Growing up in rural Mississippi, I watched people set fire to the land. Scorching the earth to cultivate the acreage — to improve its health and make way for future crops to grow beautifully, stronger, and in abundance. I was a young girl when I learned of this “prescribed burning” but the necessity of its function I didn’t understand until I was well into adulthood, particularly in the aftermath of the Ferguson Uprising.
Six summers ago, after the lyching of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the City of Ferguson sent a shockwave around the world. For over four-and-a half inhumane hours, the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments let Mike Mike’s slain teenage body lie, melting and bleeding out in the street. It was in this moment that those of us who dared not look away were forever changed.
We unapologetically took to the streets day after day in the longest standing revolt against the police, to protest the glaring injustice. We lost our jobs. We took leave of absences from school. We lost our homes. Some of us had none of those things to lose; some of us had everything to lose. We showed up on the streets anyway.
The police entered a community and murdered someone’s son in the middle of the street and denied his mother access to his lifeless body. We had a moral imperative to respond to this atrocious act of violence and give up convention to protest the unacceptable. We knew that it could be anyone of us or our loved ones next. Our love and commitment to ourselves and our home gave us the fuel we needed to reckon with the best of the worst this city, this state, and this country has to offer. Six years later, we are embroiled in the same fight.
What does it mean for our city and our state to be an epicenter of a global movement for Black lives and yet, under the gaze of the world, continue to grip the reins of a status quo that is stagnation, that is devastation, that is death for too many? It means we mobilize, organize, and dissent even when it is unpopular.
Six years ago, the political landscape and narrative around the Movement for Black Lives was prickly. The three word declaration “Black Lives Matter” could get you fired or leave you socially isolated. Today, it is plastered on boarded-up stores on Delmar Boulevard and across the homepage of amazon.com. We did not get here by happenstance.
Over the past six years, we’ve built organizations and infrastructure, we’ve won over hearts and minds, and we’ve sent a resounding message across the city, state, and nation that freedom from criminalization and over-policing, economic injustice, housing injustice, and deep systemic racism cannot wait. Despite those who scoff at the rebellion of 2014, I am proud of the organizing that is now happening in our city. It is no coincidence that work is being led by those of us who stayed in the streets and refused to let the world look away. Beyond hearts and minds, we have pushed for systems change. Recently, Close the Workhouse won a successful campaign to shutdown the abhorrent medium-security jail, slashing a $16 million budget and loudly pairing its demise with a demand to immediately reimagine public safety.
Missouri elected its first Black congresswoman in District 1, Cori Bush, who successfully defeated a 10-term incumbent of a political dynasty that maintained the office for over 50 years. St. Louis organizers, like those of Action St. Louis, successfully campaigned for and won the reelection of the city’s first Black circuit attorney, Kim Gardner, and protected the position of city Treasurer held by another Black woman, Tishaura O. Jones, despite malicious and sexist attacks from their opposition, the police union, and the Missouri Attorney General . None of these wins were inevitable.
Our pathway to our current political landscape required creativity and critique. It demanded refinement of our vision for justice and clarity in the strategies needed to achieve it. Ferguson seeded the collective resistance that spread like wildfire across the country and ushered in the possibility to reimagine justice. That same call is now echoing across the nation with demands to divest from policing and to elect progressive Black representation.
None of this change comes without blowback. That is inevitable. We are disrupting power structures that are designed to function in tandem with injustice. In the past few months, we have seen intense backlash nationally and locally.
The man in the White House has encouraged the police, military, and his White nationalist base to commit acts of violence and death against protesters. The federal police have been welcomed by St. Louis City’s mayor Lyda Krewson to unconstitutionally infiltrate the streets of our city, as they did in Portland and Chicago, where agents were spotted throwing peaceful protestors into the backs of unmarked vans.
Despite Gardner’s victorious August 4 primary victory, the current, unelected governor of Missouri, Mike Parson, has asked state lawmakers to approve a bill that expands the powers of State Attorney Eric Schmitt to disempower her position as the city’s circuit attorney.
I celebrate the wins of the people, yet I am perpetually disappointed by the failures of our leadership on a city, state and federal level. I loathe their commitment to the status quo, their inability to imagine a different world. James Baldwin said plainly, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” But in the legacy of those who came before us, we will persist.
For us, change is irresistible. The leadership of this city is often on the wrong side of justice. If the past 6 years are any indication, we have moved beyond the hashtags and we are bringing people with us. We are in the streets. We are in elected offices. We are in the institutions — the academy, the hospitals, the courthouses and more. We are in the community deeply engaging with our neighbors about what impacts their lives.
We are protesting. We are dissenting. We are organizing. And we will not stop.
One day we'll look back and realize all along that the change we struggled so hard for was destined. The Ferguson Uprising and the national resistance that followed will all make sense. Six years ago, we issued a “prescribed burning” to cultivate the land, and today that fire is still burning. We are fostering a new kind of justice. We envision a new world in which we all thrive – where the Michael Browns and Kimberlee Randle Kings live long full lives. And we are implicated and committed to reveling in good trouble to see it through until the end.
Brittany Ferrell, MPH, RN, is a national organizer and policy associate at Black Futures Lab, a volunteer organizer with Close the Workhouse and lead organizer at Action St. Louis.