Last Thursday, I boarded a bus with about 40 people for an 18-hour bus ride to Ferguson, Missouri, as part of what we termed the Black Lives Matter Rides. Twenty hours later, we joined riders from all over the country who descended on St. Louis and Ferguson to show solidarity with local activists and residents still fighting for justice in the police killing of 18-year-old unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
As we made preparations over about a two-week period to go — raising thousands of dollars, securing accommodations and working with local activists to determine a plan of action that would be most useful to the people who live in Ferguson — a conversation emerged about whether the uprising in Ferguson constitutes a moment or a movement.
Before leaving, I could only offer educated conjecture. Movements take a long time to build and are generally an accumulation of critical moments. The Greensboro sit-ins of 1960 were part of a longer trajectory of college students practicing the “stool-sitting” technique begun in the early 1940s by college students at Howard University and other historically black colleges. The 1963 March on Washington was the culmination of a 22-year March on Washington Movement that began in 1941 when A. Philip Randolph threatened to march on Washington as a tactic to force desegregation of federal employment agencies.
Movements rarely appear to be movements in the midst of them. We have the benefit of hindsight now as we look at the core years of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. But I am sure that in some key moments, particularly the period from 1955 to 1961, the time between the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the Freedom Rides, it might not have always seemed clear what the “movement” was. Surely people felt the tides changing, but they could not foresee the trajectory.
We should, I think, not miss the moment trying to theorize the movement. We have to leave certain conversations to history.
Yet, having spent time in Ferguson this weekend, marching, standing in community over the site where Mike Brown’s body lay unceremoniously uncovered for four hours, and organizing with activists in the basement of a local church, I am clearer now that this is a movement.
Seven years ago, as a graduate student at Emory University, I participated with undergraduates there in organizing a response to the Jena Six incidents in Jena, Louisiana. We traveled overnight to Jena to march with a community outraged over the treatment of six black high school students, one of whom was charged with attempted murder, over a racially charged high school brawl. Even then, the over-policing of black teen boys drew us to the cause.
What I remember most, in addition to my frustration with the disorganization of the protests, was an overwhelming feeling that Jena was a missed opportunity. Thousands of young, pumped-up, inspired folks gathered there, and there were no organizing sessions, workshops or dialogues with people in the community. We rode in, marched and rode out.
Ferguson is an altogether different story. There are multiple grounds of leadership, multiple organizations working on the ground to register people to vote, advocate for changes in legislation, and create teams of people to monitor the police. There is also a vocal contingent of young women and men unafraid to agitate, unafraid to take to the streets in peaceful, but passionate protest.
But beyond all of that, there is something else – a refrain that we heard throughout the weekend. On Saturday morning before we marched, Tef Poe, a local rapper and activist, addressed our group at the St. John’s Church where we gathered. He said to us, “I am not afraid to die” in order to bring about change in Ferguson. Later at a local cookout sponsored by one of the local coalitions, some young brothers from a new local group called “Lost Voices” repeated the same thing. Along with a group of young women, they have been sleeping out on the streets, as a kind of vigil until justice is obtained for Mike Brown. And they, too, told us that they are “unafraid to die.” Over the weekend, they awoke to a noose hanging at the place they were sleeping.
These young men, and the young women activists who have joined them faithfully on the front lines, are unafraid to die for the simple right to live unharassed in their own communities. They remain unmoved by tanks, tear gas and nooses.
As we piled back onto the buses, throughout the weekend, that is the refrain – “we are unafraid to die” -- that stuck with many of us, that let us know something is different.
But it is different for different reasons than I might have imagined. What does it mean to be “unafraid to die” in order to bring about change? As those words echoed in my mind, on the bus ride home, I was reminded of Notorious B.I.G., the slain rapper whose debut album “Ready to Die” turns 20 years old this month.
Some of the Ferguson riders are 20 years old. They were birthed in the crucible of the Tupac-Biggie moment, the height of 20th century black nihilism. The same year that Biggie dropped “Ready to Die,” Cornel West published the classic “Race Matters.” In the first chapter, “Nihilism in Black America,” he argued, “the major enemy of black survival in America has been and is neither oppression nor exploitation but rather the nihilistic threat — that is loss of hope and absence of meaning. … The self-fulfilling prophecy of the nihilistic threat is that without hope there can be no future, that without meaning there can be no struggle.”
Mike Brown’s death has brought new meaning to local black struggle. His death has come to mean something more, something greater than his life might have been taken to mean, as a poor young black man from a working-class suburb. His death, and officer Darren Wilson’s callous disregard for his life, has made the precariousness of black life visible for a whole new generation of black youth. The precariousness has been made visible and it has been deemed unacceptable – by both the old and the young. One of the riders, a 10-year-old girl from Los Angeles, told us in a church service on Sunday morning, “I am here because I am worried about my life. I’m only 10 years old. I should not have to be worried.”
Mike’s death, his blood seeping out and onto the pavement, has created the fertile soil of movement. It has remixed the nihilism of the sagging pants generation with a new message. These generational sons and daughters of Tupac and Biggie still have little to no “fucks to give” as the colloquial saying goes. They might not be “ready to die” but they are “unafraid to die.” They aren’t knocking on death’s door but they will not retreat when it knocks on theirs. For them, having nothing to lose is more clearly iterated in the words some of us recited as we held hands around Mike Brown’s street memorial: “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
To this new generation of voices, I became the elder sister sitting in the back of the bus, being consulted about what it “was like when Rodney King happened.” I was only 10 years old when Rodney King “happened” but everyone in movement work knows that the young movers trust no one over 30. One of our riders, a 17-year-old high school senior named Nia, let me know in no uncertain terms that “young people have always led the revolutions.”
As someone not quite ready to be too old and not nearly seasoned enough to claim the status of elder, I am reminded that MLK was 34, the age I’m soon to be, the age of Michael Brown’s mother, when he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. Still, a real test of our movements will be whether we will be able to hold intergenerational space for all the wisdom and all the limitations that all of us bring to the table.
We went to Ferguson with a simple message: Black Lives Matter. All black lives. And we are prepared to have our nation hear that message with all the fullness, complexity and responsibility that it entails. In the words of Trayvon Martin’s mom to Michael Brown’s mom: “If they don’t hear us, we will make them feel us.” We will make them hear us, see us and feel us. Or we will die trying.
Update, 5 pm: A reader points out that Truman was not president in 1941 when A. Philip Randolph threatened to march on Washington as a tactic to force desegregation of federal employment agencies. We've updated the post above to remove the Truman reference.