The day Michael Brown was gunned down and killed by a Ferguson police officer, I was at home in St. Louis, Missouri, avoiding household chores. Dogs needed brushing, floors needed sweeping, but I was enjoying a lazy summer day by lounging on the couch and talking trash on Twitter.
It was through a series of tweets sent by a friend who lives in Ferguson that I learned a young man had been shot and killed by a police officer. Additional tweets relayed the shock of people who gathered at the scene and looked on in horror as Michael Brown lay dead in the street for hours. What followed is best understood as the Ferguson Uprising, an almost unbearable public display of grief, anger, frustration, and disgust that spilled out into the streets to confront an over-the-top militarized police force and the callous disregard of a legal system as unfamiliar with justice as it is with accountability. It felt as if the killing of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, was the last straw, as if we hit the breaking point and collectively decided to make our stand for justice.
Protests broke out all over the nation, as communities rose up and declared Black lives matter. A year later, the uprising is now a movement that has already secured serious reform. I’m inspired by the power of protest, empowered by the new sense of community that Black Lives Matter has created. But, the thing is, it’s so damn hard to carry on when every week brings news of another killing and more denial by those in power. And I’m forever wading through the waters of racism that never seem to recede.
It’s not as if direct action hasn’t made a difference. And Lord knows change was and is needed in Ferguson and the greater St. Louis region. The Ferguson Uprising didn’t cause a racial divide; it ripped the scab off and exposed our long-festering wound for all the world to see. For decades, Black residents in Ferguson and the many municipalities that make up St. Louis County have protested corrupt courts set up to fund local governments through outrageous fines and discriminatory police practices. Every year Missouri’s attorney general produces a report on racial profiling, and every year newspapers write the same story with a revised headline about the fact that Black people are far more likely to get stopped than other drivers. In 2014, that rate increased by 9 percent, meaning Black drivers were 75 percent more likely than whites behind the wheel to be stopped based on our proportionate share of the driving-age population. Black residents have long protested unfair police practices, so the Department of Justice report on Ferguson wasn’t shocking to those of us who know all too well that the system is rigged.
Protest continues because many people in the region are still in denial that we’ve got a problem and show little sympathy for the movement for Black lives. Despite a slew of proposed reforms, Missouri lawmakers only managed to pass one “Ferguson Bill” this year. The bill focuses primarily on small cities that rely on heavy fines for revenue. Left unaddressed are issues of police accountability, body cameras for law enforcement, requiring a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate all police shootings, and I could go on and on. So activists continue to keep the pressure on, knowing that those in power are banking on people getting tired and giving up. We encourage each other by saying “stay woke,” and so far it’s working—Black Lives Matter isn’t standing down.
And it is important to note that Black Lives Matter has already reset the discussion on race in this country. When activists stood up at the 2015 Netroots Nation convention and demanded Democrats #SayHerName and offer solutions for the continued taking of Black lives by law enforcement, they shifted the endorsement rules for the 2016 presidential race. More people in the United States now think we need to do more to give individuals of color equal rights. In Ferguson, activists have started education and jobs programs, registered voters, and continued to hold the government accountable for making the reforms outlined in the scathing Department of Justice report on Ferguson.
Much has changed, and yet so much remains the same. As a St. Louisan, the last year has been an emotional ride. But long before Michael Brown was killed, I struggled with the regular fear that my older brother, an adult with autism, may be at risk simply because he is a Black man living in St. Louis city. There have been 118 homicides in St. Louis city this year, and I keep waking up in the middle of the night in a panic wondering if my loved ones are more at risk from the epidemic of violent crime afflicting people of all races in urban communities nationwide or from the police officers who are supposed to prevent it. Or maybe it’s both—will my brother be seen as a suspect because he makes noises and likes to twirl around in circles, will someone call the police to report him as a scary Black man, will the police understand the difference between autism and acting unstable, will they get hostile when he is unable to respond because he’s nonverbal? Those are the thoughts that plague me daily: the relentless fear that my brother may become a hashtag coupled with my responsibility as his guardian to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.
And that’s why so many of us have joined the movement for Black lives. I am a St. Louisan and a Missourian, and I deserve a say in how my city and state operate. I am a Black woman, and I demand the ability to raise my family in a community free of violence and fear. And I’m a sister who wants my older brother to be able to live. So, this weekend I won’t be enjoying a lazy summer day at home. I’ll be participating in United We Fight with thousands of people to uphold my commitment to this movement for Black lives. It’s been a year since the Ferguson Uprising, and I’m woke.