activist fighting for justice in killing of Michael Brown, and an organizer with Hands Up United.
St. Louis rapper and activist. He wrote a column for Time magazine headlined "Barack Obama Has Forsaken Us, But We Will Not Stop Fighting Injustice."
activist, poet and artist raised in Florissant, Missouri. She is a member and co-creator of Millennial Activists United.
Demonstrations over the police killing of an unarmed teenager in St. Louis, Missouri, continued for a second night ahead of a national weekend of action in nearby Ferguson over the police killing of Michael Brown two months ago. Organizers have invited the Brown family to take part. Dr. Cornel West and actor Harry Belafonte are also among those expected to attend the events, which include a mass march and a planned act of civil disobedience. They will join local activists who have been calling for the arrest of police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Mike Brown; for the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case; and the firing of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. We speak with three of the organizers who have been involved in the protests since the beginning: Tef Poe, a St. Louis rapper and activist; Tory Russell, an organizer with Hands Up United; and Ashley Yates, of Millennial Activists United. "The message that we’re sending to the system is that we’re not going to stop. We are resilient," Poe says.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re on the road, broadcasting from Detroit, Michigan, from the studios of Detroit Public Television. In our next segment, we’ll look at how Detroit has shut off water to thousands of residents who have fallen behind on payments. Some 350 to 400 customers reportedly continue to lose water service daily in Detroit.
But first we turn to Ferguson, Missouri, where activists are calling on people to join them this weekend for a national protest against police bias and violence against black and Latino communities in the wake of the police shooting of the unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown. Organizers have invited the Brown family to take part. Dr. Cornel West, actor Harry Belafonte are also among those expected to attend the events, which include a mass march and a planned act of civil disobedience. They’ll join local activists who have been calling for the arrest of police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Mike Brown; for the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case; and the firing of the Ferguson police chief, Thomas Jackson.
This week, Democracy Now!'s Aaron Maté and I sat down with three of the organizers involved in the protests. Tef Poe is a St. Louis rapper and activist, who recently wrote a column for Time magazine headlined "Barack Obama Has Forsaken Us, But We Will Not Stop Fighting Injustice." We also spoke with Tory Russell, an organizer with Hands Up United, and Ashley Yates, an activist, poet, artist, raised in Florissant, Missouri. She's a member and co-creator of Millennial Activists United. I began by asking Tef Poe to talk about what’s happening this weekend.
TEF POE: What we’re going to see this weekend is a massive show of force by peaceful demonstrators coming from all over the country, all over the world, possibly, to Ferguson and greater St. Louis as a whole to stand in solidarity, to speak out against the injustices that happened with police brutality, not just with Michael Brown, but with several people, several different cases worldwide.
AMY GOODMAN: You were about to start a tour when Mike Brown was killed, is that right?
TEF POE: Yes, I was.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you?
TEF POE: I was actually being a part of the Vatterott College tour, which, ironically enough, Michael Brown was supposed to attend Vatterott College.
AMY GOODMAN: Where is Vatterott?
TEF POE: It’s located in St. Louis in Midwest region. It’s a Midwest regional trade school. And I was going to help promote the music sect of the school on tour.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you go there?
TEF POE: No, I did not.
AMY GOODMAN: So what happened then?
TEF POE: We went on the—I went on one date of the tour. I went to Memphis. And I just didn’t feel right leaving home with all that stuff going on, with so much commotion in the streets, so I just came back and canceled the rest of my dates.
AARON MATÉ: And what did you do in Ferguson?
TEF POE: In Ferguson, I just got to the ground. To be honest with you, initially, I didn’t know what to do. I was a regular person who—I have done some community organizing among some other issues, but nothing so directly attached to the police. And I just got on the ground. I met Tory Russell, I met Ashley and, you know, other youth organizers, and we kind of just formed a united front and moved forward on different issues concerning this one.
AMY GOODMAN: Ashley, talk about the organizing in those first days after Mike Brown was killed.
ASHLEY YATES: Well, in the first days, I don’t know if there really was a lot of organizing. This was a reactionary event. People were just, you know, angry. We were tired. We had seen too many black lives gunned down at the hands of police. So we just took to the streets to show our resistance to the system that had been working against us. As the weeks passed, then the organizing really started. And it was just pretty much people getting together with the people they had been on the front line with and saying, you know, "How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again? How can we move forward?" And that’s why we founded our organization, Millennial Activists United, just to kind of see what those next steps were to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. So, we focused around a civilian review board at first. We focused around police oversight by the community, whatever that would look like. We focused on removing the people that were in positions of power that had let us down and allowed this tragedy to happen.
AARON MATÉ: Now, some of these demands that have come up in the city council meetings that have been held since Michael Brown’s killing, can you talk about the response that you’ve been getting?
