Leyla Fern King

Leyla Fern King, 11, contributed to a public art project in Michael Brown’s memory on the roadside very near where he died Canfield Green Apartments early in the Ferguson unrest.

In remembering the Ferguson unrest five years later, St. Louis and the rest of the nation and world should reflect on what it was and could be like in Ferguson during the daylight in the first few months of the protests. 

A lot of people had woken up in a way they had never been awakened before and were crackling with a new energy on the streets. These newly woke people were mostly young, mostly black and mostly local, but the original core was not only black and not only young, and international media coverage quickly attracted many people who were not local.

If you weren’t there to see and feel it for yourself, you would not know and might not believe it, but for a time there was a feeling of a new society being created in Ferguson, in St. Louis County, in the St. Louis region, and it was doing something that the region’s economic elite admits it has failed to do: connect talented people to this place and attract talent here from elsewhere.

My daughter was 11 when Michael Brown was killed at 18, and I took her to the protest zone during the first, hottest month of August 2014 on a Saturday afternoon. Walking into Canfield Green Apartments from West Florissant Avenue, we saw a young black man who came down from Chicago with a portable DJ rig and was pulsing music into the street with a vibe of wanting to be left alone with his music and his moment when asked where he was from. He came to Ferguson to be part of something, and he was part of it.

He had set up on the outskirts of Canfield Green because in the small green space near where Michael Brown died, a church had set up a sound system and people were leading songs and prayers the DJ knew better than to compete with. Food, including quickly melting ice cream, was being given away by volunteers from portable stands.

A public art project in Michael Brown’s memory was underway on the roadside very near where he died. As my daughter contributed to the art project, a woman came by capturing footage, talking to people and getting their names. She was a white filmmaker from Montreal who came to Ferguson because something was happening and she wanted to be part of it, and she was part of it.

A group of black men wearing berets, camouflage trousers and combat boots jogged past in lockstep, chanting in unison. Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor, passed by on the other side of Canfield Drive, soaking up the deep atmosphere in momentary escape from his handlers.

For many people who lived in the neighborhood, of course, it was another trying day. We stopped by to visit a friend of mine who lived in Canfield Green and felt the day from her family’s perspective. They were not getting enough peace, quiet or sleep. By night, they lived under a paramilitary blockade. The Ferguson Unrest was a high-crisis siege that damaged many people and tragically shortened many life spans. 

But it also was a place where a great many people woke up at the same and discovered themselves and each other. This was expressed, somehow, even in the disaster-chasing mass broadcast news media, but especially on the social media where you could experience what so many people were doing and thinking with no filter. As proof of how effective especially Twitter was as a vehicle for expressing and experiencing the movement, the people who followed Twitter to Ferguson invariably found just what they were looking for.

New relationships were forged on the streets of Ferguson — more than is widely appreciated and more than ever will be fully known. The reactionary noise about the financial investments made by someone like George Soros missed out on a much larger and deeper emotional and intellectual investment in the St. Louis region by artists, civil rights lawyers, criminal justice reformers, social workers, community organizers, journalists, documentary filmmakers, academics, students, revolutionaries. All because a bunch of fed-up, mostly poor black kids stood up to the cops.

It is not possible to quantify and compare how much the rest of the world brought to Ferguson and how much it took away, but it’s worth contemplating. I would submit that the St. Louis region, and black St. Louis in particular, did more to nourish and inspire the nation and the world through Ferguson than they have invested in us.

The St. Louis region lost an enormous amount of talent in the aftermath of Ferguson. So many of our best and brightest who emerged in the struggle were enticed away once the world saw them on the world stage. You can’t name an important field of endeavor where a black person who woke up in Ferguson did not go national and relocate to a region more nurturing of black people who stand up for themselves and their communities. This continues to happen this day, and five years ago from now when we look back on a decade after Ferguson, it will still be happening.

I understand. I have lived in bigger, more thriving cities, but keep coming back to St. Louis for the deep community that is rooted here. And I don’t blame any of the artists, clergy, educators, journalists or revolutionaries who were lured away to somewhere they get more support with less resistance and enjoy more ongoing national impact.

This is nothing new. Our nation and the world always take our talent – Scott Joplin, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange, or the firebrands of Ferguson – then forgets about us. It leads me to offer a two-way challenge, and it’s the same for our bright lights who left us and for the rest of the nation and the world who are benefiting from them now. Don’t forget about us. Come back. We’re still here. We’re still on fire, somewhere deep inside.

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