There are times in the movement when we need to reflect upon our past. These moments of reflection can ground us in our present while acting as a guiding light toward new future possibilities.
To forget past influential moments is the recipe for repeating the worst mistakes history has ever seen. So this led me to the questions for every so-called activist, organizer and community advocate from the Black community out there.
How did you forget Ferguson? How could you forget the catalyst for this reiteration of the 21st century Black Freedom Struggle?
For millions of Black people around the world, the reaction of the people on Aug. 9 in Ferguson —a little-known St. Louis suburb—shook the consciousness of our people. The preverbal wool cannot be put back over the eyes of the masses of our people. But sadly, as I look around both locally and nationally, it appears that catalyst is all but forgotten by both movement and Black NGO people alike. But what happened here in Ferguson, Missouri, changed the trajectory for both professions unequivocally.
After the 2014 uprising, movement funding was falling out of the sky for organizations doing anything in the Black community. Funding specifically for Black-led organizations and nonprofits skyrocketed after Ferguson, with hundreds of millions going to organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League despite them doing almost nothing with or for grassroots activism across the country.
And take visibility for activists for instance. It used to be a dirty word to call someone an activist, but now they can be seen as an influencer from a smartphone despite never actually doing anything in the streets or community.
To me, these are all ramifications of a Post-Ferguson movement devoid of any actual Ferguson uprising organizers in any positions of influence in the movement or in mainstream culture. But all of them literally owe the shirts off their backs to the thousands who sacrificed it all, including their freedom and, for some, their own lives to the cause. For me, the grounding was rooted in a promise.
After George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, I went to a Black gathering, and they were reading poetry. That may have been good for other people, but it didn’t do it for me. I made a promise to myself that if this ever happened in my city, I definitely wouldn’t respond that way.
Well, on Aug. 9, 2014, Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown. I first saw what happened on Twitter and was arguing online. But then I saw Leslie McSpadden say, “do you know how hard it is to get a young Black man to graduate from high school.”
I went outside. I had just turned 30 but had never seen a lynching in my lifetime. I looked at his bloodied body. The sheet that covered him was drenched in his blood. It was so much blood that they had to repave the street. They attempted to remove the blood-soaked payment, but it will be forever stained with injustice.
What was I going to do about that promise I made to myself? I can’t lie, I didn’t know that I was about to spark something that would change the world. That night and the many similar to it reverberate through my mind often.
My question is this, though, are people forgetting about what we did in Ferguson after they murdered Mike Brown? I mean, I know people remember how it looked and sounded, but do we remember the spirit of the people?
I know that there are remnants of Ferguson across the country when I show up, but it’s not the same. The energy just doesn’t hit like it does at home.
At this point in the movement, I’m more like the protest OG due to how many protests I have led, organized and attended globally. I was in Minneapolis just a couple of days after officer Chauvin choked the life from George Floyd. I got arrested in Louisville during my six-week stay fighting for justice for Breonna Taylor. I worked with activists from Kenosha to Miami, even all the way down to Melbourne, Australia.
So here’s my two cents. Ferguson heavily influenced the direct actions in 2020. Many activists, organizers and freedom fighters started in 2014 because of what we did in Ferguson and were active in 2020.
While the Floyd-Taylor uprising was an introduction to some, it is almost impossible to imagine Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd without Mike Brown. This is how the movement works. It is not a new Black Lives Matter movement that is separate from the 1960s. We are fighting in the Black freedom movement that our ancestors started fighting when the first colonists attempted to capture them.
The 2020 uprisings go back to 2014. And Ferguson came out of our dissatisfaction with the response to the Zimmerman verdict. I kept my promise to myself, and I played a role in setting the world on fire. I want to remind the world of not only what we did in 2014 but also let them know that they can do that and more.
You can take what we did to another level. You don’t have to do another racial poetry slam or moment of silence. You can strap up and put boots on the ground.
We fought back. Don’t forget about what we did in Ferguson because when the kind of injustice that the masses can’t ignore comes to your city, you’ll know exactly what to do about it.
And if you don’t remember, just call the protest OG. I got you. Holla at me so we can collectively talk about the sacrifices, wins, losses and mistakes like we planned unless everyone wants to forget about us.
Tory Russell is an activist, lead organizer of the Ferguson rebellion, political campaign strategist and Director of Black Organizing at The International Black Freedom Alliance. Follow him at @VanguardTNT and his work at TheIBFA.org