ASHLEY YATES: The response from the community is positive. I actually had a closed-session meeting with some of the Ferguson officials, and there are definitely people behind the wall that want to make change. But it’s a slow process. It’s too slow for the organizers, so we’re looking to find ways to kind of, you know, punch some loopholes in that and make it move a little faster, because we know that this cannot happen again, so we have to make sure that whatever change is implemented is expedient.
AMY GOODMAN: Tory, can you talk about where you were on August 9th when Darren Wilson gunned down Mike Brown?
TORY RUSSELL: Well, I was at home, actually, watching the Little League World Series. It was the Jackie Robinson team was playing. Everybody was tweeting about that. And then, on my timeline, I seen a dead body. You know, surprisingly, I didn’t react with what—you know, probably react to a dead body. I saw the stepfather—
AMY GOODMAN: Where do you live in relation?
TORY RUSSELL: I stay in North St. Louis, like eight minutes away, like my street, I can connect to West Florissant and take that right to Canfield Drive. So, I sat there for hours. I even saw the sign with "Ferguson PD killed my unarmed son." And it took hours for me to actually move. So, one of my best friends, Brother al-Shareef from the Nation of Islam, picked me up. We went to the site, saw Brother Shahid, the family. You know, other people was telling me that the father actually took a sheet out to the body, because the body was uncovered. And the policemen allowed that. So, I didn’t know what to do, you know, but I went to the police department to try to get some answers. So, I wouldn’t say I was a born organizer, but I took people there. I tweeted it out. People followed. It started with one lady named La’Toya Cash, Brother Montague Simmons from the Organization for Black Struggle, which I didn’t know at the time. And it was just us, eight people, and then it grew to about a hundred. So we went in, you know, tried to talk to Chief Jackson. He said he would meet with us, then he drove off.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
TORY RUSSELL: So, a local pastor, Pastor Johnson in Wellspring, he kind of brokered a conversation to get some answers about the case on August 9th. It was about 9:00, because we’d been out there about from 6:00 to 9:00, so at 9:30 I declared that I was going in, you know, no matter what. If they lock me up or whatever’s going to happen was going to happen at 9:30. He kind of brokered a call. 9:45, he said he’d be out; 9:50, he drove off in his truck. About a little bit after 10:00, me and five other people went inside.
AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to the police chief’s apology. This is Police Chief Tom Jackson.
POLICE CHIEF THOMAS JACKSON: I want to say this to the Brown family: No one who has not experienced the loss of a child can understand what you’re feeling. I’m truly sorry for the loss of your son. I’m also sorry that it took so long to remove Michael from the street. The time that it took involved very important work on the part of investigators who were trying to collect evidence and gain a true picture of what happened that day, but it was just too long, and I am truly sorry for that.
AMY GOODMAN: So that was Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson. What’s your response to that, Tory Russell? You were there when he drove off at the beginning.
TORY RUSSELL: Yeah, yeah. So, like I said, I think that was day 50. You know, he took 50 days to acknowledge that it was a tragedy, right? As if he didn’t know on August 9th that it was a tragedy. And then, if he can come out on day 50, he could have came out on day one, you know, just to acknowledge that it was an unarmed young man who was killed. A lot of people in the community are saying due process. He wasn’t allowed his due process. No acknowledgment of the officer. You know, at first he said—someone threw out a name. What was it? Michael White? And then, at the press conference, they asked, "Darren Wilson, is that the officer’s name?" And he said no. You know, so how can I believe the apology, after a timeline of lies? August 9th, lie. You know, next week he brought out a lie. He brought out the videos, saying that it was a consent decree in the Sunshine Act, saying the people—the press was requesting this video, which really has nothing to do with the indictment. You can’t indict a dead person. You can indict an officer, sanctioned by the state, who murdered a boy.
AMY GOODMAN: Tef Poe, you wrote a piece against President Obama’s response on this. I wanted to play what President Obama had to say at the Congressional Black Caucus.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know that nothing any of us can say can ease the grief of losing a child so soon. But the anger and the emotion that followed his death awakened our nation once again to the reality that people in this room have long understood, which is, in too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement, guilty of walking while black or driving while black, judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness. We know that statistically, in everything from enforcing drug policy to applying the death penalty, to pulling people over, there are significant racial disparities. That’s just the statistics. One recent poll showed that the majority of Americans think the criminal justice system doesn’t treat people of all races equally. Think about that. That’s not just blacks, not just Latinos or Asians or Native Americans saying things may not be fair; that’s most Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama addressing the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Tef Poe, your response? You wrote a piece in Time magazine called "Barack Obama Has Forsaken Us, But We Will Not Stop Fighting Injustice."
