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Ferguson and the Violence of Sanitizing the Struggle for Civil Rights

Cornel West is right — struggle is messy, and the time for platitudes about peace from elder statesmen has long passed.
Photo by Alice Speri/VICE News

Last spring I was in Brooklyn's East Flatbush neighborhood a few nights after 16-year-old Kimani Gray was shot dead by the NYPD. The streets had erupted in riotous protests that week; 46 people were arrested, a Rite-Aid store was looted, windows were smashed.

In the days that followed, predictable "good protester/bad protester" narratives emerged, delineated loosely along generational fault lines. One night, I watched as a group of so-called elder statesman — suited, elected, elevated in the community — urged the gathered crowds to leave the streets where they had been marching and instead enter a church hall for a discussion. More than half the crowd, and nearly all the teens gathered, decided not to enter.


"March! March! March!" they chanted. "No justice! No peace!" They snaked through heavily policed Brooklyn blocks. "Fuck the police!"

A similar scene played out this last weekend in St. Louis University's Chaifetz Arena, when, again, the authority of elder statesmen was challenged by younger, rage-filled activists. During a planned event as a part of "Ferguson October" demonstrations, Cornel West spoke alongside a host of inter-faith leaders. Angered by the passivity of these leaders' messages, a number of audience members disrupted proceedings, took to the stage, and demanded to speak. "This ain't your grandparents civil rights movement," proclaimed Tef Poe, a St. Louis rapper and activist.

In photos: Protestors arrested outside Ferguson Police Department. Read more here.

His words distilled a low-level tension simmering around the edges of the Ferguson protests; the very same nagging discord that emerged on that Flatbush corner last year and has colored most every major moment of protest in the wake of all too many young black deaths by police bullet. It's a story that has been spun with the aid of a number of platitudes: generational divides, violence versus non-violence, taking to the streets or taking to the podium. There is truth in all of them.

There is also, however, a pervasive myth in need of correction — namely, the idea that this tension is new. Tef Poe was in some ways quite wrong — your grandparent's civil rights movement faced this very challenge too: the question of how angry black people are supposed to, even permitted to fight back against extreme institutional violence.


A full civil rights movement history reminds us that the force of more radical tactics should not be dismissed. To invoke 'your grandparents' civil rights movement' should not simply refer to platitudes about peace and love.

Examples of non-violent resistance so central to the civil rights movement are plucked from history and presented as not only a strategic ideal but a moral one. A call to non-violence is a call to the transcendental; rise above a violent circumstance, take a moral high ground when you've been materially slammed on the ground, beaten, shot. It is no accident that this vaunted message of non-violence emerged from the pulpit and resonated through a preacher's oratory. Yet, as Raven Rakia noted in the New Inquiry, it's a game of selective history to erase all but non-violent protest from the tales of Civil Rights successes. These narratives, she writes, "conveniently forget to mention that while MLK was leading non-violent resistance in the form of sit-ins and marches, 'riots' were raging through America's black ghettos." Which is simply to point out we don't speak of transcendence to justice, we speak of the struggle for it.

I'm not suggesting that we downplay the significance of non-violent resistance in the civil rights movement — it was key. Nor do I think non-violence is necessary akin to passivity. Nor, to be sure, do I think that property damage should be broadly understood as violence. But the erasure of even the threat of mass riots and armed resistance from civil rights successes, or the miscasting of Black Panthers as the baddies, performs a discursive violence all its own. In his excellent essay "In Defense of Looting," Willie Osterweil references the "righteous and understandable" desire to distance black youth from vicious racist stereotypes of violent thuggery — "precisely the image that the Ferguson police tried to evoke to assassinate Michael Brown's character and justify his killing post facto."


Osterweil stresses, however, "that in trying to correct this media image — in making a strong division between Good Protesters and Bad Rioters, or between ethical non-violence practitioners and supposedly violent looters — the narrative of the criminalization of black youth is reproduced." The danger of insisting on "peaceful" protest then, lies in the dismissal, alienation, and repression of individuals and groups who see the tactical value in protest acts deemed violent. A fuller civil rights movement history, however, reminds us that the force of these more radical tactics should not be dismissed. To invoke "your grandparents' civil rights movement" should not simply refer to platitudes about peace and love.

The Chaifetz Arena event was symbolic of a shift — at least a narrative shift — that we're seeing play out in Ferguson and St. Louis, hopefully with reverberations beyond. The disruptors were not ushered away or silenced. Instead, they took the stage and spoke in place of a number of scheduled speakers. They occupied the moral high ground with their decrial of black elder statesmen like NAACP President Cornell Williams Brooks for their absence in the streets following Mike Brown's death. Their rage was not to be demonized or pacified. Certainly, old canards about outside agitators and looters "ruining" the message have attended the Ferguson protests, but only marginally. "Often-radical youths have taken over the tenor of the debate," noted the Los Angeles Times' Matt Pearce.

Cornel West talked of this shift as a watershed moment — an "awakening." During his brief address on Sunday, which was well-received, he noted, "the older generation has been too well adjusted to injustice to listen to the younger generation. The older generation has been too obsessed with being successful rather than being faithful to a cause that was zeroing in on the plight of the poor and working people. Thank God the awakening is setting in. And any time the awakening sets in, it gets a little messy."

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

The next day, West was arrested as part of planned civil disobedience in St. Louis. The day of protests was dubbed "Moral Monday" by organizers, which in another context could have smacked of pacifist speechifying — the purview of elder statesmen in suits calling for calm. But West rightly aligned the "moral" with the "messy." A new ProPublica investigation has found that black male teens are 21 times more likely to be killed by a cop than their white counterparts. It's a stark signal that, as Osteweil also noted, while "the Civil Rights movement won many battles, it lost the war." As we continue the struggle, then, we are wise to remember that at its most potent, "your grandparents' civil rights movement" was more than "a little messy," and no less moral by virtue of that.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard