By now we have all heard the name Michael Brown, the 18 year old who was gunned down by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. We have watched his mother wail before news cameras and felt her palpable pain that seems to be able to reach through the television screen and into our living rooms. We have seen footage of the police armed in riot gear, their fingers ready to aim and fire. Contrast that image with that of the protestors (mostly black and brown folks) who have stood directly across from the police, then gotten into don’t shoot position – on their knees, hands down – to make a point. We have watched the neighborhood be tear gassed, streets blocked off, the media refused access to cover the events, and the people told to go home as if they aren’t already home watching their world be slowly torn apart.
It is a heartbreaking sight. Is this America? Our America? Is this the same America that can twice elect a black man as President and yet gun down a black man in the street and then leave him there for hours like he is a dog? But we know the answer is yes. We know that injustice is at America’s core because it was there in its founding. These type of events do not surprise the black person who knows better, who is aware of the nation’s history, who goes outside and may have to interact with the police.
In recent years, it seems that we have done this rehearsed dance too many times. A tragic incident occurs and in the present moment there is rage and anger that fuels us to protest, march, scream, and make demands. But the more important question, the one that never seems to get answered enough is – what happens next? Months later. When the camera crews leave. When the people return to their normal lives. When the blood has been washed away by the rains.
What do we do with the anger and the rage?
For almost three years I had the privilege to work for a political non-profit organization where I supported black clergy and lay leaders who mobilized and organized their churches and communities around progressive issues. This was a nationwide effort that made deep impacts on a wide range of issues, one of them notably being increasing civic engagement and participation in the 2012 elections. Many of these ministers were aged 50 and above and they had been in the struggle for decades, several had been active in the Civil Rights Movement. They were committed to non-violence, to increasing access to the ballot box, to ensuring equality and justice for all, but they were no punks. They too were filled with a rage that fueled their work and kept them going.
After the murder of Michael Brown, I emailed one of my favorite ministers from the organization who lives near St. Louis and has been active in the community for several years. I knew that he would be on the frontlines of any organizing efforts that would occur. He responded that he was headed to a meeting that evening, but then said: it is hard to get us to seek proactive means instead of always reacting.
I understood him immediately for it is in the quiet times, the lulls, the days in between elections, when injustice rages on, suffocates, and even kills the people. Injustice, racism, and oppression never take a holiday. They don’t have vacation or sick leave. They never go on break.
So neither can we.
The Civil Rights Movement and its accompanying successes are usually packaged into a neat and uncomplicated narrative. When presented without historical context, it seems that black folks just woke up one day in 1955 and decided to stop taking buses in Montgomery, Alabama after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. However, for this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, my church in Washington, D.C., hosted Howard University professor Dr. Eleanor Traylor as speaker. Dr. Traylor is a native of Atlanta and a contemporary of Dr. King and several other Atlanta preachers and freedom fighters.
In her speech, Dr. Traylor provided vivid accounts of her childhood in Atlanta during the 1930’s and 40’s. She called the names of the various churches and their respective pastors and described that it was in these places where as children they learned the names of notable ancestors and freedom fighters like, Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells. It was there that they learned and sung the hymns that would sustain them. In this sacred space, they were told they were valued and that they weren’t just children of God, but also citizens of this country. Every week they were being equipped with the necessary tools to lead the battle. This is years before Greensboro. Before Montgomery. Before Selma. In this instance, the church planted the first seeds of possibilities, served as the training ground. But it wasn’t the only place.
Katrina Rogers, Principal of Kalaro Media a communications firm that specializes in political communications, public affairs and media training, remarks, “Too often, our leadership doesn’t adequately prepare us for the fight. Too many of us are accustomed to instant results and have no context for this being a marathon instead of a sprint. When the Civil Rights Movement is discussed, it’s presented as Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, MLK made a great speech and then we got to vote. It’s rarely presented as a movement with tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of people who worked – from different angles – for decades.”
As I watched the youth of Ferguson, a city that is sixty-seven percent black with nearly thirty percent of its population under the age of eighteen, I wondered if they have been adequately prepared for the fight. In today’s modern world the lack of safe spaces for black and brown children to learn they are valued and valuable and have a right to push back against an unjust system are few and far between. And yet they need it now more than ever.
More places like the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools where there is a focus on civic engagement and participation are needed. A new generation needs to know the importance of local politics and the very real impact it has on their lives. They need to know that voting is still an effective tool against oppressive forces and that no one should ever be denied the right to vote. They need to know that in a town like Ferguson where the population is majority black but elected leadership is all white, that they can be trained and taught on how to become elected leaders in their own community and push for crucial policy changes. This is a teachable moment not just for Ferguson community, but for all of us, because it is a time when a new generation of leaders can be birthed and raised up in organizing work.
Today, there are terrific organizations that are building upon the movements of yesteryear and pushing them forward. They are serving as training grounds for the next generation of organizers and freedom fighters. There are young leaders who are on the forefront of today’s most important battles: police brutality, voter suppression, housing discrimination, and women’s rights. Moral Monday that started in North Carolina and has moved to other locations, the Dream Defenders who held a 31 day sit-in in the Florida Capitol, the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) that provides grassroots organizing training and has spoken out on the Michael Brown case, and Young People For (YP4) that serves as a leadership development program on progressive issues for college aged youth. Within these organizations are modern day activists who inhale and exhale the work all year round, day in and day out, and push for a better world.
They don’t take breaks or holidays because they know that’s not an option. Because injustice doesn’t care what kind of car you drive and that you were just in an accident and need some help. Racism doesn’t care if you are just minding your business and walking back home, or about to start college, or work a good job, or live in a good neighborhood. Oppression can still find you even when you’re wearing a designer suit. Too often, we have to be reminded of these truths the hard way.
But it is also in these unfortunate, uncomfortable times that we can make a choice to join the fight, to push back, to organize, to channel the anger and rage, to teach the children how to be leaders, to vote, to attend a community meeting, to run for political office, to campaign and canvass, to become educated on an issue, to donate money to a cause, to say a prayer for the weary, to provide support to the activists, to start a freedom school or an organization, to continually keep our mind on freedom and liberation for everyone and then work towards that goal.
But we can’t just do it today. It has to get done tomorrow too. And the day after that.
Diana Veiga is a freelance writer. You can check her out on Twitter at: @dianaveiga