Our nation stands at a crossroads moment as the simmering crisis around policing and our justice system reaches a boiling point. Recent cases of police violence in Ferguson, Cleveland, and now Staten Island have stirred an awakening around what is increasingly understood as a pervasive and pernicious problem in America in which black lives are too often treated differently when it comes to police accountability and criminal justice.
Last week, I had the privilege of participating in a retreat with other faith leaders convened by Sojourners to learn about and make common cause with the ongoing efforts to seek justice in the tragic death of Michael Brown Jr. We spent a day talking to local faith leaders and young activists. We visited the memorial site in Ferguson where Brown was tragically killed and the streets where 120-plus days of protest have ensued. While it was heart-wrenching to stand and pray at the site where Brown was killed, I left the two days filled with a resilient sense of hope based on our conversations and interactions with a cross section of young people, most in their early to mid-20s, who embody modern-day freedom fighters. I hope we as a nation can listen to their voices and come to know their stories as we seek answers around what our response should be.
Young activists at the center of the protest movement in Ferguson are refusing to accept cosmetic change or symbolic commitments; instead they are fighting to transform their community and our nation so that neither punishment nor privilege will be systemically or viciously tied to the color of our skin. In the process, these young activists are picking up the broken pieces of the civil rights struggle. Their courage, willingness to sacrifice, and bold vision gave me a great deal of hope for what America can be.
I grew up mesmerized by the civil rights struggle, particularly by the students and young people who served as moral interrogators and foot soldiers through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which led sit-ins and voter drives across the deep South. I often had the sense that I was born in the wrong era since coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s felt like the heyday of civic activism. For many years I bemoaned that my generation, Generation X, had largely taken for granted the struggles and sacrifices that came before us. In my conversations with Millennials and now Generation Y-ers, I often get the impression that SNCC has become a vestige of a bygone era.
This belief changed dramatically last week when I had the opportunity to listen to the testimonies of young people who have been at the forefront of the protest movement in Ferguson. The dominant media narrative surrounding the protests paints a picture of aimless and angry youth, or at its worst, of hooligans and criminals. Much of the media’s reality TV-like coverage from the night of the grand jury announcement fixated on what I believe was a small minority of protesters burning buildings and looting stores in a fury of rage. This has obscured another, more inspirational story of a cadre of young people who have been willing to sacrifice everything so that they and future generations can be truly free. These new freedom fighters are fighting for a future free of excessive and racialized policing — a future in which their humanity and dignity is respected and affirmed. In their eyes, they could have easily been Michael Brown — shot while unarmed and left for dead for four and a half gruesome hours on a street corner in their otherwise normal suburban community that to the naked eye resembles countless suburbs across the country. Yet when you pull back the curtain, you will find a longstanding list of grievances and indignities in which the predominantly black population sees a pattern of harassment, misconduct, and disrespect at the hands of law enforcement. Many young people face bleak options due in part to a broken education system in which many schools in the community have lost their accreditation. The daily protests taking place outside the Ferguson police station represent the new lunch counter in the long journey of justice and redeeming the soul of America. These young activists are declaring they have had enough as they relentlessly seek justice not only for Michael Brown but for their entire community and our nation so that Mike’s tragic death is not in vain. Instead of fire hoses and dogs, they have faced tear gas and an overly militarized police response.
The spotlight has already spread across the country due to the most recent miscarriage of justice: Staten Island, where yet another grand jury failed to indict an officer, this time for the killing of Eric Garner in an illegal stranglehold caught on video for the whole world to see. While the short attention span of the media may mean Ferguson’s time in the spotlight will quickly fade, I hope and pray that the momentum that has been built doesn’t fade and their activism doesn’t burn out. While authorities in Ferguson appear to be waiting out the protests, the young leaders that I met can’t stop and won’t stop agitating and organizing until justice is realized. As this movement continues to go national, groups can learn a great deal from Ferguson in order to channel outrage into targeted activism.
As we pursue these important and overdue measures, let us not forget the broader context that requires addressing potentially even tougher issues of joblessness, mass incarceration, and our unequal and often broken education system. And while changes to policing practice, laws, and public policy are desperately needed, we must also rebuild trust at the community level and learn to humanize black and brown youth, who are too often maligned and marginalized. As long as they are viewed and treated as a menace and as presumed guilty rather than innocent, our nation will fail both our constitutional standard of treating everyone as equal under the law and our higher moral standard of viewing them as God sees them, being made in God’s own image with infinite worth and dignity.
You can get to know the new freedom fighters by visiting the websites of their affiliated organizations, such as The Black Youth Project, Dream Defenders, Organization for Black Struggle, Black Life Matters, and Hands Up United. Many of the freedom fighters have come together under a broader coalition of almost 50 organizations in St. Louis called the Don’t Shoot Coalition.
You can read about their vision for a new America by going to http://fergusonaction.com/demands/.
Rev. Adam Russell Taylor is the author of Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post Civil Rights Generation. Taylor previously served as the Vice President of Advocacy at World Vision U.S. and as the Senior Political Director at Sojourners. He has also served as the executive director of Global Justice, an organization that educates and mobilizes students around global human rights and economic justice. Taylor is a graduate of Emory University, the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology. Taylor is an ordained in the American Baptist church serving at the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., and serves as the Chair of the Sojourners Board of Directors.
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