Ferguson & The Purpose of Protest

The message of the Movement must be targeted social action, not just angry activism


The time is right for a social justice movement to take hold.

But what will be the message ?

Ferguson Protesters Stage ‘Die-In’ at Missouri Mall

Demonstrators forced the temporary closing of the St. Louis Galleria Mall after staging a mass “die-in” on Black Friday, lying on the floor for 4 1/2 minutes of silence, to represent the hours that Mike Brown’s lifeless body was left on the streets of Ferguson after police officer Darren Wilson shot him dead last August.

In Oakland, CA, people protesting the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson chained themselves to a BART train, forcing officials to close the West Oakland station and causing delays across the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Fourteen activists were arrested.

And across the country, in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle, hundreds of demonstrators flocked to the streets chanting, “If we don’t get no justice, they don’t get profits,” and other similar sentiments, intended to disrupt Black Friday and the rest of this holiday shopping weekend.

But what’s the point?

I don’t mean “What’s the point,” as in, just-throw-your-hands-up-in-frustration-and-despair-and-give-up-cause-we’re-beat, What’s the point?

I mean, “Really, what IS the point?” As in, this question to organizers of all of this protest:

What’s your point?

Because right now, it is far from clear that all of this marching and demonstrating and disruption and activism will bring anything that resembles sustained social action. Or put succinctly, it is unclear that anything is going to change.

Don’t get me wrong. As someone who has been practicing and covering the law for 25 years, I see the case of People v. Wilson clearly. I am troubled by the legality—and what I perceive to be the illegality—of what went down in Ferguson. I am struck by the lack of humanity. I am deeply troubled by then-Officer Wilson, referring under oath, to the young man he’d shot dead as an “It.” And I am doubly troubled by Wilson’s interview with my colleague George Stephanopoulos, in which he expresses no real remorse over the shooting.

But I don’t care about any of that now. Because now the message has got to be bigger than Darren Wilson. Now the message has got to be bigger than even Michael Brown.

Now, we — and by “we” I mean those who believe in Democracy in the truest sense of that word— need to get beyond the question of whether or not Darren Wilson’s story makes sense. We need to get beyond whether he should have been indicted. We even need to get beyond our anger. Because all the looting, rioting and even the peaceful disruption of the businesses of our friends and neighbors can be obviated by a simple tool at our disposal secured 50 years ago by organized protest and boycotting and leadership. And it is right at our fingertips.


My polling place, last November 2014 (race of voters unknown).

Black people feel disenfranchised in this democracy because in many parts of America we are disenfranchised. The dream eludes us. We’ve been cut out. This, despite the promises of Brown v. Board and the election of the first African American president.

· Fifty-four percent of African Americans graduate from high school, compared to more than three quarters of white and Asian students.

· Segregation is still widespread at American public schools, 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board ruling which was supposed to, at least, make schools equal and not separate.

· While people of color make up about 30% of the US population, we account for 60% of those imprisoned.

· According to Human Rights Watch, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but we have higher rates of arrest. That’s in large part because the war on drugs has been waged primarily in communities of color where we are more likely to receive higher sentences.

· Despite the rise of an educated African American professional class, and economic and social advances for black Americans as a whole, inner-city urban areas have remained underdeveloped for so long that they are seemingly in a state of permanent despair. White suburban flight has left these cities stubbornly prone to epidemics of social dysfunction and the problems related to crime and drug abuse.

But there is a tool at our disposal for repair of our communities, participation in the American dream and full enfranchisement in the democratic process.

It is called the Vote.

In fact, it is more than a tool. It is a right, one that countless Americans fought and died for just a half century ago, some of them in my lifetime. Medgar Evers. James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. Viola Liuzzo. And countless other unnamed foot soldiers in the struggle for the right for each and every citizen to vote.

Suffrage parade, women march to win their right to vote in New York City, May 6, 1912

Women marched at the beginning of the 20th century. We marched on Washington in August 1963. And we marched again from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. But all that marching was deliberate in the message. All that protest had a purpose.

All that protest had a purpose.

Women’s suffrage. Civil rights. Desegregation. Equality and jobs and freedom. And the right to vote.