TEF POE: Well, I mean, that speech sounds really good, and it’s really entertaining, but it didn’t stop me and my comrades from being tear-gassed. And that’s the bottom line. I walked to West Florissant one night, and we were surrounded by National Guards with M-16s aimed at unarmed civilians and unarmed media representatives. At that very moment, I realized that I could have died. And I looked to the sky, and I said, "God, I cannot continue to lead my people to the slaughter." We have voted for Barack Obama two times, and this still happened. A lot of us young people voted for him with the assumption that what happened during Hurricane Katrina wouldn’t happen to black people during his watch. I don’t have any outlandish fallacies about what the government can do, but I realistically expect that if young, unarmed, peaceful, protesting black people are demonstrating our First Amendment right, that we won’t be hurdled up like cattle and forced to defend ourselves. And that’s the reality that we were facing in Ferguson. It felt as if no one cared about us.
AARON MATÉ: Ashley, in the first few weeks, there was a huge media frenzy in Ferguson. When we were there, there was satellite trucks packed into that super—a supermall on West Florissant. I recall seeing teams of CNN reporters accompanied by bodyguards. Now most of the media has left. Has the media attention helped? And how have local residents reacted to it?
ASHLEY YATES: Well, the reason I’m here—let’s be honest—is because I took to Twitter. That first night we went to the police department, I did what a lot of people use Twitter for, and I just tweeted what was happening to me. So I think the media attention has helped, but in the process, we’ve really became our own media. I’ve had people come to me and say, you know, "We go to Twitter for the real. We go to Twitter to see what’s happening in Ferguson." Tef mentioned earlier the twist that they put on the protests where the police officer barreled through the protesters. If you were on Twitter, if you were on the live stream, you’d know that that is not the truth. So, the media has helped amplify some of the truth, but they have also tried to hide some of it. But it’s been circumvented by the real presence of Twitter activists such as myself.
AARON MATÉ: There’s a lot of talk that this moment in Ferguson has become sort of the ground zero for a national movement. How do you, as an activist there on the ground, take to that, take this perception that you’re seen as being at the epicenter of a national struggle?
ASHLEY YATES: I think it’s a wonderful, positive opportunity, and we’re grasping it. We are tired. We are tired of seeing our black men get gunned down, we’re tired of seeing our black women get gunned down, and particularly unarmed black people get gunned down to an excessive extent—11 bullets, 21 bullets, 41 bullets. We are tired of it, and we know that it is not just happening in Ferguson. There’s John Crawford in Dayton. There’s Ezell Ford in L.A.
AMY GOODMAN: John Crawford is the man who was shot dead in a Wal-Mart—
ASHLEY YATES: Wal-Mart.
AMY GOODMAN: —holding a Wal-Mart product.
ASHLEY YATES: Yes, yes. So we know it’s not just isolated to Ferguson. We see all the other cases. And we’ve made grand efforts to get out to those cities and connect with those people, to let people know that this is not just a Ferguson issue, it’s a nationwide issue of police brutality that has to stop.
AMY GOODMAN: Ashley, can you read your T-shirt?
ASHLEY YATES: Sure. We’ve got Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo. We’ve got Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin. We’ve got Jordan—
TORY RUSSELL: Davis.
ASHLEY YATES: —Eric Garner. Thank you, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Mike Brown and Ezell Ford. And then, if you look at the very bottom, it’s "to be continued." We want to put a period at the end of that. That is our goal.
AMY GOODMAN: So tell us what’s happening this weekend, Tef Poe. What are the plans in Ferguson?
TEF POE: Well, we have a series of very creative and very coordinated actions. I think what happened initially, as you heard Ashley speak on earlier, when this incident first happened, we didn’t know what to do. We were kind of playing catch-up. So, with the weekend of resistance, we have the opportunity to show the world that we actually are organized, that we actually are on one accord, that we actually are synchronized. We are going to have a few massive demonstrations downtown, and then some of those people are going to break off into their own private engagements and private demonstrations in different public settings. And we’re going to have a concert on Sunday, I believe, like a block party-style concert. We’re going to use that to try to politicize a lot of young people and maybe register people to vote, connect people with different organizations that can cater to their different issues and things that they’re concerned about. It’s just going to be a massive opportunity to really engage a large amount of people and also connect with people that feel what we’re going through.
AMY GOODMAN: I know John Crawford is a major issue for you, Tef Poe, John Crawford who was gunned down in the Ohio Wal-Mart holding a BB gun that was from the shelf.
TEF POE: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the officers were not indicted who killed him. The reason, they said, is because they were afraid, and it’s based on their perception, that they got a 911 call, and so they went in armed, ready to kill. What about this idea that police officers are afraid?
TEF POE: You know, I told a police officer the other day while we were protesting, "You have the guns, and we don’t. So, the notion that you are afraid of us, when you have all of the weapons in the world, is ridiculous. You can bring a tank. You can bring an armored vehicle. You can bring tear gas, smoke bombs. You can bring assault rifles. All I have is this." It makes zero sense.
