Activists still fighting, a year after Ferguson unrest

2015-08-07 22:47
Police officers work their way north on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo, clearing the road with the use of tear gas and smoke bombs. (Robert Cohen, AP, St Louis Post-Dispatch)

Police officers work their way north on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo, clearing the road with the use of tear gas and smoke bombs. (Robert Cohen, AP, St Louis Post-Dispatch)

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Ferguson - At another time, the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson a year ago might have gone virtually unnoticed.

But this time, the stark images - of his body left in the street for hours; of torched stores, tear gas and riot gear; of protesters with their hands raised - galvanised a new generation of activists in the United States.

"Ferguson was a spark for a larger play which is now a brushfire in America," said Jeffrey McCune, a professor at Washington University in St Louis who studies race and gender.

"You have all these organisations across the country resisting, shutting shit down, advancing the cause of black people and black liberation and reducing the amount of violence that black men and women face."

The violent unrest which engulfed the Missouri town in the wake of the fatal August 9, 2014 shooting is nothing new in America.

It happened more than 20 years ago in Los Angeles, after the 1992 acquittal of four white police officers videotaped beating Rodney King, who is black.

What's different this time around is how the outrage over the deaths of Brown and a series of other African Americans at the hands of police in the past year has been channelled into a sustained nationwide social movement.

Key role for social media

Police tactics, especially in minority communities, are at the centre of the movement, which also encompasses questions about social justice and troubled race relations.

Social media - and the fact that most bystanders now have video cameras on their cell phones - have played a critical role in the movement's expansion.

"This has created a whole new level of visibility in the sense that whenever police officers are doing things wrong, we can catch that on video and send that to a million people immediately, whether it be Vine, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter," said Waylon McDonald, an activist with the St Louis-based Organisation for Black Struggle.

Social media allows people to bypass traditional news outlets and tell their stories with a level of immediacy and intimacy that lets people "be a part of the moment without being here," McDonald said.

"It's been a really good tool to be able to mobilise and do some initial organising," he told AFP.

The constant stream of videos and stories showing heavy-handed police behaviour has forced the nation to acknowledge the reality of systemic racism, said DeRay Mckesson, an activist with We The Protesters who has nearly 200 000 Twitter followers.

"So much of the work in the past year was focused on exposing and convincing and saying to people, 'This is what happened' and 'This is what's wrong, believe me and listen'," he told AFP.

"A year ago, people thought there was an issue in Ferguson, in St Louis. They did not realise there was a crisis with police across the United States. And now they do."

Hard work ahead

Mckesson says that one year on, the much harder work is at hand - actually resolving the crisis.

That involves more than just expanding the use of police body cameras to prevent violence, he said - it means reforming the criminal justice system, expanding economic opportunities and fixing broken schools, for starters.

But while much work remains, activists should be very proud of what they've accomplished in a year, said Michael McMillan, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan St Louis, a leading civil rights organisation.

The US Justice Department answered calls to investigate allegations of racial bias in Ferguson's police force and issued a scathing report that promises federal oversight and significant change.

Municipal courts across Missouri are no longer allowed to send people to jail for minor infractions such as not paying parking tickets, and the state has placed limits on how much money towns can raise from traffic violations.

Ferguson police are now wearing body cameras and answering to an interim police chief who is black, and who has pledged to instill the force with the "respect, cultural awareness and the professionalism this community deserves."

The city manager and a controversial judge have also been replaced, along with police officers and a court official who sent racist e-mails from their work accounts.

Perhaps more importantly, activists say, police and politicians across the country are on notice that they are being watched.

Activists "have done a great job of bringing all these issues to bear and continue to do that," McMillan said.

"You have to have activism and agitation to make the powerful uncomfortable at times in order to show that everyone does not have access."

Read more on:    michael brown  |  us

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