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Riot as the Language of the Unheard: Ferguson Protests Set to Continue in Fight for Racial Justice

StoryNovember 25, 2014
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“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Those were the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in March 1968, weeks before he was assassinated. Today parts of Ferguson are still burning after a night of protests following the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown. At least a dozen shops in the Ferguson area have been broken into and burned. A number of businesses burned for hours before firefighters arrived. We speak to Rev. Osagyefo Sekou of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Jelani Cobb, director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut and a contributor to The New Yorker. “For over 100 days [the protesters in Ferguson] have been primarily nonviolent in their approach to this,” Sekou says. “They gave the system a chance, and the system broke their heart.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from St. Louis, Missouri, from Clayton and Ferguson. And despite the subfreezing weather here, Ferguson is on fire.

Our guests are Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, pastor from the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. He was dispatched to Ferguson by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, went to high school here in St. Louis, has family in Ferguson. And Jelani Cobb is with us, associate professor of history and director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, also a contributor to The New Yorker magazine.

Reverend Sekou, let’s begin with you. Describe the scene of the streets. In fact, when we’re finished here, these protests aren’t finished. You are headed to yet another protest right behind us. We are standing in front of the Clayton Courthouse, where the grand jury deliberated over the last months. The Clayton Courthouse is called the Justice Center.

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: Well, that is, it seems the case that the name of this center is inappropriate, given the high level of repression and undemocratic engagement by the prosecutor, the governor. These young people have been betrayed by every level of government. As West Florissant burned last night, democracy was on fire, the Constitution shredded. And young people, who have been backed into a corner, who have been abused by the police system for many years—as you mentioned earlier, I went to high school here. I remember being told by my mother and my sister not to go through Ferguson. I remember police sticking their hands in our underwear, accusing us of being drug dealers, when we were just some preppy kids with argyle socks attempting to go on dates. And the rage that we have seen today, last night, is a reflection of the kind of alienation and the few options that young people feel like they have to express their democratic rights at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about what burned and what didn’t. We were on South Florissant. In fact, I saw Jelani at South Florissant. Oh, my—the riot police were lined up. There were armored vehicles there, automatic weapons. They were really taking on the protesters. But when we went to West Florissant, where the buildings are, the businesses, mainly black-run businesses, there were no National Guard in sight. When we were here months ago, when we were here months ago on West Florissant, you couldn’t even make a turn there. They had completely sealed off the area. But last night, to our shock, we drove unimpeded right down West Florissant. People were breaking windows. They were setting the buildings on fire. This is black Ferguson that was left by the National Guard, is that right?

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: Yes. I was there for some two hours and witnessed first-hand the lack of response by the fire department, the casual nature, the way in which the police engaged. They eventually shot tear gas. But what we are seeing now is this was a primary example of the racial divide in Ferguson, in St. Louis and the nation, because this story has always been about Mike Brown and bigger than Mike Brown. Every other day in America—every other day—some black or brown child is subject to the arbitrary violence of the state, with little to no recourse, that every other day in America a mother is writing a funeral program that will perhaps be the elegy of the democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Jelani, I saw you on South Florissant. That is where the Ferguson police—the newly built Ferguson Police Department is. Describe the scene and what you saw there.

JELANI COBB: Well, initially, there was a crowd gathered out there. People were silently hoping against hope that there would be—that there would be an indictment. And there was none in the offing. People were there. They were hearing the long-winded and insulting statement that Prosecutor Bob McCulloch gave before announcing that there would be no indictment. And then you began to see tensions ratcheting up. But as that happened, there was kind of a noose structure that the police enacted. They were on the kind of north side of the street. And then, in short order, you saw armored vehicles and a very significant number of police kind of marching in formation with weapons. Some had weapons drawn. There was tear gas canisters that began to be fired. And they had people hemmed in, in essence, on South Florissant.

And as you said, on West Florissant, it was shocking to see the lack of police presence there. And so, we heard earlier in the evening—we heard from Governor Jay Nixon, as well as last week on Friday at a press conference that Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis gave, and they used the word “restraint.” They said that the police would be restrained in their response. And it seemed as if that somehow they had gotten the message, perhaps, that people wanted to be treated like human beings. And then we saw what restraint looked like last night. Restraint was a kind of nonchalant approach to what was happening on the black side of town, with a hypervigilant approach to what was happening on the white side of town.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read a quote of Dr. Martin Luther King. This was, what, three weeks before he was assassinated. It was March 14th, 1968. He said, “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” That’s Dr. Martin Luther King three weeks before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4th, 1968. Reverend Sekou?

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: I mean, this is—it is quite relevant to this moment, the reality that these young peoples face. We hear it all the time, for a hundred days, them saying that “I’m ready to die because I don’t have anything to live for.” School systems have betrayed them. The president has betrayed them. Eric Holder has betrayed them. Governor Nixon has betrayed them. Chief Jackson has betrayed them. The electoral system has betrayed them. They have extremely limited options—school systems decrepit, no economic opportunity. And so—and then, on top of that, to see their brother, their son, laid in the street for four-and-a-half hours and to have wound upon wound that they are in a situation where—that the destruction of property seems the only way that they can vent their rage, because they’ve been given no recourses. And so, while the president calls for calm, but has not dispatched enough resources to hold Darren Wilson and a draconian police force accountable, we have simply betrayed them. And it is a shame that the nation has engaged in such behavior among the most vulnerable young people in our nation.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the issue, Jelani Cobb, of civil rights charges being brought against Darren Wilson? I mean, Eric Holder, the attorney general, is retiring, leaving his position, but he did come to Ferguson. You know, yesterday, President Obama was in the White House, and he honored 18 people. Among them were three posthumously: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. The state did not bring charges against the men who killed these three civil rights workers in 1964, but then the federal government did.

