Notes from Ferguson


As the protests in Ferguson, MO, enter their 12th day, following the shooting of Michael Brown by local police, the US section of the IMT continues to intervene in this spontaneous upsurge, in Ferguson itself, and on the campuses in the area. These events mark a qualitative turning point in the class struggle in the United States. It is already being recognized as an event for which there will be a “before” and an “after,” even by the talking heads in the media and the representatives of the capitalist political establishment.

Nightly scenes of riot police, tanks, tear gas, and youths battling the police is just one indication that these events are not “normal.” For those staying at home, local late night television programming has been cancelled in favor of live footage of battles between police and protesters. It is certainly a change from the previous offerings! Many people in the area have commented that it feels like they are no longer living in the USA, where things like this are “not supposed to happen.” The successive pushing-back of the starting day of area school districts, and the difficulties caused by police roadblocks, preventing area residents from being able to buy food and other necessities, has only compounded this feeling.

But beyond the media focus on the night-time battles between police and protesters, something even more important is happening. At the protests, in the stores, at the bus stops, people are discussing these events. Many are “eating and drinking” the news. Most people have never been involved in a protest before, but now that they are, feel like they are having a real effect and are gaining confidence in their collective power. Most importantly, the feeling expressed by many is that they are “making history.”

When the working class moves into struggle, be it at the more embryonic level of a strike (involving a limited section of the workers), or society-wide in a revolution, the normal cycle of life under capitalism, the old rut of everyday life, is disrupted. People’s psychology can be transformed overnight. Workers begin to actively question what is going on around them and search for a solution. The protests in Ferguson are in line with this phenomenon. While this movement may, in the end, turn out to be a temporary upsurge, we must continue to pay close attention to it as events have so far continued to develop in an escalating, not a downwards direction over the past few days, and is by no means finished.

So far, the attempts by the state (now including the Missouri National Guard!) to crush and intimidate the spontaneous movement have not succeeded. However, in isolation—especially without the power of the labor movement, which has the ability to mobilize the membership and reinforce the movement—it can at a certain stage be crushed, or the white-hot energy of the youth can dwindle away. The energies of the workers and youth can also fade when the trial of Michael Brown’s killer gets underway. But, if the trial drags on too long, or if the courts treat the killer lightly, there could easily be another upsurge. Also, once Michael Brown’s funeral takes place, it is hard to predict what effect it will have on the mood, particularly of black workers and youth in this community. As has been the case so far, grief can quickly turn into anger.

Here we provide some notes and observations from our participation in the events of the past week.

Saturday, August 9 and Sunday, August 10

On the first night, after a day of protesting, the police showed up with approximately 120 officers in riot gear with police helicopters and K-9 units. It was only after the police moved in to physically break up the protesters that any conflict began to take place. The riot may or may not have occurred otherwise, but the police actions certainly provided an impetus. And each night the police, along with their helicopters, armored vehicles, K-9 units, and tear gas have moved to disperse peaceful protesters provoking higher tensions. Several days ago, the Missouri Highway Patrol took over crowd control trying to calm down the anger that is ever present toward the county police. The National Guard is now present, as well.

Knowing the Ferguson area well, one of the most jolting things about these events is that they came to the surface in a relatively sedate, working class suburb. It would not seem like a place which would be called (as the Huffington Post did) “Baghdad USA.” Several stores were looted on Sunday; one of our comrades had been there that very afternoon buying back-to-school supplies for the kids! It was a normal day in the summer heat of slow-moving St. Louis. Driving around Ferguson running errands, an occasional police car sped by with lights flashing, but seemingly nothing major was out of the ordinary. People were talking about the shooting. “Did you hear what happened?” But nothing yet out of the ordinary. Most people in the stores seemed mainly concerned about the rush to get back-to-school clothes, supplies, etc. Everyday life under capitalism moved in its usual channels.

But something was definitely beginning to bubble to the surface. For example, later on Sunday, as the news coverage developed and people began to get a better idea of what had happened, a black friend and mother who lives in Ferguson told one of our comrades, comparing this shooting with the Trayvon Martin shooting: “They’ve messed with the wrong people. This isn’t sunny Florida, nobody is going to put up with this. It’s going to stop. They’re going to learn.” This turned out to be an accurate snapshot of the mood. After the string of police murders nationally over the past few years, coupled with the grinding down of the conditions of the workers and the working poor, the mood is “enough is enough!”

Monday, August 11

Rallies took place in the city of St. Louis and also in affluent Clayton, the capitol of the St. Louis County government, and the headquarters of the County police. The mood at these rallies was electric. The main chant on all the marches and protests has been “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” with protesters raising their hands in the air in mock surrender, drawing attention to the fact that, according to all the witnesses involved (excepting, of course, the police), Mike Brown was gunned down with his hands in the air. The Clayton march made its way to the police headquarters with about 150-200 people.

Tuesday, August 12

On Tuesday evening, the NAACP organized a mass indoor meeting to discuss the situation. However, this meeting and the NAACP’s “organizing pattern” of funneling popular anger in cases like this into movements led by clergy with demands focusing on legal and reformist demands, were completely out of step with the actual movement that was taking place in the streets. This meeting was televised, and the key comment made wasn’t from the rostrum but from the audience. A 30-something black woman, addressing the leaders on stage, said “What are you all doing here? Those young people out on the streets need leadership. But you’re not out there helping them, you’re here getting your face-time for the cameras!”

Returning to Ferguson on Tuesday night, we could see how the entire atmosphere and mood had been transformed. It was something completely unlike we had ever seen first-hand, excepting perhaps the struggle in Wisconsin in 2011.

We drove around Ferguson trying to find a protest. The protests have developed spontaneously. It seems like no-one is leading them, no one knows exactly where one is going on but they have an idea where it is if you ask them. People seem to be walking around randomly, and considering that this is not a “pedestrian friendly” area, where most people drive, not walk, this seems even more out of the ordinary. In reality, what is happening is people are coming out of their homes, on to the streets to see, take part in, and learn about what is happening.

We asked from the window of our car as people were walking on the sidewalk trying to find the protests themselves. Things are confusing. Some stores, post-looting, have spray-painted “Still Open” signs, while others, looted or not, are closed. The street lights have been turned off and it is eerily dark. The police made road blocks to keep protesters out. We followed traffic to Chambers Ave, and when a traffic jam developed our first thought was that we had run into another police roadblock. But what we had actually driven into was protest traffic, which led to a church where a memorial service was being held for Mike Brown.

The traffic was backed up for at least half a mile. When people couldn’t park they made the traffic jam part of the protest—young women and kids were sitting on top of cars through sun roofs holding up signs, honking horns, some people wearing Che Guevara or Malcolm X shirts, and we saw several people that had shirts with the word “revolution” on them in different forms/contexts which does not seem accidental. We also saw one or two American and black nationalist flags, but no organized political presence. The honking and loud music made a real cacophony, but that seemed to be the point, “let them hear us!” The atmosphere was not like a “normal” protest. All along Chambers, which fronts many apartment complexes housing the working poor (such as the Canfield complex where Brown was shot), the atmosphere was not like a “normal” protest, instead, people were making their way on foot to the memorial, other clumps of people protesting where they stood with signs and shouts on the sidewalk, with the apartment dwellers on the sidewalks too, kids running round, blasting music, etc. It seems like everyone in the area is involved, is part of the seemingly-incoherent but mass event taking place.

When we reached the memorial service itself, the church was surrounded by a huge crowd. A kind of stage had been set up, with cameras focused on the crowd and people speaking. None of the speakers were the usual “activists,” let alone the “leaders of the community” who were inside the church. The speakers that we saw were black youth, who gave speeches that were very impassioned, but it seemed like they were still reaching out in vain for real solutions to the problems faced. That is to be expected at this stage. This movement is an initial, spontaneous upsurge. The youth and workers know what they don’t want—poverty, police oppression—but are still searching for what they do want.

Demands like a “fair trial” for Mike Brown’s killer, “more black representation in the Ferguson police department,” and “community control of the police” are straws that are being clutched at, but especially among the youth, they know and feel instinctively that these are not enough. That, along with the heavy-handed police presence, is what is fueling the anger of the youth. There is a crying need for a revolutionary alternative that can lead the workers and youth out of this blind alley.

Saturday, August 16

On Saturday, we participated in a huge protest march in Ferguson, that was part of a national day of action to protest Mike Brown’s murder. Despite the “calming” tactics of the state governor and the state highway patrol, which had taken over the policing of the protests, the previous day’s press conference by the Ferguson police chief, the releasing of the liquor store CCTV footage before the naming of the officer, and now the announcement of a curfew—all acted like a whip to enlarge the protests, not calm them down.

