Activists say a lot of work remains to be done in Ferguson, despite national attention, a black police chief and the election of three new black City Council members.
FERGUSON, Missouri — It’s been one year since Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown outside his apartment complex in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Despite superficial changes in the political landscape, people are still being shot by police and community members and activists are still struggling for justice.
Speaking with MintPress News, Joshua Saleem, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Peace Education program, said the past year has made him more cynical about the future. The AFSC is a nonprofit created by the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers, who have a strong emphasis on nonviolent conflict resolution and peace.
“I was very hopeful a year ago when I saw people paying attention to something that the community of color here in St. Louis has known for a long time,” Saleem said. “But now I’m a little more skeptical, even with the Department of Justice and the work they’ve done, there’s a lot of pushback and a lot of resistance to the change that needs to happen when it comes to undoing institutional racism in the St. Louis region.”
On Aug. 9, 2014, Brown was fatally shot by Wilson. Despite numerous eyewitnesses who disagreed with Wilson’s account that he was attacked by Brown, as well as forensic evidence that cast suspicion on the shooting of the unarmed teenager, Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury. The killing and lack of charges spurred a local uprising, and reignited the national Black Lives Matter movement, first formed after the death of Trayvon Martin.
In April, Ferguson elected two new black City Council members, bringing the total number of black council members to three. However, candidates favored by local activists were notably unsuccessful, The New York Times reported:
“in a blow to the protesters who had pushed for sweeping changes to the city’s law enforcement and judicial policies after the shooting last August, voters rejected several candidates who had the direct backing of protest activists.”
And in July, Ferguson hired a black interim police chief in a step toward integrating an overwhelmingly white police force. According to MSNBC’s Anna Brand, “African-Americans make up nearly 70% of the city’s population but only about 3% of Ferguson’s police department.”
Despite these small gains, local activists say there’s still much work to be done before they have a just and peaceful city. On July 12, police shot Brandon Claxton, a black 16 year old from St. Louis, leaving him paralyzed below the waist. Although it’s unclear if Claxton was armed, multiple witnesses say he posed no threat and may have been trying to flee police when he was shot, according to the St. Louis Dispatch.
Freedom Schools and community gardens
The Peace Education Program and its allies are seeking to address racism at its roots. With their help, local students have held a series of four-day events called “Freedom Schools.“ The schools are based on a curriculum called “Undoing Racism,” from The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which seeks to teach students “what racism is, where it comes from, how it functions, why it persists and how it can be undone.” According to a post on the AFSC website, the schools “helped [participants] gain a sense of their own power to understand and challenge issues of institutional racism, using community organizing skills and their collective energy.”
For Saleem, it’s the intelligent, politically active young people he’s collaborated with through Freedom Schools that give him hope. “It’s not about going person to person to change individuals,” he said, “it’s about changing how systems operate and interact with people of color in this community. Young people are awake to that now and I’m hopeful they’ll lead the charge in holding institutions accountable.”
In addition to continuing to put pressure on the police and politicians, Saleem said that a major goal of Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, the St. Louis-based group he helped students form after a recent Freedom School session, is putting an end to the school-to-prison pipeline. “We know that punitive discipline doesn’t work, and we know that pushing kids out of school doesn’t work, it just pushes them into the prison-industrial complex.” The students also want more black and “people’s history” brought back into the classroom, instead of the “white-washed” history he says they are taught now.
They’ve also established a community garden on an abandoned plot of land in a local food desert. “There aren’t any major grocery stores within a 5 or 10 mile radius,” he told MintPress. In addition to yielding produce, the garden allows people to build local connections and empowers residents. Saleem and his allies seek to counter the effects of “well-intentioned” outsiders from well-funded nonprofits who arrive in a local community and try to bypass the already established local leadership.
As he reflects on the past year, Saleem feels proud of what the Black Lives Matter movement has accomplished, but noted that it’s still a long way from its goals. “The protests, they need to continue,” he said. “But we also need to be organizing in our communities to build alternatives to the current systems that really were not set up for us in the first place.”
Watch “They See Me, I See me: St. Louis Youth Share How They Are Perceived By the Criminal Justice System” from AFSC St. Louis: