Sunday, August 9, 2015 will mark a year since a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer named Darren Wilson shot an unarmed and fleeing black 18-year-old named Michael Brown Jr. to death. It has only been a year, but it feels like a lifetime.
A lifetime since Ferguson’s police department allowed Brown’s bullet-ridden body to lay on Canfield Drive for more than four* hours. Since a grand jury refused to indict Wilson, and a phalanx of police in military gear teargassed protestors and boxed them in with tanks. Since the world met Brown’s parents and Jonathan Crawford III’s girlfriend and Eric Garner’s daughter and Sandra Bland’s mom. It feels like a lifetime has passed since "Black lives matter" became the refrain and entry point into an emerging protest movement that demands the end of racialized state and extrajudicial violence against black families. ("Families," because police and vigilantes don’t kill some black body in a vacuum. Their loved ones die a little, too.)
Because so much has happened in just one year, it’s tempting to wax poetic about what this grisly anniversary means. But if there is to be poetry, it must be located in the everyday work of people across the nation who are organizing, chanting, marching, disrupting, boycotting, teaching, posting, creating, praying, losing their jobs and going to jail to assert what shouldn’t need to be stated—that black lives matter.
Tef Poe and Tara Thompson, St. Louis-area organizers who represent Hands Up United, have done a lot of this everyday work that we’re describing. In mid-July they were arrested after participating in a small protest against the St. Louis police shooting and paralyzing of Brandon Claxton, a black 16-year-old. (Police sources have told media outlets that Claxton pointed a stolen gun at them; witnesses say they didn’t see a gun in the teen’s hand.)
Detroit-based writer Kristian Davis Bailey interviewed Poe and Thompson on July 15, right after their Claxton-related arrests, and he spoke with Thompson today, August 7, on the eve of the Brown anniversary. Here are condensed and edited excerpts from both interviews that place this moment in stark political context.
July 15, 2015. Tara Thompson and Tef Poe
Kristian Davis Bailey: How do you fit Brandon Claxton’s shooting and the arrests of the past few days into the narrative of the past year in St. Louis and Ferguson?
Tef Poe: It’s obvious what’s going on. We live in a society where they tell you you’re free, but if you question the actions of the state, [if] you don’t just sit at home watching it on the news or reading a blog about it on Facebook, if you are one of the people that chooses to physically put your body on the line, then you become an enemy of the state. … There’s zero accountability for the police.
When we were in the jail, I [said to] a police officer that the city’s population is supposed to be half black, half white, but whenever you go to jail you see primarily black people in there, as if black people are the only ones capable of breaking the law. And the officer kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, I only arrest the criminals." That’s the key indicator that they view black people as the [primary] criminalistic element in the society.
Tara Thompson: That’s what police are taught. …One of the images produced by a law enforcement outfit for target practice is of a young black man holding a pistol pointed at you. How is that OK? How [much] more blatant do things need to be for people?
Beyond repression, how does the past few days relate to the movement side of things?
Poe: It all depends on how you define movement first. A lot of people think it looks differently. For Hands Up United, it’s not necessarily about the legislative piece. The Civil Rights movement, in our opinion, was successful for what it was supposed to be. You have a black man president; that’s the zenith of what the Civil Rights movement was capable of producing.
But if you look at what we’re doing now, I feel like it’s all about reconnecting with community and just being tools to raise the collective consciousness. For one, we can’t really even talk about what reform or what another system even looks like until we get all the people that are unplugged or willing to unplug to commit to the actual movement. You look at South Africa, you look at Palestine, you look at Brazil, it’s always the same thing. We’re not indifferent to any of those countries. It’s about how you continue these mass mobilizations that cause disruption and raise political awareness and consciousness about what’s going on socially for that particular demographic of people.
Can you say more about this moment?
I don’t think we’re at the point where we should jump the ball and start trying to force feed candidates down people’s throats. I don’t think that we should focus on the traditional get-out-the-vote work. I think right now, for people in St. Louis, a lot of folks don’t understand that Ferguson was about actual resistance, and it was about actually saying, "You know what? We don’t have a plan for what the aftermath of this looks like, but we know that the current situation is not working."…Truth be told, most people—including people in the movement—are still plugged in. There are people who would question why you call Barack Obama an imperialist. There’s people who don’t have any idea about foreign politics and how that relates to the struggle of black people here in America. Because if we do all this fist-raising and we chant Assata Shakur[‘s statement], "It is our duty to fight for our freedom,"well, Assata Shakur had a ridiculous gauge about internationalism and a ridiculous foresight about what being revolutionary actually means. I just don’t think a lot of us are there yet. I think a lot of us are at the point where we’re still kind of looking for masters to feed us. And until we can get to the point where we start to genuinely divest from that type of thinking, then we’ll be in the same predicament. So I think the movement work right now is more centered around thought-provoking and consciousness.
Thompson: You can’t move or ask people to move that don’t understand why they’re moving. So right now, you have a lot of people that if you asked them to come outside, it’s like you’re asking them to do you a favor. They don’t understand that this is actually for [them], that [they] should be coming outside and trying to figure out what’s happening.
