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In St. Louis, the Torch of the Civil Rights Struggle is Passed to a New Guard

Less than three months after Brown's death in Ferguson, with Officer Darren Wilson still free and unindicted, the anger of a moment has quickly evolved into a full-on movement.
Photo by Alice Speri/VICE News

"This is not a moment anymore, this is a movement."

That's what a leader with Hands Up United, one of a handful of groups that formed following the Ferguson protests, declared earlier this month to an audience of young men and women at a free hip hop concert. The performance was part of what organizers had billed as a three-day weekend of resistance "to say no more Mike Browns."

The sentiment had been echoed elsewhere since the summer, gaining conviction with each retweet. But it might just as well have remained unspoken: between police firing tear gas on Ferguson residents gathering to mourn the slain teenager and the hundreds of arrests they made in the course of the next two months, it became clear that the situation was not just a moment anymore.


Nor was it all about Mike Brown, as Ferguson residents noted from day one. "This was a long way coming," many told VICE News in the early days of the protests, referring to long-simmering grievances. But at the time, it didn't quite look like a movement either.

The protests that took the country — and certainly the St. Louis area's many police departments — by surprise exploded spontaneously, as residents of the Canfield Greens apartments where Brown was killed walked out of their homes to watch his body lay on the ground for more than four hours.

'Moral Monday' protests flare up across St. Louis on final day of Ferguson weekend of action. Read more here.

The gatherings grew larger and louder over the following days, however, with early organizing efforts improvised by first-time protesters on Twitter. Then the first loudspeakers turned up, followed by out-of-towners — from hip-hop artists like J. Cole and Talib Kweli to civil rights titans like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Protests in solidarity with Ferguson soon flared up across the nation, and hundreds of social justice groups flocked to Ferguson in mid-October for the weekend of resistance, bringing an estimated 10,000 people.

By then, the protests had prominent organizers, and a wide variety of them. Newly formed groups like Hands Up United and the Lost Voices worked behind the scenes of "Ferguson October," as the month of action was dubbed, but so did local and national social change "professionals" like Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, the Organization for Black Struggle, Color of Change, Amnesty, and dozens of others.


The Ferguson protests were suddenly equipped with an array of sleek websites, spokespeople, and planning sessions where veterans of other protest movements coached younger activists on crowd management and non-violent strategies.

Skepticism remains as leaked Mike Brown autopsy supports police account of shooting. Read more here.

As the movement grew increasingly coordinated, so did the ambition of its demands, which included justice for Mike Brown and the indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed him, as well as the resignation of a long list of public officials. Justice for Vonderrit Meyers, an 18-year-old killed by an off-duty officer in another St. Louis neighborhood earlier this month, was also added to the list.

Because this was never only about Brown, protesters likewise demanded justice for Eric Garner, the father of three killed by an NYPD chokehold earlier this summer, and for John Crawford, who was shot dead by police while he was holding a BB gun at an Ohio Walmart. Trayvon Martin — who was at the center of what was the most racially-charged criminal case in recent memory, prior to Brown's — was also invoked. Protesters in Ferguson mention him constantly, if only to say that Missouri "ain't Florida, you won't get away with this."

The scope of Ferguson's anger is best captured by one of the protesters' favorite slogans: "The whole damn system is guilty as hell." So the whole system has become the target of the protests, which rage against police brutality, impunity, mass incarceration, and economic inequity.


Less than three months after Brown's death, with Darren Wilson still free and unindicted, the system's flaws have been exposed, and the anger of a moment has quickly evolved into a full-on movement.

It may be way too soon to tell if it approaches the scale, ambition, and impact of the civil rights movement, but comparisons between the two are being made — and protesters have begun to own them, referring to their struggle as a historic outgrowth of the civil rights movement's legacy.

Lost Voices found
Some protesters had never really thought much about the civil rights movement before, let alone imagined that their activism would be likened to it.