AMY GOODMAN: For our radio listeners, Tef is—
TEF POE: My hands are in the air. Makes zero sense. It’s illogical. But that shows you the ridiculous nature of racism, because it’s the idea that when these young men and these young women are attacked, suddenly they turn into Incredible Hulk, Wolverine, Superman, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman. And I guess John Crawford could have killed that officer with laser vision, supposedly. So, it’s just ridiculous, you know? And when you watch the video, it’s even more ridiculous that they weren’t punished. Punishment, I believe, wasn’t even considered. And that’s the ridiculous nature of the beast.
AMY GOODMAN: A lot of the protests have been on Florissant, and you’re, Ashley, actually from Florissant, next door to Ferguson?
ASHLEY YATES: Yes, ma’am.
AMY GOODMAN: Dred Scott is buried at the Calvary Cemetery in Florissant—
TORY RUSSELL: Yeah.
ASHLEY YATES: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —and right down the road from Ferguson. Dred Scott, what’s considered the worst Supreme Court decision ever, the decision that said an African American, slave or free, cannot be a citizen of the United States. As we wrap up, your thoughts on where we have come?
ASHLEY YATES: Well, I think we’re seeing that in action, right? We’re not that far removed from it. Like Tory talked about, the fact that they can just shoot down black people at will and then back-track and become the jury and find information, whether it be true or untrue, to justify that murder. We saw it in the release of the tape with Mike Brown. That had absolutely nothing to do with it. Darren Wilson was responding on an entirely different call when he encountered Mike Brown. So we’re definitely seeing, as Tef talked about, the ridiculous nature of racism. And we have to work on that, and we have to recognize it within our communities. And once we start realizing that we really are being weaponized, like our black skin is being weaponized, people are seeing our melanin as a threat, then we can move forward. And that’s where we’re really working with with the weekend of resistance, is moving forward, showing people that they’re not alone. I went to Dayton, spoke to the Ohio Student Association, who’s doing a lot of the work around the John Crawford case. They’ve been a great help in just building with other communities that see the same issue, that have had the same problem. And we can move forward from there, change the perception, right? Change the perception of what it means to be young and black. And I think that’s what all of us are doing here. We are young, black. We’re motivated. We’re organized. We are not threats simply because of the color of our skin.
AMY GOODMAN: Tory Russell, last comment?
TORY RUSSELL: The Dred Scott case is the key part of October 11th. We’re going to meet downtown. We’re going to go by that site, you know, go to the courthouse. And that’s about what? About 140 years removed. And we’re still at that date in history.
AMY GOODMAN: 1857.
TORY RUSSELL: Yeah. So, I mean, that’s—
AMY GOODMAN: The Supreme Court decision came down.
TORY RUSSELL: I mean, that’s what? One-fifty, 160? We’re about that time, and we’re still at Mike Brown. And we’re still at Dred Scott. I don’t know what year it is. When I’m in St. Louis, I don’t know. And weeks of tear gas, I don’t—like I said, I don’t feel so America, after getting tear-gassed, you know, and Eric Holder stepping down, after he walked in and said that he wanted to have this race dialogue. Here it is; he steps down. We had the meetings with the Department of Justice. They said all they can do is sue. And they don’t sue for money; they sue for recommendations. So, I mean, that’s why this weekend of resistance is key, so people can know what’s going on, what we have. And in 50 to 60 days, you can go home and organize. You can be just like me, coming from off the couch, off of Twitter 60 days later, running a protest, shutting down economies and marching and organizing people in the streets.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Tef Poe?
TEF POE: You know, the thing that I’m big on is showing the infrastructure of the police and other racist institutions that we are not scared. For so long, fear is the reason that people like ourselves have not got off the couch. Last night I had a show in St. Louis, and they surrounded the venue with about 50-plus police officers. They had undercover police officers inside of the show. I’ve done over a hundred—
AMY GOODMAN: This was Sunday night.
TEF POE: Yeah, last night, Sunday night. I’ve had over a hundred shows at this venue. It’s a place where my talent was groomed at. And they even went to the owner on Thursday and asked him to cancel the show. So, this is a mechanism of fear. They’re hoping that this is a way that will make people like myself and other young people that are following our lead say, "You know what? Maybe we’re doing too much. Maybe we need to stop." But the message that we’re sending to the system is that we’re not going to stop. We are resilient. I told a police officer once, "You can only do two things to me. You can kill me, or you can lock me up." Once you get past being scared of either one of those options, a brand new world opens up.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Tef Poe, a St. Louis rapper, an activist; Tory Russell, an organizer with Hands Up United; as well as Ashley Yates, an activist, poet, artist and co-creator of Millennial Activists United. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.