I opened this document planning to recount my experience in Ferguson. And every time I look at this blank page I’m unable to write anything down. I’m a writer. I take complex ideas and make them (hopefully) easy to understand. I write professionally. I write academically. I’ve written for blogs, journals, classes, personal life, etc. And yet this has been the ultimate struggle. Part of the struggle is that going to Ferguson was an insanely complex and multi-faceted experience. You’ve seen my attempts to recap the events surrounding Ferguson with part 1 and part 2 but it would take multiple books and an HBO special to explain everything.
In this, we find ourselves lost in the complexity of the moment. We want short blurbs, live tweets, and pre-existing narratives: cops are bad, Ferguson is a war zone, we shall overcome, justice won’t be served, etc. While this struggle rhetoric may help us grasp complex situations, it’s also inherently flawed. It may be easy and accessible to conjure up images of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, lynchings, slavery, and other harsh themes such as riots, pepper spray, and fire hoses, it will also cause you to not understand the present situation. I don’t want to contribute to that.
A lot of people – from friends to professors in my department, to my landlord, to strangers on twitter – have asked me to write about my experience in Ferguson. And I tried to acquiesce these requests. But the majority of the articles I’ve read, the vlogs I’ve watched, and the podcasts I’ve listened to has become clickbait and unproductive to understanding Ferguson and moving forward. So I’m not going to write a beautiful essay about what it was like “on the ground.” I don’t want to offer you more tragedy porn to get excited. What I will do, is tell you how this has impacted me since.
Going to Ferguson on a bus of 41 other people made me reassess how I view myself as a scholar, an activist, an American, and as a human being. And I don’t say all of that to be lofty. It’s truly caused me to re-evaluate how we do this – how we do this thing called activism and how we do this thing called life.
I’ve oscillated between true depression and unbridled anger over the murder of Michael Brown, and the subsequent catastrophic infringement of human rights and destruction of the Constitution. The cover up by the police, the lies by the Chief, the bumbling idiocy of the media, and the blissful ignorance of non-Black people made for a very remarkable shift in my life.
After Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown, many people rushed into action. Vigils were held, marches were planned, funds were donated. But the people I expected to help and be at the forefront were nowhere to be found. Churches were not speaking out. Black Greek Lettered Organizations weren’t doing anything. HBCUs were silent. I think the biggest hit to my naive optimism that people who claim to care will step up, was the lack of leadership. So the first shift I want to cover, is one involving expectations.
I attended Boston University for my undergraduate degree. If I were still at BU during these events, I would not expect anyone in the administration or in the student body to step up, start a movement, or contribute significantly in any way. That’s based on my experiences there. I was there during Trayvon. I was there when our Black Dean of Students consistently remained silent about issues that concerned the Black community. BU wasn’t about to make this grand statement. And I didn’t expect them to. Expectations. But Howard University? Yeah. I had some lofty expectations there. And I won’t get into slinging mud of any kind but this is where I am. Did I expect any of the many HBCUs, Black Student Orgs, sororities and fraternities to step up? I did. Is it unfair to have higher expectations for “us” than it is for “them”? I don’t care.
This caused me to rethink all of my affiliations. Am I okay with being part of an organization that nationally has not taken part in a major movement to stop more #MikeBrown situations from happening? No, so I made sure my chapter in Boston was actively involved and got involved with my alumnae chapter here in DC. What about my school not doing what I felt was enough? I got in contact with some people who want to get involved. Etc. So while I initially was paralyzed by this
super predictable shocking revelation that not everyone is down for the cause, some good talks with some good people helped me refocus that anger into a more productive response.
The second shift involved my activist ideology. I’ve gone from a person who preached civic engagement to borderline advocating for voter abstention. I’ve lost faith in the system and in our ability to be catalysts for change. I’ve lost faith in humanity after I dealt with several opportunists popping up around Ferguson
(one a particularly popular twitter personality who y’all insist on constantly retweeting but that’s none of my business). The main reason I question civic engagement is because there seems to be a major distortion of what it takes to impact an unjust system. For example, let’s say we all agree that voting is the key to fixing everything. And let’s say we got 100% of people in Ferguson registered to vote. And on top of that miracle, let’s say 100% of residents came out to vote as well. In this ideal situation, who are they going to vote for?
And I’m not saying don’t vote. I’m saying in my shift as an activist, I’m questioning our so-called solutions. People want to vote and sign a petition but nobody wants the liability of real civil rights work. I know we’re not supposed to talk about Michael Brown in schools but is American History still being taught? I evoke the image of the Freedom Riders, but lay no claim to a comparison, because these people weren’t riding into the sunset happily. They were riding into dangerous terrain where they could easily have been killed. Dr. King was arrested countless times. And that guy wore a suit! (For anyone not on twitter, people like to claim if Black people dressed better we wouldn’t be treated like criminals.) Those students who sat at lunch counters? Arrested. Students protesting? Arrested. I’m not sure I believe people are as committed to the cause as twitter would have us believe.
For one, I no longer feel the ability, or the need, to compartmentalize my life. There isn’t my academic life, then my activist life. There isn’t this false dichotomy of Angela Davis by day and Rihanna by night. I’m more comfortable being this multi-faceted (seemingly) contradictory individual. I can like Chopin and Chief Keef. Drake and Dostoevsky. Dr. King and Dr. Dre. You see my point. And my absolute obsession with alliteration. Along those same lines, I feel this need to be overwhelmingly Black. In everything I do, say, even wear. When I roll around DC blasting “Fight the Power” while wearing my Hillman crewneck? That’s purposeful. All that code switching and respectability I was raised on? It just feels less necessary. Or I’m much less willing to do it. It’s exhausting. I’m gonna be me and unabashedly so. Along with my desire to be more authentically myself, I don’t even have the energy for fake interactions. You know those people you’re “cool” with but secretly can’t stand, that coworker who habitually line steps, that cop who is tailgating you because he knows he can get away with it and you’re supposed to remain calm and polite? No more. I’m not recommending this life for everyone. I’m just relaying where I am in life. I’ve ended several toxic friendships, told my coworker to chill out, and had conversations with police that wouldn’t have taken place before.
So far, those are the impacts Ferguson has had on my life. I’m trying to channel all of this into a forward moving purpose. For now, it’s been a very personal revelation and development. But the goal is always mass change and figuring out how to improve the state of affairs for us all. If you want to talk about what I saw and what went down, I’m less interested in that conversation. But if you want to talk about what it means to be an American, what it means to fight an issue in one place that is rampant in cities across America, or how effective voting really is, let’s talk. Ferguson may be the focus right now, but it can’t be the end of your life as an activist.
We’re still paying off that bus we took to Ferguson so please, if you can, donate to gofundme.com/DCtoFerguson.