is one such area.

So to the young activists who have been leading the protests in Ferguson, a message: I personally pledge to listen to and learn from you. If my community – a community overwhelmingly made up of white people, with its own racial issues to confront – can be of any use to you, I pledge to work with them to put our energy at your disposal. I want to use my time in St. Louis to become a better ally to people of color, not because it will edify my desire for personal improvement, but because the most fundamental of all Humanist values is the equal dignity and moral worth of all people. A society which systemically denigrates some people because of their “race” – which values white lives like mine above other lives – is not a society I wish to live in, and behaviors which maintain and promote the existence of such a society are not ones I wish to continue. For me, the National March on Ferguson was the first step on a personal march – but it will not be the last.

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