One Leader in Ferguson: What Does Success Look Like?

Anthony Grimes kneels on a rain-soaked street as he blocks traffic with other protesters Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014, in St. Louis.
Anthony Grimes kneels on a rain-soaked street as he blocks traffic with other protesters Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014, in St. Louis. Ferguson and the St. Louis region are on edge in anticipation of the announcement by a grand jury whether to criminally charge officer Darren Wilson in the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Protests and riots erupted in the days following the announcement of the grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Once the riots diminished, however, nonviolent protesters have continued calling for change.

I had the opportunity to talk with community pastor and social activist Anthony Grimes while he was in Ferguson. Anthony lives in Colorado and has made several trips to Ferguson.

Anthony, why are you in Ferguson?

We're here to offer support -- moral, physical, and emotional support to those struggling on the ground. We're here to engage in nonviolent demonstrations. The people of faith on our trip are here to stand with people who need healing. We're also here to bring what we experience and learn back to Denver to help our own community.

Why is Ferguson important?

What Ferguson is America is. The issues faced by citizens in every community can be found here in Ferguson. It's a battleground for what can be won or lost in regard to urban policing, education, and the mass incarceration system.

We know that there was blatant disregard for a young man's life as he lay in the street for over four hours. The lack of a trial to get at the truth of what happened is a slap in the face for people. If we let this instance go, we're saying it's okay to treat black people as if they're not important.

What do you want to achieve? What does success look like?

First, we want to create a society where people's lives are valued and policies at every level of society reflect the value of all people. We still live in a very racialized society that benefits from racism itself. We need to call out these things and deal with them.

While we do want to see justice (not just an indictment for murder) -- when a person's life is taken in this country, if there's any speculation about what happened, there should be a trial -- the bigger issue that we want to change and overhaul is an entire system that has become rotten.

We would like to see a new society built where the voices of every person in communities are heard, where lives are valued, where people's worth and gifts are valued and shared within the community, and where justice lives inside the community.

Next, one of the major problems is that our policing systems are siloed group of people separate from the community, who aren't from the community, don't know the community, and yet are responsible for policing the community. This isn't about any one officer; our current administrators of justice don't know the people, their stories, or their families.

We would like to see communities become their own stewards of justice. If a community has systems inside it that allow it to thrive and hold people accountable, it won't need outside policing.

Finally, we need to transform education. Too many of our educational institutions are broken and effectively put people on a path to poverty, incarceration, and failure. That's something we've got to address. What kind of education are we giving our babies, and what chance does that give them to succeed?

How do you respond to folks who look at Ferguson and say, "It's not hard to avoid being shot by the police: Don't rob a store, and don't hit an officer"?

For those who immediately jump to blame, I would invite them to start with compassion. There is a big boy by the name of Mike Brown who was shot. There was a seat at the table that was empty at Thanksgiving. When you begin with compassion, you ask questions about how to prevent this from happening again.

Next, I would suggest that all of the truth of the situation has not been established, and that's why a trial is important.

Then, assuming that he did steal, people have to ask themselves if stealing is reason for an execution on the streets.

Finally, there is a pattern in America of black people being killed and then having their life put on public trial afterward. The person pulling the trigger ought to be the one on trial.

How do you respond to people who say, "This isn't about race; we should move on and focus on personal responsibility and stop blaming systems, history, or other people"?

There are people who look just like them who are on the ground fighting on behalf of justice. This isn't a black-or-white, left-or-right issue. I was in Palestine two weeks ago, and there are people there and around the globe standing in solidarity with this movement.

Also, in reforming the system we are not avoiding personal responsibility. There are people doing all they can do to make it. But all they can do isn't enough. You can't have some people begin a marathon with a five-pound weight on their ankles and then wonder why those with the weights don't keep up.

We want individual responsibility, and we want the system to take responsibility as well for what they are doing to exclude or include entire groups of people from society, from opportunity.

The St. Louis Police Officer's Association responded to the St. Louis Rams football team members' raised hands by saying they are "profoundly disappointed with the ... display that police officers around the nation found tasteless, offensive, and inflammatory." How would you respond to this statement?

First, I applaud the athletes for taking a stand, for risking their own celebrity for the sake of the vulnerable. Kudos to them.

My question for the police association is: Are you just as critical of all the racist literature and tasteless, offensive, and inflammatory comments made against the community you serve?

The statement is an example of the gulf between our police departments and the communities they serve. We need institutions of justice that are integrated with and truly serve community, not just protect their own interests.

You have tall goals. How do you believe they'll be achieved?

It begins when you recognize Coretta Scott King's words that "[f]reedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation." We can't assume that we're in a free country and that it will always be that way. We must earn it in every generation.

They'll be achieved when you do your part as a human being. Where injustice happens, slow down, observe it, ask what you just saw, and walk compassionately. Let that compassion work within you. If every one of us would respond to one another with "My life matters, and the life of my brother and sister matters," then that would go a long way.

It will happen when we make friendships with people who do not look like and act like us. Build friendships. Alexis de Tocqueville talked about how associations -- relationships across social boundaries -- are one of the most powerful forces we have in our democracy.

It will happen when we hold our police accountable. Get to know your local police department and officers. Ask them what they are doing with the resources we give them. How are you ensuring safety and the protection of all people?

For people who want to get more involved, I invite them to join local groups working across the country to dismantle a racialized society, to improve education resources, and to raise consciousness.

I would invite everyone to read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Dumbing Us Down by New York Teacher of the Year John Gatto.

Finally, as Desmond Tutu observed during the horrific ethnic cleansings in South Africa during the '90s, we must repair the soul of a nation even as we repair it socially and economically. And, for that, we need God's help.