Thompson: In the United States we have a greater task in trying to start our revolution because we’re not really born into resistance. You grow up, and you learn about slavery [but] you don’t learn all that you should about it. You learn that it’s not right, but when you get here you’re not a slave—or you don’t think you are. You’re not working in a cotton field. So people are under the impression that since they can run to the store and go buy the new J’s when they come out, that they’re free. [They ask] "Why am I resisting? What am I resisting against?" When you go to places like Palestine and South Africa, people are born into resistance. You understand from the moment that you get there, like, “Oh, we are under siege. We are under attack and I need to be banging from birth." Part of the trick of the U.S. is to make you comfortable.
We were all born into this. We were born into this capitalist system and we were born into a situation where we have always been, for the most part, waiting on someone to help. And that someone has always been the overseer.
Where should people start?
It’s not going to be an overnight unplug, but little by little there’s the need to be about building consciousness and community. Because once you do that, you just stop calling the police altogether; we don’t need you around here. As much as people don’t like the police, they still call them when things transpire. As far as I’m concerned, [this] is something we need to get away from. Whenever they show up, someone ends up dead. I’ve yet to have the police solve any crime that I’ve ever reported—anything that I’ve ever had stolen [like cars]. I’ve found them myself, before the police. So it’s just they show up and somebody’s dead and they’re walking off scot-free and there’s still no answer to what the original incident was.
So we just have to wake up and take back our communities. That’s it. Build our own. You have to understand that this system is not going to allow you to function in the way that you need to before you can try to build another one.
August 7, 2015. Tara Thompson
When we spoke three weeks ago, you and Tef said you didn’t know how the weekend of resistance over Mike Brown’s anniversary was going to go. Do you have a better sense now?
I still honestly don’t have a good gauge on how this weekend is going to go. Frankly, when you’re dealing with these oppressive forces like our police, it’s not ever something you can say, "This is how it’s gonna go" because you can never figure out what their response is going to be. You don’t know if they’re gonna be easy, or if they’re gonna come out with full-scale riot gear because they want to squash anything early before it picks up and gets going.
[Still,] there are a lot of events [scheduled] other than protesting. There’s a lot of daytime events geared towards family and children. My thought is it’s going to be uplifting and relatively composed. However, we generally aren’t the people who escalate things.
If things escalate are you prepared?
[Laughs.] We don’t have a choice. One of the things on my to-do list the other day was to find a gas mask. … [I] would like to think that because the [U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)] is here, because they’ve written their forced, angry report, that things aren’t going to go that way. However, I remember last August leaving meetings with the DOJ and going around the corner seven minutes [later] and being promptly tear-gassed. And there are officers as recently as when we talked three weeks ago that are still not wearing their badges or won’t identify themselves if you ask them what their name is. You would like to think that there’s no reason for me to be doing the sort of preparations that I was doing last August, but quite honestly, you don’t know the answer to that and it’s better that you be prepared than not.
Also, I heard last night that [the police] are not giving bonds to people arrested on misdemeanors. So that’s their way of saying, basically, that when we come and kidnap you, you’ll be sitting down until you can see a judge for whatever we come up to charge you with—impeding traffic on the sidewalk for instance. This is absolutely a tactic to get people who they feel are instrumental in protesting off the street and have them sit down through the remainder of the weekend.
Regardless of the best-case or worst-case scenario for the weekend, what do you want people outside of Ferguson to be taking away?
I want people outside of Ferguson to take away from the weekend that there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. Here we have a year since Mike Brown’s murder, [and] even in the city of St. Louis there have been quite a number of murders by police. And not just here, everywhere. And so we’re a year removed from Mike Brown’s death and we don’t have justice. Just the other day, we were a year removed from John Crawford’s murder. We filmed a movie on Jordan Davis with his parents yesterday. …Time is still moving along and these issues are not only not being addressed, but I can stack how many more of these cases there are on top of this since last year that are not being resolved.
What you should take away from this weekend is that there is still a tremendous amount of work to do and that you need to get active. This is not a problem that’s going to resolve itself or go away with complacency. If you have not moved in the last year, I’m not really sure what you’re waiting for. It’s a year later and we still don’t have [justice], so here’s your cue. It’s time now.
What does getting active mean?
People have to move in whatever that plug-in looks like for you. When I say move, that doesn’t mean that you have to go out in the street and yell at the police. That doesn’t mean that you have to organize or lead a march. There’s so much work to be done that there’s literally a place for everyone to plug in. So maybe you can sit at home and do research on how the municipalities are extorting people and pass that research to lawyers so that they can start taking more of these municipalities to court. Maybe that’s your lane and you can do that from the comfort of your own home. But you have to plug in. You have to behave like your life depends on you plugging in, because it does.
One final question: You mentioned we don’t have justice. What does justice mean to you?
Justice to me means that I should be able to walk down the street and just be the same way that a white girl is able to walk down the street and just be. Period. I should have the right to live, exist and be in my skin without being brutalized because of it. It’s just normalcy—just the luxury of normalcy is what justice is. And we don’t have that.
*Post has been updated since publication to reflect that Brown’s body lay on Canfield Drive for more than four hours, not three hours. We greatly apologize for the error.