When I worked at World News in Clayton I heard horror stories for years from customers just out of the St. Louis County Jail, which was two blocks south of the store. Upon their release, many would find their way to the convenience store on the corner where they would get candy and cigarettes. Someone was jailed for weeks for parking tickets. An ill woman spent three days in jail because nobody had $200. Things like that. These two persons were black.
Was it really true? Could these things happen to Americans in the 21st century? Certainly, they’re leaving something out, I thought. We are notified almost daily that these things and worse do happen.
I had protested only once before, in early 2003, in the run-up to the (predicted) disastrous Iraq War. It lasted one day, a Sunday. I asked my then-wife if she would gather our five-year-old boy and come with me. She declined, so I went alone. I remember liking being part of a multiracial crowd, and that people wearing strange costumes disturbed me.
I’m a good deal older than the persons who spurred the rebellion against police brutality and racism in St. Louis in 2014. I had consciously given up on fighting the world as I found it, and retreated into a world of watching, listening to, and writing about Major League Baseball, specifically the hometown St. Louis Cardinals.
My conscience prodded me to protest, however. The militarized response to unrest on W. Florissant Avenue was not a good introduction to its practice. That scared me. The sight of MRAP’s and snipers was a major deterrent. I couldn’t fathom it going well over there, but the mere notion of police pointing guns at citizens in the street simultaneously enraged me.
I went to a gym populated mostly by blacks and got a lot of bad looks one day. I was already in a mood. CNN was on in the locker room. I said something against cops, loudly. I received quizzical looks from the men around me. I became hyperaware of my own whiteness and my apparent “cop-ness” and left.
It was at that time I determined I had to get down to W. Florissant. I never would have been out there had the young adults not withstood the test; had not defied the state’s attempt to bully protesters into submission.
I wondered, how are they different from me? What are their lives like? Some lives are, at times, harrowing. A young man was threatened where he stayed by a baseball bat-wielding homeowner. Another woman stays with friends or at hotels for short durations. I know a pregnant woman who sometimes goes hungry.
You listen more than you might be used to doing. You make some mistakes, which surprise you, because you think you are down. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about race, you don’t.
These are the connections I wish to make here. The woman in the hotel? She would excel in college. I think of the education she has given herself this year and believe it would hold up to any other. This woman has flexed her imagination, tested her endurance, traveled, met many people, and expresses a creativity and drive that others notice. She is kind to all. She sets a great example.
The people I have met are often very resourceful, ambitious, evince a powerful sense of self, and extremely hard-working. “I need money to do this service.” She finds a way to get it. “I have to get to two meetings tonight.” He stays up ‘til 3 am planning an action.
It manifests as indomitable will, but it is augmented by confidence in the future. The young leaders of #Ferguson exhibit a confidence in their own futures that belies the objective data, which is what young people do, in all spheres! They inspire those around them with their energy and their belief in the cause. The young leaders constantly drag the rest of us along with them.
I had forgotten how it felt to believe I could get what I want. These folks, many of whom have had fewer opportunities than me, generally don’t give up. “I believe that we will win” is infectious, in a crowd, at night.
We’ve struggled with the course of events. We didn’t get an indictment of Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Mike Brown.
Brittany and Alexis often say “Let’s get free, y’all.” None of us is free when a policeman shoots an unarmed teenager to death because he is afraid; because his mentality is warped.
So I see connections—to our past, in our circumstances—and to our future, through the lives of these people who are supposed to outlive me. Many Americans fret and just wish to be unyoked from this country’s racial legacy. Time is neutral, Martin Luther King reminded us, in his Letter From Birmingham Jail. The young grasped this, and presently attempt to wrest a city toward the future.
We’re on a different footing now. We’re at a higher base camp. The summit is not in sight, yet it exists as a vision in the minds of the believing community—the community we made in the summer and fall of 2014.