by an M1 Chicago Member
On Tuesday, August 19, my wife and I decided (more or less spontaneously) to drive down to Ferguson from Chicago. As politically engaged people in general, and as white people parenting a black son in particular, we were both enraged by the murder of Michael Brown and inspired by the continuing struggles of the people of Ferguson.
We wanted to see with our own eyes what was really going on and to act as witnesses to a historical moment of repression and resistance. The goal, to the extent that we had one, was educational, for us, for our children, and for our friends and comrades unable to be there in person. Apart from what we had read on the internet, we had two other sources of on-the-ground information: I had been in touch that day with an older revolutionary already in Ferguson, while my wife had touched base with a younger friend/comrade who had been in Ferguson earlier doing legal observing and trainings. Both of them told us to be careful, but encouraged us to go.
We didn’t get on the road until about 1pm so we arrived at what people have been calling “ground zero” (the intersection of W. Florissant and Ferguson Road) around 6pm. Not knowing exactly what to expect in terms of either crowd or police behavior, we parked a couple blocks away and walked in, carrying supplies for ourselves and a 32 pack of water bottles to share with people in the crowd, which we successfully distributed within minutes of arrival. Whatever else people “on the ground” want or need, water is always appreciated.
Apart from one person who yelled at us to go home, every other person we met in the course of three hours walking along Florissant welcomed us, although several repeated the injunction to be careful, and a few checked just to make sure we had contingency plans in place in case things got crazy (we did). It was clear from the moment we arrived to the moment we left that the only hostile and dangerous element of being there was the police presence.
If I could summarize the experience of being on that street on Tuesday evening in a single phrase, it would be “diversity of tactics.” For anyone unfamiliar with the term, it gained currency in the run-up to protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quebec City in 2001, when local anarchists and their supporters tried to bridge the growing tactical disagreement within the then-vibrant anti-globalization/globalization-from-below movement around questions of “peaceful” and “militant” protest. While many of us on the “militant” side of the debate back then found the concept of agreeing to disagree about protest tactics to be appealing, it was not generally welcomed by a lot of the more mainstream protesters and especially organizational participants like unions, etc. So, at least at its inception, diversity of tactics remained more a theory than a practical reality.
By contrast, our brief visit to Ferguson seemed to me to reflect a lived reality of diversity of tactics. This is not to say that everyone simply agreed to disagree; the reports of sharp disputes among the crowd about things like fighting the cops, prayer as the solution to everything, legality and illegality, etc. – all were quite clearly in evidence when we were there. But they played out in meaningful debates among participants in a common struggle, rather than angry or condescending refusals to engage with the other side. For instance, I watched a fascinating encounter between two older (60-ish) black men. One, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, approached the other, dressed in a clergy’s collar, and asked if he thought prayer was the solution. The clergy responded that he did, and the guy in the t-shirt then tried to convince him that he was wrong, and that if people didn’t fight back they would end up beaten down even more. “If this [the looting/street fighting] hadn’t have happened,” he asked, “would the world have took notice of what was happening here?”
Neither of these guys seemed like they were interested in fighting the cops themselves, but both were openly discussing the pros and cons of the tactic, in the middle of a fairly crowded sidewalk where dozens of similar discussions were happening all around them. Watching them, I suddenly thought of the Ken Loach movie Land and Freedom, which has an amazing scene of Spanish peasants arguing about the proper approach to collectivization during the Civil War. (There is also a similar scene in his movie The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about the tactical and strategic orientation of the Irish independence struggle.) The idea that people’s collective consciousness shifts rapidly in the course of intense struggle can sometimes seem abstract, but here it was on full display for anyone to see.
