My day in Ferguson, Missouri

This idea of “psychological tourism” became one of many concerns that kept me up much of the night before I went to Ferguson. White tourism became my next fear. What if I come off sounding more privileged than I already look during my interviews and discussions? This seemed a forgone conclusion given my plan was to talk to residents about events that were likely going to reopen the emotional wounds of people who’d lost not only a son but also trust in law enforcement systems. I had to check myself this morning and ask if I really wanted this potentially perverse itinerary for the day:  

  1. Talk to community members, activists, and protestors
  2. Try on their experiences
  3. Walk around in them for the day
  4. Empathize
  5. Transcribe these experiences
  6. Hand them back to their undeserving owners
  7. Catch my flight

To be frank, whether I wanted it or not, this is almost exactly what happened today. But, in doing this story justice, the best I can do is be honest and open about owning my privilege as a white person reporting the stories of black people. I can also be productive in my ownership of such benefits. If I felt gross about the to-do list, that was my issue to get over. That to-do list was less about others and more about me worrying about received perceptions and navigating contingencies in a community I assumed before I even got to Ferguson wouldn’t accept me. If I needed acceptance into that community for the day, I’d better shut up and figure out how to earn it because the black community in Ferguson, and around the nation, has to make contingencies in communities Every. Single. Day. I can do it for one day and what a privilege it is only having to do it for a day.

This town is strong and I was awed by its spirit, mobilization, and agency. There is such warmth and positivity among people who’ve been beaten physically and emotionally for decades, according to my Ferguson guide, and unelected leader of the protest movement, Tony. I’m not going to use Tony’s full name to honor his wishes to keep the focus of the movement away from him and on Michael Brown. If you want to tap into the heart of the movement, follow him on Twitter (@Search4Swag). He is young, charming, and had friends in the crowd of every group and location we joined. Tony, his friend Natasha, and other members of the 24-hour vigil make sure every morning and evening that the glass is swept off the ground, the business owners are ok, and that the kids are never without an adult when they protest or encounter police.

The latter is done out of necessity, not just because so many of the protesters are young (likely 14-18 years old) kids from the neighborhood who need protecting, but because of an incident involving a community event sponsored by police. Shortly after the shooting on August 9th, police and community leaders organized an event to bring Ferguson families together to talk and rebuild relationships. Kids played basketball and got a break from the stress the shooting and riots no doubt inflicted. By the end of the event, the police had fingerprinted several of the kids who’d attended. Some refused despite being told by officers that it was for their own safety, just in case they went missing. According to sources, it was not Ferguson police who’d fingerprinted the children. This is but one of several violations of trust between community members and law enforcement in Ferguson over the months since Michael Brown was shot.

Despite feeling a lack of protection by local police and officials, there is strength in community patrolling thanks to the open lines of communication between community activists like Tony and local business owners, like the family who own the Subway across the street from the Ferguson police station. We went in there to grab lunch and they greeted Tony and Natasha with big smiles and even bigger hugs. They told the story of bringing a tray of cookies to the Ferguson police last week before the holiday and staying open to feed the protestors who charged their phones and used the bathrooms while they waited for their sandwiches. The wife of the owner said, “It’s like watching your family fight. It’s so hard to watch because you can’t pick a side when it’s family.” The Ferguson library also served as safe haven during the daytime, which was full of kids and adults today. When I left, there was a meeting hosted by local citizens and Randolph Carter of the Eastern Educational Resource Collaborative in Chicago on transcendental meditation going on in the library to help Ferguson residents mitigate tension.

I had to return these experiences to Tony, Natasha, and the high school kids who protested after walking out of school with their principal, by the end of the day so that I could make my flight home. I’m lucky that I did not have to own that identity or those experiences, but horrified that so many do. Rather than simply talking about such injustices to my students and colleagues, I can be productive and do something to lessen them. Tony and Natasha need help. Their work and vigil has become a 24-hour job and it is all done outdoors in the freezing cold. They need a space, a permanent and visible place for meetings, education, and safety. There are spaces they could rent but this job doesn’t pay. They can’t accept money because there is no bank account or non-for-profit status they can use to hold the money. No one, but locals, knows who they are so its not like money is pouring in. People offer to support the “I Love Ferguson” organization by buying sweatshirts but, according to Tony, that organization is run by the former mayor of Ferguson who received money from a Darren Wilson support group. They need hats and gloves because they move around so often theirs get left behind in cars or leant to people who need them more. They need signs, and not the flimsy kind that are hard to hold on windy days. They need a tent with walls to meet in until they get a space. They need a generator so they can continue to warm the tent with space heaters. They need educators and speakers to come down to explain to community members how local government works so that people stop demanding impossible requests like the mayor “firing the Chief of police.” The mayor is a figurehead in Ferguson, not unlike a lot of towns in America, and does not have that power.

They need a lot more than you simply reading this article. So please, contact me, Tony, @Hj_Rodgers, or Randolph Carter if you want to find out how to help.