FERGUSON, Mo. – The youngest member of the new Ferguson Commission said he almost didn’t apply for the job because he didn’t want to be seen as someone aligning himself with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.
“I was hesitant at first,” said Rasheen Aldridge, “but talking to a lot of my mentors and talking to other folks who have been around for a long time in the civil rights movement and social justice movement, they said this would be not only a good opportunity for me but a good opportunity for the youth.”
Aldridge, 20, is a vocal protester who has been on the front lines of the St. Louis-area street protests since a white Ferguson police officer shot and killed unarmed black teen Michael Brown in August.
He also runs his own organization called Young Activists United, a coalition of young voices challenging corporate power and advocating for racial and gender justice.
Aldridge has been critical of the government’s response to the unrest in Ferguson, but he said he wanted to make an impact beyond social media and on the street.
“This isn’t a game,” he said. “This isn’t a joke.” He added: “We really want to seek the change.”
The Ferguson Commission was created as a result of protesters like him, he said, adding that the incessant outcry from the streets got Nixon's attention.
So, Aldridge decided to apply and was selected for the 16-person commission out of more than 300 applicants.
“It is important for us to be in different positions," he said, "We need to be on boards. We need to be on commissions. We need to be protesting. We need to be in the streets. We need to be in the offices. We need to be wherever they are to make our voice be heard and let them know we mean change.”
Although he was hesitant about applying and received some backlash from friends and fellow protesters, Aldridge said he is excited about the possibility that he may be able to have an impact on what happens next in the St. Louis region.
“Maybe some systemic change and the youth voices really will be heard and not always the older folks – and I mean older than 20,” he chuckled.
Damon Davis, another front-line activist, said the real Ferguson Commission isn’t the formal group formed by Nixon. Instead, he said, it’s the people who came out to the streets and started protesting when Michael Brown was killed.
“Those were the people you need to talk to,” he said. “If you’re not making an active attempt to address what people have already put out in front of you, and then you just put together a commission of people to sit in and act like they are doing stuff, I don’t think that’s the most effective route.”
Instead, Davis, 29, a musician and visual artist, uses his art to communicate his feelings.
Even before the unrest that followed Brown’s death, Davis had designed and erected a piece of art to spark conversation about the racial divide that exists in the community.
He calls his piece of art a Wailing Wall. It’s a tall, black wooden box that stands in an area known as the Delmar Divide.
Delmar Boulevard cuts through St. Louis and divides neighborhoods into rich and poor, Davis said. The city is also divided by race.
The Wailing Wall, filled with openings that look like mail slots, is intended to encourage communication between people on both sides of the divide.
Davis’s hope is that people will approach the wall, write letters about the Delmar Divide and their feelings about the racial tensions that exist in the area, and then place their notes in one of the open slots.
Occasionally, he retrieves the notes, photographs them and posts them online.
Lately, he has seen a few messages about Michael Brown.
“I would rather people actually get to know some people from different walks of life, different classes, different races and start actually working together,” he said. “It’s not going to happen tonight or tomorrow … but we could at least start working on it.”
Davis said he hopes more people will acknowledge their differences and celebrate them together.
In a way, Davis and Aldridge, two activists working for the same goal, have done just that.
“Some people want to teach. Some people want to get out and protest,” Davis said. “Some people want to be community leaders, but we are going to need all of those people to fix the problem.”
“We’re all trying to seek change,” said Aldridge, who plans to attend his first Ferguson Commission meeting on Dec. 1.
“At the end of the day, it’s all going to come back to one thing, and that’s justice” he said.