Ferguson October Protests Reveal Deep Wounds in St. Louis

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Commentary Violence

Ferguson October Protests Reveal Deep Wounds in St. Louis

Pamela Merritt

Since August 9, there has been a sharp divide between life before Michael Brown was killed and life after. The scab on the wound of racial injustice in the St. Louis region was ripped off, and we’ve all been confronted with the full scope of the infection.

Read more of our coverage related to recent events in Ferguson here.

In August, Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. When I saw tweets about the shooting, I knew this incident was different.

Michael Brown was unarmed, had just graduated from high school days before, and his body lay garishly on display uncovered in the street for hours.

Like many of my fellow St. Louisans, I felt strangely connected to this shooting through geography. This is my city, and even though I live 20 minutes away from Ferguson, it felt like Mike Brown was shot right down the street. As a Black woman with a brother who also lives in St. Louis, I felt the now familiar anxiety that this could be happening to my family. Above all, I felt anger and frustration coupled with fear and a solid belief that nothing would ever be the same.

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Since that day, there has been a sharp divide between life before Michael Brown was killed and life after. The scab on the wound of racial injustice in the St. Louis region was ripped off, and we’ve all been confronted with the full scope of the infection.

Then came the uprising. Almost immediately, sides were picked and those in authority postured while regular folk searched for solutions that would lead to justice for Michael Brown’s family and real change for our community. The people took to the streets and marched, the police responded with overwhelming force, rubber bullets, and tear gas, and it was on. I watched as scenes reminiscent of this nation’s great Civil Rights battles flashed before my eyes, witnessed my friends stand tall as police in riot gear launched tear gas down residential streets into their back yards. Calls for justice have been met by political spin, little information, and a callously defiant and racially polarized campaign in support of the white police officer who killed Mike Brown. Concerned residents of both Ferguson and the greater St. Louis region who have protested the reaction by officials have been treated like suspects, and long-standing untreated social wounds are now bleeding hard. Through all of this, I’ve wondered how we move toward justice to build a region that works for everyone.

I welcomed the news that activists were organizing Ferguson October. I had seen solidarity events take place all over the nation and they gave me hope even as they reminded me that this kind of oppression and death is not unique to Ferguson. Local activist groups, including the Organization for Black Struggle, which has been a leading civil rights organization in the region for decades, got the word out about Ferguson October and my family eagerly anticipated the weekend that they were pulling together in partnership with organizations from across the country. And then an off-duty police officer working for a private security firm shot and killed an 18 year-old Black man in my neighborhood, Vonderrit Myers Jr.

It is important to note that Ferguson is in north St. Louis County, some 20 minutes away from my home. I’m a resident of the Shaw neighborhood in south St. Louis city. As events unfolded in Ferguson, I worked hard not just to support the demonstrations there but also to raise up the voices and concerns of Ferguson residents.

Almost from the beginning, many in the larger St. Louis region framed the uprising in Ferguson as an isolated event. People took to social media to defend the St. Louis region even as officials in Ferguson denied claims of racial tension or that the system weighed unjustly against people of color. I’ve pushed back, losing several friends on Facebook and receiving fierce resistance online.

I grew up in St. Louis County, but left as soon as I could because of the bigotry I experienced there, and had hoped things had changed for the better when I moved back to live in St. Louis city in 2003. Long before Michael Brown was killed, I knew that the St. Louis region’s denial of a racial divide by some and impotent rage over that divide by others had resulted in a state of extreme stagnation. For every person trying to frame the public displays of oppression happening in Ferguson as an isolated problem, there were others shouting back that what was happening there happens throughout the region. That debate was reset, just days before thousands of activists and members of the media arrived for Ferguson October, when Myers was killed by an as yet unnamed officer in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis city.

Shaw is seen as a progressive neighborhood, with the kind of socioeconomic diversity many St. Louis neighborhoods lack. The neighborhood has experienced recent gentrification that has created some tension simmering just below the surface, rising mostly on social media platforms like Next Door Shaw, an online group created for my community. I joined Next Door Shaw last year hoping to help find the owners of a lost dog, only to be confronted with a steady stream of updates from neighbors concerned about groups of teenage Black men walking around. I quit Next Door Shaw in disgust after a resident just one block over posted her wish that the neighborhood establish a curfew for Black teens because she is scared to walk her dog after work.

There is a neighborhood within Shaw, a beautiful street lined with majestic trees and stately homes. Flora Place has its own neighborhood association and, unlike Shaw, has hired a private security firm to patrol both the main street and the alleys behind those stately homes. The off-duty police officer was working for Flora Place when, for reasons that remain unclear, he attempted the “pedestrian check” on another street that triggered the pursuit that resulted in the death of Vonderrit Myers Jr.

Police reports say that Myers shot at the officer. Witnesses say that Vonderrit was not armed. And I’m left wondering just how wretched the posts on Next Door Shaw are now.

Against this backdrop, Ferguson October began. Local activists have never stopped demonstrating in Ferguson. Immediately following the shooting in Shaw, residents gathered to mourn and demonstrations began. As activists began to arrive from across the country, Shaw was on lockdown after protesters took to the streets to demand accountability.

Just days before thousands marched in St. Louis city, I spent the night texting my sister that law enforcement was demanding people show identification to enter Shaw and giving her directions to navigate back home through police barricades. After the out of control response by law enforcement in Ferguson, I feared the response in Shaw. I’ve been plagued with nightmares of rubber bullets and tear gas. Shaw has certainly not seen the level of repression Ferguson endured, but there were enough displays of force to put a body on edge prior to a weekend of direct action.

Ferguson October has been amazing and painful all at once. Thousands peacefully marched downtown, and this picture from that march captures so many of my hopes and fears that is brought me to tears. Organizers held sit-ins, trainings, and direct actions across the region. Throughout the weekend, there were opportunities for dialogue and education. The response to the direct actions has been mixed. Some people have expressed support while others have indulged in ugly public displays of racism. The shooting in Shaw turned Ferguson October into a truly regional happening, and those in the region who wanted to frame the unrest as isolated have been confronted with just how deep the wound truly is. As a result, there is a heavy tension everywhere I go. A thick haze of “us against them” clouds trips to the grocery store and visits to the pharmacy. This is our new reality, necessary yet painful.

Organizers have made it clear that Ferguson October is just the beginning. We have lots of work to do and young activists have taken on a refreshing leadership role that gives me hope for the future. But people need to understand that this region isn’t a war zone, and Black residents are not enemy combatants. This is a region that some are waging war within. These are neighborhoods where some are resisting change while others are refusing to go back to a state of business as usual that puts our loved ones at risk. I stand with my fellow St. Louisans in support of change, and I am prepared to endure what will come knowing that we do not stand alone. Ferguson October gave the gift of solidarity to me. I’ll hold it close to my heart, taking one step at a time on the march toward justice. We now know the scope of the infection, and we will have to work together and resist the allure of tolerance to truly heal.