Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death at Officer Darren Wilson’s hands in Ferguson — the spark that ignited a national movement of protest against police violence and racial inequality. One year later, that movement is nowhere near finished. The cameras may have left, but dynamic grassroots programs are changing Ferguson while no one is watching.
Since last August, four separate Department of Justice (DOJ) reports have been released, detailing racially-discriminatory and exploitative policing, officer misconduct and mismanagement during the unrest that followed Brown’s death, and a troubled Family Court system. Members of law enforcement have been ousted, a new interim police chief has stepped in, and the Ferguson City Council has diversified.
But the bulk of the changes have happened because of community organizations that focus on the specific needs of Ferguson residents.
Take Hands Up United (HUU), a coalition that first banded together to demand a special prosecutor to review Brown’s death and has since launched several educational programs for adults and youth. Before Wilson’s non-indictment, the coalition started the Books and Breakfast program to feed the stomachs — and minds — of Ferguson residents, aged 13 to 30. According to co-founder Tory Russell, the monthly program brought a newfound political energy to the community.
“We pick political themes that directly affect [them]. Two months ago, we did Patrice Lumumba, a community organizer who became the first independently-elected president of the Congo. We take historical and current issues to connect to every day lives, and we do that around a healthy breakfast,” he said. “We have breakouts with the kids and parents. That leads to informal political education and community organizing, so these conversations continue for weeks. By the end of the year we will see over 1,000 families.”
The same coalition launched the Roy Clay Sr. Tech Impact Initiative to teach students web programming skills and prepare them for tech-industry jobs. The initiative, named after the co-creator of the Hewlett-Packard laptop who was raised in Ferguson, came to fruition when youth in Ferguson tried to support black businesses in the area and noticed a dearth of media and promotional materials. The businesses were there — there was just no way to find them. Tech Impact was devised to teach youth how to use the internet to uplift those businesses and strengthen local networks to keep the movement alive.
HUU also provides space for male and female conversation circles where people — however they identify — can gather once a month to discuss community affairs. “We talk about everything: education, economics, inter-community crime. We’ve actually tried to do all things — not just a police brutality banner but a more holistic look at how we solve systemic racism, and how that intersects with class and gender,” Russell said.
Freedom Schools run by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) have also popped up in Ferguson and other St. Louis communities, where youth aged 15 to 23 meet to discuss “poverty, race & racism, and internalized racial oppression,” according to Peace Education Program Director Joshua Saleem. Three school sessions have convened since the fall, allowing young people to grapple with systemic oppression and develop ways to stay engaged in the struggle. Community gardens are springing up as well. By contributing to them, Saleem told ThinkProgress, “youth and community members gain the skills and capacity to build community, critically analyze issues, implement community action projects that address health inequities (regarding food justice and urban gardening), build long-term community assets, and advance policies and practices that support the health of their communities.” Along the same lines, HHU is currently setting up a food pantry supplied by local growers to reduce grocery costs.
“These programs are ways for neighbors to meet and have peaceful communities and show that police don’t have to be called. We can solve our own problems. And hopefully when police come, people are politicized in a way that they know their rights,” Russell said. “It’s a long road, so a lot of legislation and concessions that we would want are just not being met on the state, local, or federal level.”
However, the progress that has been made in Ferguson is considered a victory for local residents and has inspired the Black Lives Matter movement over the past year.
“It’s part of a continuum of struggle that black people have been a part of since the inception of this nation. I think that what Ferguson did was wake consciousness in a way that provoked action in other cities with similar landscapes,” Kayla Reed of the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) explained to ThinkProgress. “A lot of people look to Ferguson and the leadership that has emerged out of that space for guidance and support.” Reflecting on the work that’s been done in Ferguson — and beyond — in the last year, activist Deray McKesson told ThinkProgress, “the initial protests were about exposing and convincing. It was about saying ‘this is happening — listen to us.’ The focus on protest — the intent and target of them — is different now. It’s a different time. It is unreal to think that people have to act the same way they did a year ago. That is not true of any resistance.”
To make the movement durable, Reed believes energy must be geared toward meeting people where they are. “A lot of times we look at systems that oppress people, but everyday people that are struggling to make ends meet are not aware of these larger systems. We have to figure out a way to make the processes more transparent and accountable and inclusive.”
But the common theme weaving programs in Ferguson to national protests is intentional, conscious action.
“We didn’t discover injustice in August and we didn’t invent resistance. We protest in a legacy and tradition of resistance,” McKesson concluded. “August was powerful because you saw people come out of their homes and the state criminalize mourning. You saw people say, ‘I will not go home.’ We were radicalized there.”
One year later, the people of Ferguson haven’t gone home.