"I thought it was just a protest, but my brother, who's a little older than me, was like, 'No, this is a civil rights movement," Dontey Carter, a leader of the Lost Voices and a regular presence at the protests, told VICE News. "I was like, 'Really?' I didn't really put it in that perspective. I thought I was just a protester, but he's like, 'No, you're a civil rights leader,' and I was like, 'Wow…' "

Carter, a 23-year-old former Crips member and a father of two small children, had never been to a protest prior to August 9, when Brown was shot. He was at a friend's house in Ferguson when he saw television news broadcasts of the crowd assembling on Canfield Drive.

"I went down there and people started protesting and standing up, and I was like, 'This is where it's at,' " he said. "Me being there by myself felt kind of weird, but when we all did it together, it was amazing."


By the time Brown was buried at a funeral attended by thousands of people, Carter and nine others he met on the streets had formed the Lost Voices — a group of Ferguson youth that camped out on West Florissant Avenue, the epicenter of the protests, for weeks before police eventually removed them, as Carter put it, "because we were taking too much of a stand."

But that was just the beginning.

"It went bigger than camping out. Camping out was just to make a statement, to show that we would not be moved," Carter said. "The officers talked to the business owners, saying that they would get some type of violation, but we still kept the movement going."

The group was at "ground zero," as its members called it, every night — facing SWAT teams, tear gas, and even a noose that someone left in a parking lot near their encampment. When VICE News spoke with two girls from the group at Brown's funeral, they told us they called themselves Lost Voices because they wanted to speak for a generation of poor and marginalized black youth who had never been listened to.

Less than two months later, the group had gained dozens of friends in Ferguson and hundreds of supporters on Facebook. In October they dropped the "lost" and changed their name to Found Voices.

"Once we were lost but now we are found," Carter said. "We were the Lost Voices but then people got a hold of who we really are, what this movement is truly about. It became our voice. We're not lost anymore."


Carter described the past two months as a "spiritual awakening."

"My life changed radically," he remarked. "I had friends die left and right — drugs, gangs, violence — and I've pulled away from all of that working for the movement."

He's not the only one. Ferguson's black community became united during the protests, with groups setting beefs aside to march on the streets with a common purpose. Protesters recognize that police brutality is just one form of violence that intrudes on their lives. As they work to redress this, they have also come together in other ways.

"There was so much depression going on around here. It's hard for you to actually think straight, to do something with yourself, cause there's so much around you that's negative," Carter said, adding that the movement has changed that. "It wasn't all about me. Other friends that were all about gangs and violence, they let all of that go, and they stood together. They weren't too concerned about any of the stuff that was going on beforehand."

"People are gonna wake up, they're gonna take the wool off their eyes, and they're gonna see the truth, cause only the truth can set you free," he went on, switching into the protest leader role he naturally adopted. "I've seen the truth. I understand what's going on. I understand how the system works, and I just want the people that's unaware of what's going on to be conscious of how the system works."


A new civil rights movement?
Hands Up United is another group helping to direct the effort in Ferguson. Led by St. Louis rapper Tef Poe and a cohort of young torchbearers, the group was formed by organizing protests and post-demonstration clean-ups together in August.

Young people in Ferguson took the brunt of the hundreds of arrests that have occurred in the last ten weeks. They continue to picket in front of the Ferguson police department night after night, sometimes accompanied by older activists and white supporters, and they are the ones who have forcefully taken the Ferguson protests well beyond the "moment."

"It's the young people that moved this movement forward," Traci Blackmon, the pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ in nearby Florissant, said at a mass meeting held at St. Louis University as part of Ferguson October.

Her own generation — the civil rights' generation — had become too "comfortable," she added. As some African-Americans enjoyed the victories of their battles, they grew complacent with a society that remained deeply unequal, and forgot that the struggle hadn't been wholly won.

"We have been fooled all of these years into thinking that when you can get through the door, then all is well," Blackmon said. "Our generation has been guilty of confusing access with ownership."

"We must rise up and stand with the young adults," Renita Marie, another pastor, agreed at the end of an impassioned speech that comparing the protests to the cries of a growing child. "We are leaving our babies out there on the street night after night, and it's time for us to stand side by side with them…. It's time we tell [St. Louis Police] Chief Dotson, 'That one is mine, and you back off.' "


But as a parade of pastors, humanists, imams, and rabbis took to the stage, a stark contrast between their words and the protesters' hunger for action became evident. If the younger generation shared the sentiment, it had grown impatient with the rhetoric.

