Socialist Worker

Eyewitness Ferguson - Fear and Fury at Michael Brown's funeral

Judith Orr reports from the US city where cops murdered black teenager Michael Brown and speaks to its people about race, class and repression.

Issue No. 2418

A man pays respects to Michael Brown at the memorial where he was shot

A man pays respects to Michael Brown at the memorial where he was shot (Pic: Socialist Worker)


More than 4,500 people attended the funeral of murdered black teenager Michael Brown in St Louis on Monday of last week. 

A police officer shot dead the unarmed man on 9 August in Ferguson while he had his hands up and called, “Don’t shoot”. Protests have rocked the area ever since.

The service was set for 10am, but mourners queued from 7am outside the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on Dr Martin Luther King Drive. The line soon stretched around the block. Many sang the Civil Rights anthem, “We shall overcome”.

Brandai Miller walked into the church with her hands in the air as Michael’s were when he was killed. She told Socialist Worker, “He was shot down for no reason. We want the man who did it brought to justice.”

Bow-tied members of the Nation of Islam, and church and local volunteers dealt with security. The police kept a low profile.

Among the mourners was a member of the New Black Panther Party. He stood with his fist raised and some mourners chanted “Black power” with him.

The church’s auditorium holds 2,500 people and all its overflow rooms were also packed with mourners. Ushers offered water and paper fans to those suffering in the heat.

Some 600 seats were reserved for Michael’s family and friends, who came in last. They were accompanied by the families of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, both still seeking justice for young men killed in cold blood. 

Also attending were Civil Rights veterans such as Jesse Jackson, celebrities including filmmaker Spike Lee and representatives from the White House.

During the service relatives spoke of Michael’s wish to “shake the world up”. 

Angry

Other speakers talked of what needs to be done next. People responded with angry chants for justice.

Several speakers urged young people not to riot, yet the alternative offered was often simply to register to vote to elect new officials.

So many wanted to contribute that the pastor said, “If your name is passed over then we will all be here in church on Sunday you are very welcome to come back and speak then.” 

The Brown family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, placed Michael’s death in a grim tradition going back to the lynching of 14 year old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. 

Civil Rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton spoke last. He denounced police behaviour. “You can’t come up with a police report, but you can find a video,” he said. He was drowned out by applause and roars of “That’s right”.

He was referring to the fact that officer Darren Wilson, who killed Michael, didn’t even complete an incident report. 

Despite this cops had time to go to a shop Michael had visited and demand its CCTV footage. This was then partially released, giving the impression that the staff had reported a robbery, which they hadn’t.

The anger at the entrenched racism in US society that this injustice released meant this funeral of a working class black teenager was attended by thousands.  

Sabrina Miller told Socialist Worker that she felt proud when Barack Obama was elected. “It meant that another big barrier had been broken and my son had him to look to,” she said. “But we are still targets.

“We will give the family the peace they have asked for today. But then we will have to take to the streets again.”


Young and old vow to fight on in Ferguson

The Quiet tree-lined Canfield Drive is strewn with flowers. This is where Michael Brown was gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson on 9 August.

Friends and neighbours of Michael mix with other locals, and people young and old from all over the state of Missouri and beyond.

They are paying respect to a young man whose life was cut off so brutally in broad daylight and whose killer has still not been charged with any crime.

Hakeem (left)

Hakeem (left) (Pic: Socialist Worker)


The numbers swelled as church services finished last Sunday. Cars slowed as they passed the growing memorial. 

Volunteers under a gazebo full of ice boxes passed out bottles of cold water to those who gathered. 

They had provisions for people who couldn’t get to shops when police locked the area down for days with armoured cars and tear gas.

Hakeem and Jordan both live in the small three storey building on Canfield Drive beside where Michel Brown was shot. They knew Michael as they went to the same school as him.

They told Socialist Worker that the Ferguson police hadn’t been seen there since the killing.

“They know something would happen to them if they dared come down here after what they did,” said Jordan.

Hakeem has one more year at school and wants to go to college and work in housing construction. 

“I hope some good comes out of this,” he said of Michael’s killing. “I never thought that a thing like this would happen where I live.”

Hakeem has been hassled by the police before, but after Michael’s death he has been on protests for the first time in his life. 

Jordan said he doesn’t recognise the Ferguson that is being portrayed in the press. “It’s been a good place to live. I know many places that are a lot harder than Ferguson.”

Alan Joplin is a teacher and pastor who grew up in St Louis. 

He told Socialist Worker, “It was seen as a place to move to for decent housing, good schools and safe places for your kids to play.”

Alan became politicised in the 1960s. He travelled to New York and managed to meet Malcolm X. 

He felt the events in Ferguson have been a long time coming.

Teacher Alan Joplin

Teacher Alan Joplin (Pic: Socialist Worker)


And he said that his generation could have done more to resist the way the police treat black people.

“In the 1950s black folk used to go to the drive-in,” he said. “As we left at the end of an evening the police directing the traffic would call us niggers and jungle bunnies. 

“We felt there was nothing we could do.” 

 

 

The main drag through Ferguson, Florissant Avenue, is the focus of nightly protests. 

Many of the shops are boarded up but with “we’re open” spray painted on them. 

One says “open and black owned”.

After Michael’s killing a mass revolt for several days brought the area to a standstill.

The police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and wooden rounds, and appeared in full military gear. This was followed by the arrival of the National Guard.

Such repression hardened local people’s determination to fight for justice. 

