Scott Olson / Getty Images

Ferguson prompts activists to rethink black power movement in America

St. Louis–based organization wants people to gather Saturday at sites where black Americans have been gunned down

The black freedom movements that swept the country over the past century never passed through Ferguson, Missouri, and neighboring predominantly black St. Louis County municipalities, community leaders say — no black power movement, no Watts riots or movements to empower local entrepreneurship.  

Some community leaders there say that in order to address the issues of alleged police brutality as well as rampant discrimination in employment and housing, the St. Louis community must partner with national counterparts in regions with more deeply entrenched rights movements.

“In the 60s when there were the race riots, that didn't happen in St Louis. When Watts happened, it didn't happen in St. Louis,” said Patricia Bynes, a Ferguson municipal committeewoman.

Other, more peaceful movements — which Bynes hopes do arrive in Ferguson — also seem never to have taken hold in the St. Louis area.

“We haven’t found our voice yet, in this region — politically, economically,” Bynes said. “We don’t need to recreate the wheel. Take the best practices from those cities like New York and import them here."

That’s precisely why a St. Louis-based black empowerment organization, the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS), is hurriedly working to establish connections with activists in other parts of the United States with longer-running histories of black empowerment movements. The effort comes in response to the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American man who was shot dead while unarmed by a police officer in Ferguson last Saturday.

OBS is calling on the St. Louis community to gather at the site of Brown’s death this Saturday at 1 p.m. local time (2 p.m. EDT).

But the movement won't stay in Ferguson, OBS activists say. The organization is calling people in Sanford, Florida to gather at the site where Trayvon Martin was gunned down in February 2012, and on people in Jacksonville, Florida, to gather at the gas station where Jordan Davis was shot dead in November the same year.

OBS organizer Montague Simmons hopes that what he plans to be a symbolic moment for black America — one that will commemorate the killings by law enforcement and vigilantes of young black men — will also serve to unite communities like St. Louis, which he and other community leaders say were left untouched by solidarity and empowerment movements.

Simmons told Al Jazeera that he is coordinating with local and national organizations to overcome vastly different agendas and modes of operation to halt what he calls an assault on people of color, by assailants who he says often go unpunished.

In faraway Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, Shafeah M’Balia, an activist with the advocacy group Black Workers for Justice, has already heeded Simmons’ call — hours after it was put online — and is working to organize protests with local communities.

“I would think that there are at least four locations [in North Carolina] off the top of my head where people would want to do something — there have been confrontations, at least one ending in death,” she said.

But rallying supporters is difficult in North Carolina.

“In Wilson, 30 miles down the road, people don’t know what happens here in Rocky Mountain. There needs to be networks and communities,” M’Balia said.

In areas such as St. Louis County, where community members say African-Americans are sometimes stopped multiple times in a trip across the micro-cities, many black Americans say the police profiling and brutality discourages them from travel and therefore the spread of information on community tragedies and movements in response to them.

Communication is an issue even in traditional bastions of the black empowerment movements.

Hodari B. Davis of Young, Gifted and Black, a black youth organization based in Oakland, California — which recently started performing a song called “Don’t Shoot” — believes that a lack of communication is preventing a nationwide response to the killings in recent years. Davis cited the counterintelligence program Cointelpro, which the FBI carried out from the 1950s through the ’70s to covertly disrupt black power and other ethnic-based movements.

“I think that one of the most successful tactics of Cointelpro was to undermine black journalism. The press became complicit in the suppression of information — it became hard for black people within the U.S. to communicate with each other on events that affect us nationally,” Davis said.

“If it weren’t for social media, would we even know what’s happening in Ferguson?” said Davis.

While he feels it would be a poignant reminder that black America stands in solidarity if people take a stand at the same time at the sites of the killings, he fears OBS’s protests will end as hurriedly as they are being organized.

“If it’s a moment that’s not harnessed, it’s just going to be another poetic moment. We’ve had poetic moments around the Oscar Grant verdict, the movie, the Trayvon Martin hoodie protests,” he said.

“I honestly don’t know that without sustained action, it’s going to change policy or the face of policing in the United States of America, so that policing is reflective of the 21st and not the 20th or 19th century.” 

Sequestered by a lack of channels of communication among what M’Balia called “fragmented” black empowerment organizations across the United States, some people are leaving places like Ferguson, Bynes says, for communities with politically stronger black communities.

“St. Louis region in general fails to be able to attract people to the region — younger people my age. As soon as they get old enough to go to college, they leave,” said Bynes who is 34.

Still, Bynes says, “If everyone leaves, [black empowerment] will never happen.”  

“My mother and her family are from here. My parents met here. I’m not ready to give up on this region.”

Ron Davis, the father of another slain black teen Jordan Davis, also said that despite his loss, he would have never considered leaving Jacksonville, Florida for what some consider stronger black communities in California and New York — even if he feels that young children like his late son are under siege.

“Do you decide where to make your home based on just where there is a strong black community, based on policing? What about housing — is it a place where you can get a lot of money for the square footage of your house? Can your children play? … How long can it take you to get to work?”

A Ferguson area minister, the Rev. Douglas Parham, said empowerment means Ferguson residents staying where they are and relying on themselves.

“The most effective empowerment training and empowerment orientation has to do with helping people to understand the power they have in their hands, where they are,” Parham said.

“In St. Louis, there is a different mentality — there isn’t really an appetite for explosive confrontation,” the 73-year-old said, explaining that recent instances of looting are extremely rare for what some have called a “quiet community.” “The empowerment has taken a different form than perhaps different cities.”

Still, the empowerment efforts have been “hard to pinpoint,” Parham said.“There has been progress — slow, but progress.”

Parham explained that like many in his community, he felt the need to explain to his two sons that “there are certain things you must understand about police encounters.”

“It becomes a frightful experience for your kids to drive — that will often times start those police encounters.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter