Leadership, Appearances, and Plain Talk

I’m humbled by what I have experienced during the past three weeks in Ferguson, Missouri. We are witnessing the most momentous resistance movement against police brutality in the St. Louis area in my lifetime. This is a black struggle. It is explicit in their credo, “Black Lives Matter”.

I can’t tell you what the leaders of this movement are feeling. Many met Saturday night at St. John’s United Church of Christ in the City of St. Louis. There, they were greeted by an “A-Team” of experienced hands in the struggle–activists, writers, poets, musicians, and the like. They came from around the country to meet the mostly young black women from the area (and some from other places), to bolster their spirits, to listen, and provide some conceptual framework around where they stand at this moment. I saw an equation posted on Twitter: “Resistance + disruption = transformation”. This framework was new to some of them; perhaps there was an inchoate understanding within some young leaders. They also listened to music from professional DJ’s. It was a chance to catch a blow, to restore themselves before heading out again.

It’s not just black women, or straight black women. I know of men at the heart of the movement, and both genders include gays. They’re quite open about it, which has been a revelation to me. They are forging very tight friendships in the crucible of the moment. They are a model for modern coalition-building.

I am not a political scientist or philosopher. I’m not equipped to “situate” this movement in a discourse or dialectic those disciplines might prefer. I’m just itching to provide my observations and impressions as one who happened into superficial, yet meaningful relationships with a few of the dynamic figures at the heart of the movement.

I’m not going to name them. I don’t know most of their real names. I also fear for them, and want to protect them.

A week ago I went to the McDonald’s on W. Florissant to see what I could see. Mayor James Knowles of Ferguson was standing outside talking with citizens. I found out that Mr. Knowles had not heard of ArchCity Defenders’ Municipal Courts White Paper, published the day after Mike Brown was shot to death by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The findings represented in this paper are crucial to understanding events here.

I ran over to commiserate with a young black woman who appeared deeply invested in everything going on in front of her. I didn’t know who she was. I had no way of knowing what was ahead.

We immediately exchanged personal information and promised that we’d help each other further our goals in the near term with regard to effective future action. This young woman has been working almost around the clock for three weeks straight. She is a whirlwind–brilliant, hilariously funny, charismatic, hyper-motivated and -conscious. I know her as a leader of this movement.

These young adults are stand-outs. They go from meeting to action to event, braving scorching heat and humidity and rain, this after being tear-gassed, shot at, flash-banged and other traumas, for having the temerity to stand up and say “Enough is enough” with those sworn to “protect and serve” executing black men in the streets.

She, along with several others, accepted me instantly. Not into the inner circle. Ain’t going to happen. However, they have evinced very little suspicion of me. They’re watching me, too. They may be suspicious, and might not even like me, but she has said, “Fuck it, he’s nice, he’s involved, he’s already helped me; we need him.” She knows her best chance of success is to co-opt and recruit every ally she can.

It’s radical pragmatism. What they are mounting is not radical in its roots or even in its intended effects, but their faith in its success is. They are conscious of this. It is pitiful to suggest that it is radical to demand that those entrusted to enforce the law and carry firearms practice cultural sensitivity; that they stop killing black people in the street. Let there be no doubt that the militarized response to peaceful protesting aggravated the situation. It should be clear by now that the authorities’ gross and irresponsible overreaction galvanized this movement.

I have watched these events closely. The people in the movement whom I know are tireless and relentless. The strain must be tremendous. Only young, healthy adults could survive what they are doing. The heat and humidity for most of August have been unbearable. I’ve been in the street for a total of ten hours in three weeks, and it’s been difficult for me. I would encourage them to get their rest, and to refrain from alcohol intake.

To almost everyone else out in the street, I am a suspicious character indeed. I am an undercover cop. I must be a plant, there to collect information on subversives.

I am 50, bald, and I’m into bodybuilding. I’m white. I’m also a Midwesterner without a clothes budget, and I don’t mind basic attire. Plus, I’m wearing sunglasses; folks can’t see my eyes. I probably do look like a cop in these circumstances. I take the glasses off whenever I engage an individual verbally.

That’s how I pass in white society where I live. I’m treated very well in public, due to white privilege and my appearance, which is plain and solidly middle class. If they only knew. I like hiding in plain sight; it takes attention away from me; I go unaccosted through life. People don’t put their hands on my body against my will. I’ve never looked into a gun barrel. I exude a straight, macho presence. I am straight and macho. So what? Who I am inside doesn’t fit these molds at all.

There is tension and friction in the street. Today, at Ferguson Police Headquarters, I was accused by a man and a woman of being a policeman. They pointed fingers in my face. The woman grabbed her friend several times and screamed, wanting to know where my cousin was. She implored the guy to stop talking to me. (I was there to witness, to say hello to some people, to record things so I wouldn’t have to rely on memory and could use the materials later. I also made myself available for rides for anyone who wanted to get back to W. Florissant, where the march originated).

Another man wanted to know why I didn’t look like or act like other whites on the scene. Why wasn’t I shouting loudly? Was I trying to behave in a way acceptable to whites? Why didn’t I have a sign? While thinking that I don’t like to wear signs, and that branding is often overkill, all I could say was that “I can’t help how I look!” This is how I want to look. I know what’s up, and I don’t need to advertise it.

It would help my look if I had a hand to hold, or a burly friend with whom I could talk. These verbal challenges are to be expected. There’s raw emotion out here. There’s real anger. I’m convinced it’s different this time, and we all had better listen.

I catch it out here. It’s nothing compared to what they’ve been catching.

Simply put, I don’t know anyone who will join me when I go out to the protests. I’m somewhat uniquely situated to do what I’m doing. Race relations–racism–has been a deep concern of mine since I can remember. It didn’t take some special talent for observation to see the indelible role it plays in the life of the United States. I was a news broadcaster for ten years, with a muckraking sensibility. This is happening right at my front door.

There’s no way I’m going to miss it. I want to be a part of it.

Umar Lee is a cabdriver, journalist, and author with intensive knowledge of local race relations and politics. He tweeted this tonight:

I’ll have answers to those important questions. More fundamentally, I accept the idea that I must confront those questions. People all over can go about their lives, believe it will be short-lived, that it doesn’t matter to them. Are they right?

The events today took place a five-minute walk from my house. The march culminated with Mike Brown, Sr. speaking for a very short time to those in attendance in front of the Ferguson Police Department. Listen to what he said:

Can you tell me what’s wrong with that?

I meant to leave this post at that, but, I remarked to myself at the time how poignant his message was, how he seemed to be buoyed by the people and community around him. He had no animus toward others. Mike Brown’s father has been lifted up, in some kind of way, by the response he has seen from his people. He has risen to the occasion, with grace.

You could feel the warmth surge through the summer sun when he said “I love y’all,” and many responded, “We love you, too.” This is what America could be like. Why should his 18-year-old son have to die to generate such warmth?

These young adults shouldn’t have to be risking their lives as they are. They should be enjoying themselves at college or in work. They are vital, and talented. What will become of my new friends, who I admire so much?

The leadership’s ability to look past my race and gender is a tremendous symbolic lesson for the nation. They’re getting it right. It’s righteous. This is righteous.

You may not like it–they’re not stopping. You may believe they are wrong–they’re not stopping. They can’t stop now.

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