Like millions of other stunned onlookers across the United States, and the world, I have spent the past several nights watching disturbing scenes of social unrest and often violent clashes between civilians and law enforcement personnel, into the early morning hours. Images of unarmed young people handcuffed and lying face down on the ground, or police officers in helmets and body armor facing off against them are never reassuring. At times, I found myself re-winding the footage over and over to be certain I had just seen what I thought I had, given the surreality of the events represented. Protesters carried signs pleading for peace, equal justice and cries for their voices to be heard, and recognized, amidst tear gas, and thick smoke from burning buildings, or vehicles.
This was not reportage from Ferguson, Missouri where an empaneled grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in the August 9 shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager, but from Selma and Birmingham, Alabama; Mississippi; Tennessee; Arkansas; Detroit; and Washington, D.C., as depicted by the seminal, near-30-year-old documentary of the American Civil Rights Movement, "Eyes on the Prize."
I had started out watching the breaking news footage of Ferguson's disintegration on Monday evening after a St Louis County grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown was announced, but couldn't stomach it for very long. I was hoping that by looking back at the struggles of activists fifty, sixty years ago through the frame of "Eyes on the Prize," that I could draw useful parallels and contrasts to what has been unfolding over the past couple of months, coming to a head this week.
A native of St Louis, long a New York City expat, I less felt anger than shame at the inevitability of it all. The largely African-American protesters who took control of the streets in Ferguson -- some, but certainly not all, violently; the local mayor, police chief and state governor who despite predicting the possibility of unrest still seemed taken off guard when it actually happened; and the national journalists, usual casts of pundits, celebrity clergy and activists who likely had never heard of Ferguson before August 9 but were either waiting in the wings for "something" to happen, or parachuted in as soon as possible once it did. The decision not to indict, the outburst of rage, best exemplified by Michael Brown's stepfather, Louis Head, who implored a restless crowd to "Burn this bitch down!" And ultimately, the relentless descent into chaos and the communal implosion of Ferguson, a suburb on the outskirts of St. Louis City. Performers cast in a familiar play with specific roles to play once the curtain went up.
For the brief period of time I watched the St. Louis County prosecutor's press conference and immediate response on the streets, I couldn't help but think of two distinctive but very different quotes, both which were incredibly apropos. One by African-American poet Pearl Cleage at the outset of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, "it is the nature of oppressed people to turn on themselves." The other, from an unidentified American officer in Michael Herr's classic tome of the Vietnam War, "Dispatches": "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."
While I am upset and disappointed the grand jury's decision, I still draw hope in Michael Brown's family receiving justice for themselves and their son through the alternatives which still remain viable possibilities for them, in civil court and U.S. Department of Justice action. And to be sure, the residents of Ferguson and communities throughout the United States can and should use the resources available to them from living in a republic to change the laws which provide automatic protection to police officers such as Darren Wilson in situations such as these.
Personally, my ire, or rather, frustration is with us, "the elders," and leaders who failed the young people on the streets Monday night in Ferguson and across the country by not taking the time, or investing the effort in their understanding and appreciating the lessons of the civil rights movement and other successful non-violent efforts. Nor have we truly prepared them for sustainable, constructive leadership using their language and tools.
In his 1964 collaborative project with photographer Richard Avedon, "Nothing Personal," James Baldwin described a "light," within everyone and the importance of it being maintained and carried from one generation to the next. He wrote, "one discovers the light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith...The light. The light. One will perish without the light...For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out."
Rodrick K. Burton is pastor of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. Leading a congregation of more than 600 people including a number of Ferguson residents, Burton has held at least half a dozen strategic meetings with clergy, law enforcement officials and local youth activists since Brown's death. A friend for more than thirty years since we went to high school together, Burton identifies a general divide between protesters around Michael Brown's death, and traditional leaders borne out of the civil rights generation twenty, thirty, forty years ago.
"In this situation, the young people had actual power through the vote, as well as so much knowledge in resources such as the Internet, and social media tools, but instead chose violence," he observed in a lengthy conversation we had the night of the grand jury announcement, after he'd returned home from being on the streets of his church's community and Ferguson. "When the violent protests are over, these actions will have no impact on the next black person shot and killed by a police officer, and there will be another one. The activists in the 60s studied struggle, but the younger generation are disconnected from the deeper history of the civil rights movement and others. They're not studying the struggles to apply what could have been done successfully (in Ferguson) even before the grand jury decision, but have chosen another route. The Department of Justice said the (local) clergy were not showing leadership in this situation, and they were right. We'll be out with the protesters but we are not leading or organizing them in a positive way. Many groups coming here from outside the community were also not a help, speechifying and not speaking to the core issues of what is happening on the ground with destruction of businesses, black and white, and provocation of physical confrontations with the police. Ultimately, more black people must participate in government and change the political and economic realities."