Then on Tuesday of last week St Louis police shot dead Kajieme Powell, who was suspected of stealing two energy drinks from a convenience store.

Every night still sees protests and marches. Families bring out folding chairs and sit along the side of the road with placards denouncing the police.

Children chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot”—echoing Michael’s last words as he tried to surrender before his death.

Groups of volunteers hand out bandannas and masks in case the police use tear gas again. A Red Cross tent distributes water and food.

Tawanna described herself as a worker and a mother.

She said, “I want to be treated like every other American citizen, not better, just the same. I’m not begging—it’s my entitlement.

“Michael is not the first, the second or the 32nd young African American man to be shot dead by the police. 

“But this reaction has happened because like a pot left on the stove it will eventually boil over.”

Tawanna said that Wilson should face trial but she doesn’t think that he will. “I’m fearful of what is going to happen now,” she said. “It’s not going to be pretty.”

As resources for state repression have seemed limitless in the last two weeks, the local community in Ferguson has been forced to look after itself.

Alongside the food kitchens there has been a crisis nursery van, checking on children affected by tear gas and offering packs of disposable nappies, toys and baby formula. 

The local library in Ferguson had queues of parents with their children to take up the offer of free tuition in a safe space as many schools remain closed. 

Tawanna (right)

Tawanna (right) (Pic: Socialist Worker )


Three generations of the Gordon family were on what they say has become their regular spot on Florissant Avenue to protest at midnight last Saturday.

Moiseva Gordon, with her daughter and mother, said, “They shot Michael Brown down like a dog in the street. Now they have turned this place into a police state, pointing guns at our faces and bringing in their Swat teams. 

“We know we are not the only ones here in Ferguson, the same thing is happening in Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, everywhere.

“But we have to stand up in a mighty way. The truth is going to stand”.

She doesn’t think putting Wilson on trial will change everything but it would be a start. “If we are going to make the police think twice about what they do, Darren Wilson has gotta pay the price,” she said.

Many people said if they hadn’t taken to the streets, Michael would have been just another statistic.

Alan said that if people don’t have any other outlet except “running through town and breaking a few windows to get their message across” then that’s what people should do.

“It’s what we did in the 1960s, and we did get heard,” he said.

Today some black people feel they have made it, they have moved on, Alan added.

“They have a four bed ranch home and their children go to private school.

“But they should remember none of that would have been possible with out the struggles of folks in the 1960s.”

The parents of Trayvon Martin, shot dead at 17 by a neighbourhood watch “volunteer” in 2012, came to Ferguson to speak at a “Peace Fest” organised before Michael’s killing.  

They joined other family members of young people killed by the police.

After speaking to the crowds gathered in St Louis’s Forrest Park Trayvon’s father was asked about the response of people taking to the streets to Michael’s death.

He said “We need to protest, enough is enough. We need a voice because our kids are being killed.”


Ruth Gordon

Ruth Gordon (Pic: Socialist Worker)


 

‘We have to stick together’

Ruth Gordon has been part of the Ferguson protests and has a long experience of racism.

“I was born in 1942 in Mississippi,” she said. “Black people were not allowed in town after dark. 

“They called it a sundown town—it was white at night. It was frightening. The Klansmen were organised everywhere.”

Ruth’s grandmother was born into slavery. She lived until she was over 100 and Ruth remembers the stories she told.  

“She would tell us about the bell ringing to tell slaves to stop work and get their food. 

“They had to eat scraps of food from a long wooden plank, just like they were hogs.

“The pigment of your skin should not define whether you get justice.” 

Ruth said the fact that white people have come to Ferguson to show support for Michael “is a beautiful thing”.

She added that her experience working as a nurse taught her, “We have to stick together, or they will divide and conquer.”

In 1968 Ruth was told that the black nurses in her hospital had to address the white ones as ma’am, regardless of their age or experience.

“I got together a meeting, and said this had to end,” she said. “Either we all get addressed as ma’am or no one does.”

They won, and the practice stopped from then on. 

“If we don’t stand up and do something it will just carry on.”


City stalked by poverty

Inner cities in the US have been seen in the past as a byword for deprivation and alienation. But today it’s city suburbs such as Ferguson that have seen dramatic slumps in their fortunes. 

Unemployment rates for black Americans across the country are roughly twice that of whites and have been for decades. 

In St Louis rates of poverty are four to six times higher for the black population than for whites. 

Poverty is not restricted to those who have lost their jobs. 

Average earnings for employed workers have fallen by a third over the past decade once adjusted for inflation. 

In Ferguson, with a population of around 21,000, 22 percent of  people live below the poverty line. This compares to 15 percent in St Louis. 

The number of families living below the poverty line in Ferguson has doubled in the last ten years.

Ferguson also shows that as suburbs become increasingly centres of deprivation they also become more racially segregated. 

The city of St Louis and its suburbs is one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the US.

Only three of the local 53 strong police force are black, and the mayor and most of the council members are white.

Money to improve local services comes from local taxation. 

This reinforces deprivation as there is little funding for schools and public services in the very neighbourhoods which need them.

PUBLIC MEETING with Weyman Bennett, an eyewitness from Ferguson
After the slaying of Michael Brown – race, class and revolt in the USA
Thursday 28 August, 7.30pm
The Flyover, 3-5 Thorpe Close, 
London W10 5XL.
PROTEST: Hands Up! Don’t Shoot! Justice for Michael Brown!
Wednesday 27 August 5.30pm outside US Embassy
This is two minutes from Ladbroke Grove tube.

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