Ferguson and the violence of sanitizing the struggle for civil rights. Read more here.

In a defining moment of the meeting, young protesters interrupted Cornell William Brooks, the president of the NAACP, and demanded to speak in his place.

As organizers rushed to reshuffle the speakers lineup to include them, young men and women "from the front lines," as they described themselves, literally out-staged the previous speakers' lengthy speeches heavy on rhetoric with curt and incisive statements charged with an urgency that was missing from the words of "the elders." Many of them referred to the usual suspects of clergy and civil rights figures who had monopolized the meeting for much of the night.

"I was hoping to hear a plan from our elders on what we're gonna do to make change, and I was disappointed," a young woman from Louisiana said as she and a few others took the stage. "Look at all the people here. Now imagine if y'all were out on the streets… It's too loud in the streets? Oh well."

"What these pastors are saying is essential — we need to strategize before we actually get out there so these protests don't fizzle out like they always do," another young woman said. She turned to the older speakers behind her and said, "I respect you."


"But what most of these people do… They say what we should be doing, but they don't do it," she added. "And we need to get it done."

Brooks had been in the middle of a highly allegorical speech on selfies and history that was lost on many in the audience when a young man in the crowd started yelling at him. People complained that the NAACP had been too passive, a no-show on the streets, and that it had lost touch with the younger generation as it reveled in the glory of its past.

Ferguson protesters march on as the movement's generational divide grows deeper. Read more here.

"They're not gonna be in the street with us — they're really not, because when it was happening they weren't in the streets with us," Carter told VICE News, adding that he nonetheless appreciated support in whatever form it came. "We've been out there, during tear gas and things like that. The clergy, they come out after mass. They're not front line to me, the only thing they can do is be supportive in whatever decision we make."

"The NAACP has been out here for a very long time," he went on, "but that just goes to show, you guys were there for so long but there are still so many kids that are roaming round the streets, and we attracted so many people in the last two months alone. It's ridiculous. It's a young people's movement. The elders are supporters but they're not the leaders."

Not only was the older generation of civil rights leaders not on the streets, Carter said, they were also notfromthe streets.


"The brother with the suit and tie on isn't the guy who's protecting me," Tef Poe told the crowd when he took to the stage at the mass meeting at St. Louis University. "It's the dude with tattoos on his face that looks like Chief Keef."

The natural leaders of a movement against a guilty system are the ones who have been suffering its failures first-hand, young protesters said.

"We're from St. Louis, we've been part of the struggle, we live in poverty and have grown up against police brutality on numerous occasions, just being who we are: young black people," Carter said. "A lot of other groups came down here to organize. A lot of ancient groups and organizations have been around 10, 20 years. But these kids are still roaming the streets lost."

Passing the torch
The conflict that played out on stage at the mass meeting seemed straight out the revolutionary's playbook — threading between theory and praxis, and revealing the seams of a movement too broad, ambitious, and entrenched in history to not also be somewhat divided.

"It turned out to be, I think, one of the most significant and important moments in the whole weekend," Rev. Mike McBride, a California-based pastor and member of PICO, a national network of faith-based community organizations that have been working in Ferguson since August, told VICE News. "As Tef Poe and others say regularly, this civil rights movement is not your mom and dad's civil rights movement. Every generation must re-appropriate the lessons of the past, the experience of their elders, and they must then make it relevant for the time in which we live."


"Every organization that is institutional, whether the church or the NAACP, these institutions are there to serve the people. They're not there for the people to serve their interest," he added, acknowledging that the response to years of police violence from some of these institutions had been "inadequate." "What's happening to the legacy of institutions like the church and the NAACP is that those young people are just building upon it. And we should allow them to build, we should help them to build, but we should by no rate abandon them."

Tension had emerged in the street demonstrations as well, with protesters sometimes disagreeing on tactics, and older community leaders and members of the clergy frequently asking them to avoid confrontations with police — in some cases even to back off and go home. Protesters also complained that some were using Brown's death to promote their own agendas — such as when Jesse Jackson was booed at a Ferguson event in August after asking the crowd for donations.