The right to vote was hard-fought, for decades. Blood was spilled. Lives were lost. This is not hyperbole. Actual blood and real lives. But we won that battle in the larger struggle for full participation in this democracy. We secured the vote for women in 1920 with the 19th Amendment. We secured the vote, first promised to African Americans in the 15th Amendment, with a Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. We also won the right to vote for young adults between the age of eighteen and twenty-one with passage of the 26th Amendment. All of this enfranchisement in the 20th Century is remarkable when you consider that, at the time of the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, most states limited voting to white, male citizens who were over the age of twenty-one.

But now, we don’t vote! Black people, poor people, young people, even women, don’t vote!

Ironically, Ferguson is the best example of this. The city is 67% African American. But Ferguson’s elected officials look nothing like its population. Though whites make up just 29% of the city’s residents, five of Ferguson’s six city council members are white, as is Mayor James Knowles III. The police chief Thomas Jackson is white. The police force is 94% white. Five of the six city council members are white. And six of the local school board’s seven members are white.

These elected officials may be perfectly good people. And relations between ordinary blacks and whites in Ferguson — a city of 21,000 that’s part of St. Louis’s northern suburbs — were said to be relatively good. Until now.

But then, like the police force, the city government came under criticism after the Brown shooting, for what many said was a lack of sensitivity to “minority” concerns. And these facts—the disparity between black population and the government in power—has shaped the protests over the shooting, and the grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson.

Given the police department’s aggressive show of force in August, and after the grand jury decision in recent days, including the use of military weaponry, tear gas and rubber bullets, there is a disconnect between black and white in that community, that would be well-served by some reshuffling via the electoral process.

No one collects data on turnout by race in municipal elections. But the overall turnout numbers for Ferguson’s mayoral and city council election make my point. This year, in the midst of the Ferguson mess, just 12.3% of eligible voters cast a ballot. In 2013 and 2012, those figures were even lower: 11.7% and 8.9% . As a rule, the lower the turnout, the more the electorate skews white and conservative.

This is not to come down on the people of Ferguson. There are clear reasons why they don’t vote. Elections held only every other year, one can argue is designed to suppress the vote. Add to that, a community that is younger, poorer (the city has a 22 percent poverty rate overall), and prone to moving a lot—all factors make folks less likely to go to the polls, especially in low-turnout municipal elections.

Also, many of Ferguson’s black residents only moved there in the last decade, and are unlikely to own their homes. Newer residents and renters are even less likely to register to vote, or to cast a ballot, than those who have been there longer and own their own homes, and who have thereby developed a voting habit — a fact that often works against black and low-income participation.

Which gets us back to the point of this post: Getting out the vote to effect a change in Ferguson. During all of the recent protest in Ferguson, was anybody handing out voter registration forms? Was anybody talking about an organized movement for real change in Ferguson and other inner city communities that feel, and are, disenfranchised? Was anybody marching with a message that will lead to a concrete change on the ground, at City Hall or in the ranks of a police department that is almost entirely white?

There is a reason voter supression exists. But there is no reason we should stand for it. The power to change the existing power structure is in the people.

The power to change the existing power structure is in the people.


Right now, activists in Missouri are on a 120-mile march from Ferguson to the state capital. The seven-day march, organized by the NAACP, began with just about 150 people setting out from the Canfield Green Apartments, where Mike Brown was shot and killed. They will no doubt pick up participants and steam, as they make their way to Jefferson City.

The NAACP is calling for a reform of police practices, a new police chief in Ferguson and a national law to prevent racial profiling by police.

The “Journey for Justice,” which is reminiscent of the civil rights marches of the 1960s, began with people singing the decades-old protest song “We Shall Overcome.” Participants carried signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” and “Equality Now!”

I’ve got nothing against this march. I agree we need a new police chief and laws to prevent racial profiling, as well as what the Brown family has called for—body cameras on officers, or at least in patrol cars. But there is a more direct path to those policies, and even to change in the state capitol, than a seven-day march.

Unless the anger over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown translates into increased political engagement at the polls, he will have died in vain. As will have Trayvon. And Renisha. And Tamir Rice and Akai Gurley. And Emmett, too. So yes, go march. But then, march to the polls.

And vote.

Dr. and Corretta Scott King march in Selma, Alabama in 1965 to urge passage of voting rights legislation. Violence against the marchers led President Johnson to call for a strong voting rights law that would force states to comply with the Fifteenth Amendment.
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