JELANI COBB: Right. And so, there’s been this conversation around this. One of the things that happened here is that people will say—you know, the narrative that we’ve heard, we heard Mayor Giuliani say something along these lines, former Mayor Giuliani of New York, say something along these lines, that people are rioting, that they have kind of no respect for democracy, that they have no respect for other people’s lives, other people’s property. And in fact, people have rioted and rebelled last night precisely because of the opposite, because the traditional mechanisms of democracy have failed them. And so, people did not riot immediately. There was some small-scale skirmishes, but largely, people kind of withheld their anger in hopes that the actual system of legal recourse would grant them some relief in a situation with Michael Brown’s death. That did not happen. And failing that, people began to enact, you know, the plan of last resort.

When Eric Holder came here in the summer, he counseled restraint. He counseled for people to give the legal system an opportunity to work. And last night was a refutation of that, that given all their patience, that given all their hope, given all their idealism, despite what we’ve seen with Trayvon Martin, despite what we’ve seen with John Ford—John Crawford, rather, in Ohio, despite what we’ve seen with Oscar Grant, all these circumstances that we could outline, people still had faith that the legal system might give them a modicum of justice. And so, it’s difficult to say that there’s a likelihood that there’s going to be civil rights charges now. It would be very difficult to prove that this was done kind of racially motivated or that Mr. Brown was intentionally deprived of his civil rights. And so, I’m not much more optimistic than the people who were out on West Florissant rioting that the legal system here will give any kind of recourse.

AMY GOODMAN: In 162,000 cases in 2010, grand juries, these federal cases—grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11—of 162,000 federal cases. Now, Reverend Sekou, this is the first night of protest, and I wanted to ask a question about the timing. There was a big discussion about whether the decision would be announced 48 hours later, 24 hours. In the end, they decided to announce it at night, late at night. Why? Did that contribute to what happened in the streets?

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: I mean, it was clearly orchestrated in such a way that it created a context of provocation, that it was—during the summer, it had become evident that the later it got, the hotter it got, in terms of people’s relationship to the police. And so, it seems that way.

And then—but as we think about this reference to the civil rights movement, these young people have been in the street for over a hundred days, a third of the way of the Montgomery bus boycott, with limited resources, limited access to the civil rights tradition, limited support from various institutions and infrastructures. But for over a hundred days, they been primarily nonviolent in their approach to this. They gave the system a chance, and the system broke their heart. And then many of them, right now, as we speak, 125 of my colleagues are in the streets right now prepared to engage in acts of civil resistance in a nonviolent tradition. There will be ongoing nonviolent protests. I mean, think about that. This is the second-longest protest, I believe, brother historian, in 50 years—

JELANI COBB: That’s right. That’s right.

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: —of black people, calling America to account, making her say and be honorable to the things that she’s placed on paper. And so, rather than demonizing these young people, we should be celebrating, because what they are doing is stretching that living document of the Constitution and creating a space for the possibility for America to be true to what she said on paper.

JELANI COBB: Could I add—can I add to this, Reverend Sekou? One of the things that we saw that was personally most inspiring here was that people began here in a community they said was not extensively organized, and they taught themselves rapidly how to organize.

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: Yes, yes. Yes, sir.

JELANI COBB: And they came out in that brutal, unforgiving, relentless heat of August and protested and marched and protested. And a thunderstorm struck in that first week, and you saw thunder and lightning in the sky, and people marching and protesting, saying, “Black lives matter. Hands up, don’t shoot.” We saw the weather change. We saw an early winter set in. And despite all of those obstacles, despite the aspersions from the official parts of this community, and as well as from other individuals that were unsympathetic to this cause, people came out again night after night after night, and they refused to let Michael Brown’s death be in vain. I think that’s what we should take from this.

This story is not over, that the flames are a preface, they’re not a coda. This story has not ended. And I think that people will find some means of achieving justice in the long haul, and that people here are committed to doing whatever they need to do, for as long as they need to do it, to make sure that that happens.

AMY GOODMAN: And tonight, what are the plans, in terms of organized protests and what you understand of what else will be happening?

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: Well, there are actions happening right now, as we speak, throughout Clayton, bearing witness to the injustice that these young people have experienced and that this city and community has experienced. There will be an action and people will be gathering at Kiener Plaza at noon today in a subsequent action, and there will be ongoing actions every day on every hour in this place. For over a hundred days, people have been in the street, willing to put their bodies on the line, risking arrest, tear gas, pepper spray, because they are trying to keep alive the best of the democratic tradition.

AMY GOODMAN: Jelani Cobb, we have 10 seconds. Final thought?

JELANI COBB: The only thing that I can say is that this is—Ferguson is America, that what happened here is not atypical. This is a national problem and something that we all need to be mindful of, or we will see more Fergusons in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: There are helicopters—there are helicopters flying overhead right now. We’re standing in front of what is known as the Justice Center, where the grand jury said no indictment. That’s right, they refused to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Mike Brown, an 18-year-old African-American teenager, August 9, 2014. That does it for our broadcast from Ferguson and Clayton. I want to thank our guests, Osagyefo Sekou, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, as well as Jelani Cobb and Vince Warren, and special thanks to our team.

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