To many on the ground in Ferguson, calls to action have evolved into a movement over the past two months. A panel of local organizers discussed what shape that movement should take Sunday at Amnesty International’s Midwest Conference.
The six panelists represented a range of experience—from the political to the legal and psychological—but they all had one thing in common: a desire for change in the wake of the death of Michael Brown.
For Hands Up United activist and rapper Tef Poe, that means organizing – while leaving space for differences of opinion.
“What we want is space where everyone has a platform to address their concerns,” Tef Poe said. “And that’s what it looks like when you talk to the different organizers and the different people involved.”
Tef Poe said that too often movements give oppressed voices one representative, such as Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Era.
“He was a great, great human being,” Tef Poe said. “But not every black person agrees with Martin Luther King, or disagrees with him. So in a weird sense he becomes the universal leader for black thought in America, but there is no universal consciousness for that thought to even come from.”
Some of those differences of opinion were represented on the panel. Poe said the government system is broken and needs to be rebuilt, while Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes said change will come as people become more active in community politics.
“Nobody’s going to be able to change things magically. And there is a process, but we have to keep moving,” Bynes explained.
Saint Louis University law professor Brendan Roediger thinks the St. Louis region, and America as a whole, needs to start thinking about what role they want police to have.
“Take St. Louis County for example,” Roediger said. “We have police that make very little money, they have a badge, they have a gun, they get fired from one municipality, they move to another ….. It’s not a good system to have armed people that have no accountability.”
As president of the St. Louis Association of Black Psychologists, Marva Robinson spoke mainly about the psychological impact of Ferguson on demonstrators. She said that after being out in the streets protesting for weeks they are tired and stressed.
“They have the weight of the world on their shoulders—the feeling that if I don’t stand out there who will,” Robinson said. “It’s gone beyond psychological trauma at this point. It’s psychological torture.”
Robinson said that healing can’t begin until demonstrators have answers from the grand jury, but they need to let themselves take breaks without feeling guilty.
Rounding out the panel were two Webster University freshmen who have also been active in Ferguson protests.
Maalik Shakoor and Jarris Williams described themselves as “a bit more radical” than some of the older panel members, but said they felt like the panel discussion was productive.
“We’re not out here saying burn the White House or anything, but make it fair,” Williams said.
The two young men said they have often felt like they had to assimilate to white culture in order to be accepted. In suits and ties, the two were more formally dressed than anyone else in the room. But they said they wanted to be taken seriously.
“Basically, what’s seen as respectable, what’s seen as clean cut is basically close to white culture. Our culture is seen as uncivilized. Why can’t I speak with an accent? Why can’t I just be me?” Shakoor explained.
They said they want to influence society to be more accepting, and they believe the first step in doing so is to take pride in their heritage. They are trying to convince Webster University to add a pan-African history class to the course catalogue—one that goes beyond slavery and civil rights to teach about Ghanian kings and Egyptian philosophers.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille