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Ferguson: What It Meant To Me

Written by Teresa Brickey 

I grew up in a home where there was no such thing as “racial superiority.”  I was repeatedly told that I was no better than anyone else, and vice versa. We were all equal and all worthy of being loved. In fact, I do not remember an instance of ever feeling superior because of my race. I didn’t even feel that there were differences based on race. For all I knew, every family was like mine and just working to get by. This mentality obviously is not awful, and I am extremely grateful my parents raised me this way. However, this state of mind, mixed with ignorance of racial injustices, is not the way to live. Staying in the dark does not solve anything.

Not seeking to learn about these issues, is  as bad as knowing and not doing anything about them. It is not that my parents intentionally sheltered me from these issues, it is that it didn’t pertain to us so I never paid attention to it. For all I knew,  racism was a thing I only read in history books. My grandparents dealt with it and it was over. Sure I had heard a few prejudice remarks before, but I didn’t grasp how common it still was. I thought only a few people were stuck in the 1950s. I did not understand the full complexity or prevalence of this topic until a year ago today.

AUGUST 2014- An Explosion

August 9th, 2014: a kid only a year older than me was shot and killed. Michael Brown is a name now known around the world because of the pull of a trigger and release of a bullet. I don’t think I can ever fully describe the ton of bricks that I felt in my stomach that day. I just remember watching the news and crying profusely. How was this happening? And why was it happening in my community – St. Louis? The only information we had was that he was unarmed and walking with his friend in their neighborhood. Already people were taking “sides.” Michael Brown was being criminalized by the media. The main question was: what did he do to cause the shooting? As if criminalizing him could diminish his humanity and justify his death somehow. Instead of letting a family mourn their child, we jumped on the, “well the officer had to have a good reason; don’t break the law and you’ll be alive” argument. It was horrible. I felt defeated, and I can only imagine how the black community felt. It was like I could see for the first time, but I did not like what I was seeing. It finally hit me that history books are still being written; racism may be muffled by the white media but it is still a reality. And because I am white I will never fully understand the intensity of the black american struggle, but I can try. This was the first day I tried and it wasn’t the last.

Breaking news the next night included looters, violent protests, and uncontrollable chaos in downtown Ferguson. The first incitement started when on the previous day a memorial to Mike was erected, and then destroyed hours later allegedly by police officers. Yet the crowd was still controlled and calm. It was not until after the candlelit vigil on the 10th that all hell broke loose. I was in my front room with my parents watching looters take over a small town in our community. Flames were everywhere. Buildings were destroyed. It was a glimpse into what I imagine hell to be like. We cried for our city. This continued till well after 2 a.m. I remember feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders that night. There was so much pain in this community and I didn’t know what to do about it. I was a seventeen year old high schooler who felt crippled by this harsh reality. Since I am a religious person my initial reaction was to pray. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s all I could do in the moment. I prayed for peace on the streets, for the protection of the protestors, for the police officers to be safe and act justly, the business owners, and for the ferguson residents. I prayed until I fell asleep.

I woke up to thirty arrests and counting. The community had rallied together to clean up what the looters left behind. Hours later their work would be destroyed by looters again. I think what infuriated the community the most was that these business owners weren’t apart of the systematic racial oppression, and yet they were the ones suffering from all of the looting and property destruction. If you watched the news at all last fall you know the riots and looting lasted the whole month. Everyday we woke up with the question- what next? Rubber bullets? Tear gas? Molotov Cocktails? No one knew what to expect from the rioters, or how intense the response from the police would be. We all just knew that something worse was coming with each day. The media of course loved this. It was all you saw on the news. The violence and angst was a good headline. The peaceful protestors were mentioned every once in awhile but did this rope viewers in? No, of course not. Who wants to watch hours of people being calm and gathering to mourn and stand for justice when you can watch hours of the town engulfed in flames and over taken by looters?  To be frank, it was the capitalization of a black teen’s death.

Something I remember quite well is the release of the officer’s name. It was August 15th when Ferguson chief police called a press conference. He started out by describing a burglary that happened minutes before the shooting. Alas! The public had the justification it needed! Apparently Michael Brown stole some cigarillos from the Ferguson Market & Liquor. My Facebook was full of the repostings that included the surveillance footage from the shop. Because somehow stealing a pack of cigarillos justifies being shot and killed. This of course is sarcasm because it was absolutely ridiculous. It was still way too early to come to a conclusion of what had happened of course…but it didn’t take a whole lot of brains to figure out that the crime was not related to the shooting incident. Nor did it justify it. The Chief THEN announced the name. Darren Wilson was the cop to pull the trigger. My facebook timeline was now divided between “I am Darren Wilson” posts and the people who saw Darren Wilson as a monster. There was no inbetween. We knew little to no facts and yet there was an all out war over it. A lot of people were assuming before they even knew the facts. Actually looking back it seems like everyone made a decision based on opinion. Later that afternoon, the chief released the information that Wilson did not know about the Brown’s connection to the robbery. People disregarded this fact, and left the robbery as a justification of Brown’s death.  I can’t tell if this day’s course of announcements sparked any more looting or rioting inspiration, because as far as I remember, it continued regardlessly. Eventually Governor Nixon declared Saint Louis in a state of emergency. This meant a strict curfew (which was eventually overturned) and the presence of the national guard.

The only peaceful day that month was on Michael Brown’s funeral. His father asked the public to remain calm and reverent on throughout the day. The mass majority listened. In fact, thousands of people attended his service. During the service family member urged the crowds to vote and change the system by lifting up their voices. I wasn’t able to attend the service for multiple reasons, but I remember it being only a few days after I started school.

September and October- The Inbetween

The next two months protests were still held, but for the most part it was relatively calm. I say relatively because it was nothing compared to August, but the flames were still burning. People were mad. And rightfully so. At school we all talked about what had happened. I was in a Social Justice class, so the case was always the center of discussion. It was nice place to really talk about it and try to understand what had happened. I was talking about the issue as much as I could. I needed to know what people were thinking and feeling. Thankfully, I went to a high school in the city and so there was a wide range of people to talk to. My class was from multiple zip codes, so this gave a wider pool of insight. What I heard was heart breaking in most cases. A lot of students of color, that I talked to, felt that St. Louis was still highly segregated through our economic barriers, which usually lead back to race. They told me that this kind of situation happens frequently within their community. I know I sound like I was absolutely ignorant- which I was to an extent- but I just did not realize how dominant this systematic racism is still today. I had lived on the “state streets” when I was younger (shout out to Nebraska) for pete’s sake. How did I not know? I think it hit me so hard because it was my home town dealing with it. Also I had classmates that lived in Ferguson. They had watched this destruction from their windows. It was a lot to take in for me. I just wanted to protect them all. Every day that I went to school, I couldn’t believe what was happening.

During these months there were a few violent protests, but we mostly saw peaceful ones. There was a protest at a Saint Louis Orchestra performance. People got up and sang an old civil rights song while holding hearts that said “Requiem for Michael Brown”. It lasted only a few moments and then the show continued. We heard of many other peaceful protests. There were marches and and protests in Clayton and Shaw. There was a “die in” a few blocks from my school in the Loop area. One day I came out of school to a stream of cars on their way to the arch. They all had signs out their car windows and one man had a mega phone. He was going on about how we need to stand together. How we need to mourn Michael and not let this happen again. Of course his message was great, but to be honest I was little scared. I just wasn’t expecting this right after school and it was a lot to take in. The guy noticed that we were caught off guard so he gave our school a little shout out. He legitimately saw that we were freaked out, so he cracked a few jokes and lightened up the mood. I still remember crying and shaking on the way to the parking lot. Which is not a surprise if you know me because I am an emotional wreck who is probably over empathetic. Point of the story is, people were raising their voices in manners that conveyed their pain without causing more in result. They didn’t cause destruction, while getting their points across. This wouldn’t last once the decision on whether or not to indict Wilson would come out in November.

November- Last Hope

We waited every day to hear what was going to happen.  At school, we all discussed about when the announcement would come. Would Darren Wilson be indicted? We debated, we talked, we even prayed together about it. (I went to a private school where praying together was common in some classes). I remember people questioning if we would get out of school when the announcement happened. Our location put us in kind of a tough spot. If the announcement came during school hours we would be in the heart of downtown Saint Louis. The governor re-enacted the state of emergency right before Thanksgiving break, so we knew the decision was coming soon. After  this we were released on break two days early, just to be safe.

On November 24th, I was alone in my basement watching the news covering the decision. It lasted, I believe, one to two hours before they finally cut to the chase. Darren Wilson would not be indicted. I don’t think I ever cried or prayed so much in one sitting. I was devastated. As far as the case was concerned- I didn’t know what to believe, but I remember just feeling pain and like I’d been defeated. That’s what we all felt. My timelines were full of opinions and thoughts. I read  all of these posts and watched the news the whole night, while crying. I remember hearing that Michael Brown’s step dad yelled, “Burn this shit down!” And that they did. The highways were blocked, cars were on fire, neighborhoods were chaotic. I live in a county about 40 minutes away (if you’re from here you know that’s not unusual because of suburban sprawl) from what was going on. But I was emotionally connected to these places and I could just feel the crowd’s pain radiating through my television screen. It doesn’t take much to look at a burning car and feel the pain that caused the flames.