There has been a lot of discussion about “outside agitators,” and I think the recent Crimethinc. piece was really very, very good on the topic. What struck me most while we were there was the fact that almost everyone that I pegged as a likely supporter of and/or participant in street fighting, either based on the equipment they had with them or the inflammatory slogans on their signs or shirts, was black. I saw a fair number of white folks there, but the vast majority appeared to be reporters. Granted, we left just after dusk (around 9pm) as the demographics of the crowd were clearly shifting – families with kids leaving, more young people arriving – but white militants were in short supply while we were there. And believe me, I was looking.
Several visual images of the protest were really striking: people with slogans on t-shirts,
some hand drawn, some left over from earlier struggles, but many crisp and new with professionally printed pictures and slogans on them. Perhaps my favorite was “Ferguson Fux Yo Curfew” with the now widely disseminated photo of a guy in an American flag shirt throwing what appears to be a Molotov or else a tear gas cannister, which seems to have been taken on one of the earlier nights of the protests. There were also lots of hand-made protest signs, but significantly there were no pre-printed or organizationally sponsored signs at all (in contrast to the professionally printed t-shirts, none of which indicated any organizational affiliation). There was a table set up by some unnamed local group that handed out free pizza, chicken wings, and water to protesters until they ran out of supplies around 8:30.
Of course the presence of the police was also striking visually, which is exactly what they want. I haven’t been to a major street protest of any size since Quebec City, and the difference in the appearance of the police was astonishing up close, even though I knew all about it in the abstract. The body armor, the automatic rifles, the armored vehicles with snipers on top, the whole thing was designed to terrorize. I won’t focus more on this here, partly because it’s been dealt with very well by others but also because – at least by day ten or whatever it was when we arrived – the terror function was no longer successfully served. People were incredibly angry and very careful about not getting arrested, but no one seemed scared. The cops never talked to anyone other than other cops (apart from our brief viewing of Captain Johnson’s daily walking press tour, and the one arrest we witnessed). They clearly knew they were there as an occupying army and they acted accordingly. I’ve seen reports of locals chit-chatting with the police, but we didn’t see any of that at all.
The other thing I wanted to mention was the experience of being there with kids. My wife and I felt strongly that our kids would benefit from seeing this intense sort of repression and resistance up close. I have never before taken my children to a protest or action where there was a clear risk of arrest or injury, and we took a lot of time in the car on the way down to plot out contingency plans and how to deal with the kids in particular. It turns out we arrived on what was subsequently described as one of the calmest evenings – no tear-gas for the first time in a week – but we were at least reasonably well prepared to escape quickly if we needed to. What we didn’t necessarily expect was that lots of local families were out there as well, with kids in pretty much the same age range as our three (9 years old, 7 years old, and 20 months old). We did talk with some moms of older children (11-15 years old) who told us they left their kids at home, but the family friendly vibe was clear. At least this was true until about 8:30, when the tone began to shift and we decided to get ourselves organized to leave. When we left around 9pm, I didn’t see any other little kids there at all.
Both before and after our brief visit, we talked a fair bit about our role in Ferguson. We weren’t there to fight the cops, we didn’t have much material aid to offer other than water, and we weren’t sticking around for the long-run. I have basically no use for the sorts of privilege-baiting that is implicit in “white people stay home” arguments, but we did want to be clear about why we were there. At one point I got interviewed by a stringer from a major national news outlet. While the final article got the details mangled – it identified our adopted son as our oldest child at 21 years, when in fact he’s the youngest at not-quite 21 months – it did summarize our reasons for being there: 1) we (like people all over the world) are angry about the murder of Michael Brown, and 2) we (like people all over the world) are inspired by the struggle of the people of Ferguson against police brutality and white supremacy. Notably, that seemed to be perfectly sufficient for pretty much everyone we talked with while we were there. If I could summarize our reasons for being there in one word it would be “solidarity.” A very small effort, but one we won’t soon forget.
The Crimethinc. piece: http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/r/agitators/index.html
The collectivization debate sequence from Land and Freedom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzDufrLSMmo
And the scene from Wind that Shakes the Barley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Z_z6lSgB_8