"The young people have never been 'anti' the elders," McBride said. "I think it was in many respects a different issue of frustration and pain and even anger that it took elders so long to get there, and secondly that when the elders or clergy would show up, they would attempt to exert a certain type of control or authority. The younger people know that up to this moment it's their energy primarily that has been consistent, unyielding, and that has kept this issue not only alive in Ferguson but in a larger national conversation."


It will take a continued relationship for the movement to grow wiser and more effective, he added. At a recent meeting between Ferguson youth and clergy members, McBride recalled, some protesters said they wanted their relationship with the older generation of civil rights activists to be like the one between "a boxer and his trainer."

"We wanna be able to go to the ring and box and fight because we believe it's our turn," McBride said, characterizing the view of the young activists. "But we wanna come back every three minutes and sit down on the stool and hear… What do you have to say? What are your instructions? Where should I throw a jab? Where should I duck?"

"The approach of the young people has never been in my experience one of, 'We do not want direction nor do we want to listen,' " he added. "I think what they're clearly saying is that they will reject any kind of direction if it lacks a relationship, and this is a challenge to our generation and many of us who have allowed culture, class, race, and many different things to fracture relationships with our young people."

Even the NAACP's president said that being heckled onstage offered a valuable lesson.

"It was a good moment and here's why: they were right," Brooks told VICE News. "I immediately noticed when I came onto the stage that most people on the stage were 35 and older and most in the audience were 25 and younger, and that imbalance of generational perspective hurt credibility that their concerns would be heard."


But Brooks also defended the NAACP's record of street activism, citing its rallies for Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, and said that the organization "has never grown comfortable" with the status quo.

"We're an organization that's profoundly uncomfortable with injustice, and we don't allow the fact that some people drive nice cars or live in nice neighborhoods or enjoy some nice, fat paycheck to get in the way of our moral sensibilities," he said, noting that his two teenage sons are just as likely to get profiled as other young black males, regardless of their social position. "We don't want zip code and class to divide us when we're being profiled by race."

Brooks said that members of his staff joined a march following the mass meeting. He also defended the work of the NAACP and the need for a diversified response to police racism, asserting that protests and arrests alone would be "politically ineffectual."

"It's important for us to protest on the streets, it's important for us to participate in the investigation, and it's important for us to take legal action and seek policy reform. All of these things are important together," he said. "In other words, it's important for us to put our bodies on the line, but it's also important to put our minds behind the public policy. If they don't see justice for Michael Brown, they should both take over the street and take over the court, and take over the police department and take over the ballot box, all at the same time."

"But they get that. We don't have to tell them that, we don't have to lecture them," he added. "The challenge here is for us to work together."

But others saw the exchange as a glimpse of what the Ferguson protests have come to symbolize for the civil rights struggle in the country: a passing of the torch to the younger generation.

"The spotlight is on the young brothers and sisters," Cornel West had said at the free hip-hop concert, where he was virtually the only "elder" in attendance.

Returning to the stage on Sunday night, West repeated that he hadn't come to St. Louis to give speeches, but "to get arrested" — which he promptly did the morning after, this time with many representatives of the old guard, including McBride.

As Ferguson's protesters engage in important conversations across generations, they have also reached out to their peers, building coalitions across race and class divides. The occupation of St. Louis University — which started during the mid-October weekend of action and ended last Saturday after the university pledged to address racial inequality and poverty on campus, including by allocating more financial aid for black students — was an example of how the street protest movement is growing in scale.

As Ferguson protesters marched from the site of the Meyers shooting in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis to the university's campus, protest leaders said that they wanted to mobilize a greater contingent of St. Louis youth while also disrupting the students' "comfort" and forcing them to face their privilege in a city riddled by deep inequality.

"We live in a world where the rich live in their world and we live in our world, and we're trying to put the two worlds together," Carter said, welcoming the spillover of protests beyond Ferguson. "I support everybody that's in the movement and down for the cause. I can't really dictate how anybody else should push for it, because our agenda is to get justice for us all — give us all equal rights. Even if you're not the same color as me, you're still in a system that's oppressive."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi

All photos by Alice Speri/VICE News