I was terrified for my friends that lived in these areas. At the time I was teaching fourth graders in the Shaw neighborhood. So when I saw riots in that area, I was completely freaked out. I felt like a mother that couldn’t do anything to protect her kids. Thankfully, they were all okay, and we were able to resume classes couple weeks later. It was one of the scariest nights I have experienced. I was terrified for my city. So, of course I prayed. I sound like a nun, but it was just all I could muster myself to do. The rest of Thanksgiving break the whole city was on its toes. Thankfully, the violence dimmed down, and it quickly turned into peaceful protesting. It wasn’t just here either. I remember being unbelievably moved by the protests and memorials all over the world. It seriously felt like we were all one for a moment. Instead of the world looking at my city and criticizing what had happened, they were standing in solidarity with this injustice.

Black Friday was protested heavily here in St. Louis. In the morning, my friend and I went to Target and a tank was parked right outside the door. Of course, this was somewhat common during the state of emergency. It was so unusual to us personally, though. My friend and I went to a different mall than normal because we knew the main one here was going to have some issues. We were right- it did. Actually, all of the malls had protests and we just somehow missed them. There were sit ins and speeches at almost every mall in the St. Louis area. They weren’t violent, but everyone was afraid they would turn for the worse. Once we passed that speed bump, I think the city as a whole had hope that we would move on from this in a peaceful way. And that we would seek answers and justice in a productive tactics. In a way, I was mad that I missed witnessing the protests that day, because from what I saw they were handled well. The protesting died down as the break ended, but the cause didn’t. I don’t think St. Louis or the world will ever forget about Michael Brown.

The Takeaway

Ferguson was one of the biggest wake up calls of my life. It caused me to take a step back and reevaluate everything I thought I knew. It opened my eyes to how much pain people of color bare, and the struggles they endure everyday. I know now what white privilege really means versus what everyone assumes it does. Economically, I have not been positively blessed, but I will never be racially profiled. There are many ways to be privileged and they can overlap or remain separate. You have to be aware of your privileges, in order to help others move up with you on the social ladder. I think we all forget the humanity in each other. Unfortunately, for people of color they face many more issues than I could ever imagine. For example, I was thinking about how when you are poor and white you are considered “white trash”, but for poc it’s normalized. It’s as if being black and in the bottom tier of society go hand in hand. It’s expected of me to be able to pull myself up and make a better life for myself. Whereas, society as a whole stereotypes black Americans as taking advantage of welfare and living off government subsidies their whole lives. But, how can you expect people to wean off of these supplements, when they are constantly put into situations that are virtually impossible to alleviate? Not just that, but the stereotype is extremely degrading. Its as if a black doctor or lawyer is a miracle. Stop assuming things people!

Unfortunately, the systematic oppression of poc is still very much alive and thriving. Just because there are no Jim Crow laws enacted, does not mean that segregation is not still a reality. It is especially a reality here in Saint Louis. You can see this in the downtown St. Louis and within parts of North County. Instead of skin color being the barrier, it is now economic status. Which, unfortunately, go hand in hand with race more often than not. Racism won’t be destroyed unless we destroy it. It is still prevalent in our society, and needs to be addressed. Our grandparents dealt with it, which  is not that long ago. And if you think about it, that means our parents dealt with the aftermath. So we have to be the ones to end it and stop it. Especially, white people need to realize this. Because, yes, we personally did not put this oppression in place, but our ancestors did and we are the ones that benefit from it, so we must help destroy it.

Ferguson also opened my eyes to how common police brutality really is. Not all cops are bad, of course. But somehow, these incompetent police officers are being hired. And it leaves me to ask,  how? I appreciate all that officers do for us, I am talking about the ones that actually do their job and uphold our dignity through their actions. But seriously, how are some of these officers being hired? I have officers in my family, and I am extremely proud of them because I know they uphold the law and don’t take advantage of their position. So, it frustrates me when others take away from this and ruin it for them. They desecrate everything the system should stand for.

I feel like I found my voice and where I stand this past year. Ferguson played a major role in helping me see things as they really are. I was honestly clueless to many major issues beforehand. Especially, issues that pertained to people of color. Not because I was sheltered as a kid, but because I just never paid attention to the world around me fully. I figured my family had its own issues and so did everyone else’s. But this past year I have come to terms with how many issues within the black community are overlooked.

Black lives do matter and it’s important to emphasize that right now. Because yes all lives matter, but sometimes you need to focus on the ones being legitimately oppressed by our society. Right now there is a lot of injustice within the black community and it needs to be addressed. I keep hearing “say his/her name” and we absolutely need to. Instead of defending a treasonist flag rooted in racism, our media needs to start defending these lives. Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, and the many other lives lost to police brutality need to be recognized and stood up for.

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