Of Protests and Community
Probably the biggest issue that people miss when covering Ferguson is that it is a suburb. It has all the characteristics that you would expect from any inner suburb, with the exception of an unusually high minority population. It is neither a small town nor a part of the city, although it is small municipality close to the city. I have previously compared it to El Cerrito, California, part of the SF Bay Area, in that it is about the same size, it has a similar feel to it, and the locals seem to relate to it in a similar manner. There are differences, such as El Cerrito has better public transit, the yards are bigger in Ferguson, and there is actually less diversity in Ferguson, with few to no immigrants and near zero Asian and Latino population. It makes as much sense to the people here that it exploded onto national media as it would for any suburb in any city… mostly it confuses people.
This confusion allows many people a degree of denial. “The press just made the problem look totally overblown.” That’s not true. If anything, the press has been seriously downplaying the size of the peaceful protests, although I’m fairly convinced now that the violence was. The numbers reporting doesn’t even make logical sense, considering far more than 4500 turned out for Mike Brown’s funeral, and that was on a Monday morning. Maybe they missed that too.
I cannot speak for earlier protests since my first participation in a march was Saturday. It was the kind of chaos you’d expect from a march thrown together at the last minute. This kind of confused me since the march had apparently been planned for the better part of a week. First, they didn’t know where they were going and they didn’t seem to have much direction.
The protestors were persistent though. Thousands marched through the rain, and then the heat of a late Missouri summer. Thousands marched around in circles, twice doubling back. They stood around for longwinded speeches that only about 10% of the gathered people could hear. The idea that there would have been significantly fewer than this when the original protests were in full swing is kind of ridiculous.
I suspect that the family wasn’t consulted in organizing the march, and only came late to assert their situational authority. It was their interest that brought everyone back to the location where Mike Mike was shot and left for hours. There was grumbling in the crowd: “We’ve been here and it hasn’t changed anything!” There were speeches. There was silence. Then we went back and started the march all over again, this time with the kind of pounding rain you only get in the midwest.
I learned at the funeral that “family” meant considerably more people than blood relations. I saw a lot of the Muslim Brotherhood bow-ties around in the “family” group. Further, those that had access to the family were permitted to speak for the family. I suspect that there was quite a bit of jockeying for position as spokesperson, since everyone participating was socially obliged to defer to the family. Who could say otherwise?
I think the protest itself said more about the community than anything else. Something I got from talking to people later that made me realize that this is and always will be a very decentralized community. A fundamental distrust of authority is something I have been aware was a thing within African-American communities since, well, since such communities existed. While participants in mainstream communities will easily line up behind a leader and support them, such hierarchy doesn’t seem to form within black communities.
There are leaders and there are people who follow them, but few seem to be fully invested in their leaders. There are a few, but they’re mostly extremist groups. There seems to be more pressure to deny leaders, march to your own beat, etc. When I was trying to explain to a young woman who was part of a group out camping on the streets that it was illegal to sleep on commercially zoned property, she was having none of that. There was the “we’re special” and “they can’t silence a peaceful protest!” and continued persistence that it doesn’t matter. She did a little cheer. As a result, the young people are not likely to get the special exception to the zoning that they need in order to do what they want to do, even if all the property owners are on board with that.
Personal force of will in the a community is rewarded. As an example, a woman was running an event for children near our office. She had a DJ and burgers and had a couple of bouncy castles. At one point she came in and was fussing about a woman who took over the mic and was saying all sorts of inappropriate things for kids and their parents. My thought was to cut off the mic and take away the woman’s voice because she wasn’t part of the program and that’s not what it was for. The solution the organizer came up with is to talk to the woman and get her on board with the audience. The offending woman cleaned up her language and was permitted to continue addressing the gathered families.
The end result of all this is that the community becomes as fractured as Occupy. If they were operating in something other than the strict American 2-party hierarchical where coalitions were formed and dissolved as the situation required they could get more traction. I suspect that modern technical tools could significantly help the community organize in a more ad-hoc fashion, communicate across differences and bring loose coalitions together for specific projects, such as marches and political actions.