We handed out 200 copies of our flier “You Can’t Have Capitalism Without Racism,” which went over very well, and received comments like “Ain’t that the truth!” and “exactly!” (just from the title). One common thread from the conversations we had were that, while nobody was happy with looting, etc., they think the protests and unrest need to continue, and that they are finally making the world listen, and that they feel like they are making history. One young person told me that he thought the protests seemed like “the revolution in the Hunger Games, except the police aren’t trying to kill us right now.”

The march started at the Canfield Green apartments, and was a bit more organized, with marshals, etc. Along the whole march cars were passing honking their horns and others had signs in their windows. This has been a feature of the movement over the past week, with many people driving up and down West Florissant Avenue several times, or making a detour while going about their normal business, just to drive by and honk or shout their support. There is a huge amount of support in the local area as well, with people watching from their front porches and yards. After the march ended, we passed the burned-down QwikTrip gas station, which seems to have been spontaneously taken over by protesters as a kind of HQ/gathering place, and people are driving up and donating cases of water, soda and food. We were told that there would be daily protests at 10am at the Ferguson police station, and there will likely continue to be people congregating at the gas station, which has become the main center of the protests, and is almost like a mini Occupy camp, but with more political and class clarity.

Tuesday, August 19

We took part in a smaller morning protest, with only a dozen or so present, which has been taking place daily outside the Ferguson police department. We talked with an elderly black veteran, who wore his Vietnam service badge and military service medals to the protest. He showed us a medal he received from a Missouri governor after he returned from Vietnam. He got it, he said “from the same ones that are now using the guns on us! How does that make any sense?” Since this protest is literally on their doorstep, it seems it is the focus of a “charm offensive” by the Ferguson police. As we were talking with a group of people, a rather hefty policeman made his way over to us. We were expecting to be given orders to move or something along those lines. Instead, in the softest voice possible, and with a look of forced sincerity (is that in the police academy training?) the sergeant “thanked” us for being there “peacefully,” and said “we’re all part of the same community” and a few other platitudes. Coming from the same department that actually, in 2009, charged a man with four counts of property damage for bleeding on police uniforms after he was beaten in the “community” jail, this kind of stuff won’t convince anybody.

The struggle continues!

There is an open, glaring split between the local Democratic Party representatives in the area and the higher-ups in the party. The Democratic state Governor, Jay Nixon, who has sent the National Guard to Ferguson, has been completely ignoring the pleas from local black Democrats to tone down the police presence. After being tear-gassed by police, State Representative Maria Chapelle-Nadal, in response to one of the Governor’s tweets calling for order and for people to return to their homes, tweeted “Fuck you, governor!” Which was followed by “Get on your knees and take what’s coming to you!” For anybody who has illusions that the Democratic Party is the “friend of working people” and minorities, how can this party do anything for us when it tear gases “its own people” and local representatives are driven to such frustration by the higher-ups? This is certainly not a reflection of a political establishment that is strong and united! As mentioned in our previous article, Charlie Dooley, the head of the St. Louis County government, was shouted down by protesters Sunday and is totally discredited.

To be sure, the “traditional leadership of the black community” such as the Democratic Party, NAACP, and others are playing a pitiful role. They have been chasing after the protests, but are reacting to events, not setting the tone. They have nothing to offer the youth except getting out the vote for the Democrats, lawsuits, court cases, lobbying, and impotent calls for “proportional representation” in the police force and press conferences. As a result, many black workers and youth have naturally come to the correct realization that they are on their own! A handful of individual SEIU members came in a contingent to some of the more organized rallies, but the labor leaders have done virtually nothing to mobilize the powerful St. Louis-area working class. The truth is, the “traditional leadership” does not reflect the present or the future, but only the past. A new generation of workers and youth have been awakened to active political involvement by these events, and they want to change things now, not sit on the sidelines while the clergy have prayer breakfasts with the governor or the chiefs of police, and wait for a solution that will not come from those quarters.

While the US section of the IMT is far too small to provide a revolutionary, alternative leadership at present, and the youth want action now, not analysis or answers, we can and must be there to put out markers for the future. We have to let the workers and youth know who we are and what we stand for. We have to let loose the “old mole” of our ideas to burrow into the consciousness, perhaps passed over now but reflected upon in the future, which can bring the best elements to us as we prepare that very revolutionary leadership which is so sorely needed. Above all, these events give a better illustration of the sharp and sudden changes we know are on the order of the day! To learn more about the IMT and our work in St. Louis, contact us for more information!

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