FergusonOctober – Voices from the Ground
How can philanthropy support organizing in this moment and in the long term? The Neighborhood Funders Group asked four questions – these are the responses.
Thank you to the following people and organizations for their contributions:
- Bukky Gbadegesin, Organization for Black Struggle (OBS): email@example.com
- Jeff Ordower, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE): firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rashad Robinson, ColorofChange.org: email@example.com
- Sherrilyn Ifill, Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please fee free to forward this to any colleagues in philanthropy that you think would benefit from this information.
To continue this conversation with Neighborhood Funders Group and our partners, please write to us at email@example.com.
1) What would you offer as a synopsis of the Ferguson uprisings overall and of Ferguson October, from your own point of view and that of your organization?
Organization for Black Struggle:
For us the Ferguson uprising represented a drawing of the line in the sand. Mike Brown’s unfortunate death was the catalyst for Black communities to stand up and say, “Ok, this is the last time! We will not accept this again! We demand change.” The conditions that created the uprising were not just the unacceptable number of police killings of Black people, it is also the lack of quality employment opportunity; the glaring and growing inequities of our segregated city and county; the gutting of quality public education; the rising costs of college tuition; the lack of accountability among elected officials; the criminalization of Black youth; and the flat out denial to recognize Black people’s humanity. We knew the storm was brewing, we just didn’t know when it would come ashore.
The rebellion that emerged required our organization to not only rise to the occasion and meet the people in the streets, but also creatively and effectively channel their energy into sustained action and transformative policy. Ferguson October was part of that creative response and the second step in that process. And we are clear that it was the second step, the first step was taken by the people in the street. We organized Ferguson October to build on their efforts, and put the call out to national allies who were eager to stand with those of us here, because we know people across the country have suffered from the same police abuse, crime and repression in their cities. Ferguson October was a great example of what can happen when ordinary Black and working class people of color, women, anti-racist white allies, students, workers, clergy, LGBTQIA communities and others come together and embrace the intersectional nature of our struggle. And now, as an organization, we have to return to the people to cultivate their raw energies into indigenous organizing work around the issues and policies that can further catalyze transformation.
Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE):
The potential for a Ferguson style uprising has been present in St. Louis for quite some time. Few regions are more segregated than St. Louis, and what happened in Ferguson could have happened anywhere in the region. What was amazing was the spontaneity of the uprising, and how it was led by youth who were fed up and willing to take incredible risks to be heard. Initially we saw our work as just trying to be good allies with and supportive of the uprising. For example, we immediately used our know-how to set up a jail support structure, so that the scores of people wrongfully arrested could get out as quickly as possible. We have also attempted to provide resources for as many local organizers as possible, including hiring a couple prominent leaders (jointly with OBS), and providing additional organizing and canvass positions. As people came in town to help, we had initially discouraged people from coming in because we didn’t have a clear way for them to plug in. However, people really wanted to be present in Ferguson, so we listened to people and called for Ferguson October.
What was special about Ferguson October were the sheer number of organizations and individuals who participated, and more importantly how the weekend provided a frame and container for a number of diffuse actions. Community organizations and unions engaged in civil disobedience at political and corporate targets, clergy bore witness and took arrests at the police station, and youth were able to do banner drops at football games, shopping malls, and St. Louis City Hall. Spontaneous actions happened at Wal-Mart. Finally, the influx of people meant that those who have been active in the streets were able to lead a huge march in the streets that lasted all night long.
Thousands of people attended this past weekend of resistance in an incredible show of solidarity, love, and hope. Facing tear gas and riot police, people of all ages and backgrounds came together and protested for a special prosecutor outside the doors of County Attorney Robert McCulloch, coordinated a sit-in in front of the Ferguson Police Department, unfurled banners with messages of justice at the Rams game, shut down City Hall, as well as multiple Walmart locations in remembrance of #JusticeForJohnCrawford, and interrupted a political fundraiser for influential Democrats standing on the wrong side of #JusticeForMikeBrown.
The scale and scope of the participation in the events over the last few moments has been overwhelming and inspiring. Organizers were taking action at all possible points of intervention and the thousands of people on the ground were supported by ten of thousands online. The most incredible aspect has been witnessing the rising leadership among Black youth and their role in coordinating and leading many of the actions during #FergusonOctober.
The uprising in Ferguson represents both local and a national moment. At the local level, Ferguson is a community with absent political and movement leadership. The police department preys on the community as a source of revenue through traffic stops and court fees. The killing of Michael Brown in August set off the frustrations of a community where there is no effective leadership. One of the positive outcomes has been the emergency of strong, viable, principled leadership, especially among young people in the community. The residents of this community have discovered their power and the opportunity for change. What they now need is support by being exposed to an array of options for leadership and development in their community.
The national story is about the ongoing issue of racial bias in policing. At the time of the killing in Ferguson, my organization was already engaged in this issue because of the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police in Staten Island, NY. Our approach was to identify a structural approach to addressing this decades-long problem. We prepared a letter to the Attorney General, tracing funding programs from the Dept. of Justice for state and local police organizations. We proposed a comprehensive set of incentives and conditions that can lawfully be attached to these programs to begin to change the nature of policing nationwide. Since then we have met with Attorney General Eric Holder and subsequently with his team to try and work through how to embed these changes in DOJ funding programs to police. This is hard work. The police funding lobby is incredibly strong, and federal administrations are skittish about challenging them through the funding stream. We are also working closely on the issue of the militarization of school police, who we learned, have become astonishingly militarized with armored cars, gas grenades, and sniper equipment.
Most importantly, we have approached Ferguson from the perspective of criminal justice, education and political representation. Drawing on our expertise in these three core civil rights areas we deployed attorneys, organizers and policy experts from our staff to address what we deemed to be the core areas of deficiency and challenge in Ferguson. This team – which we called our “Ferguson Rapid Response Team” has had enormous agility and bandwidth to address needs of the community in real time. Throughout our engagement in Ferguson, we applied this holistic lens to the events there. Our publication “Ferguson in Focus” [see below] is an attempt to provide this context to ongoing work in Ferguson.
As a result of our (unexpected) intervention on behalf of residents in Detroit who have been subject to mass water shut-offs and our work in Ferguson, we created a permanent and intentional structural “Rapid Response” apparatus in September, pulling together attorneys, organizers and policy counsel from across our complex to be available to bring the kind of intellectual and legal and organizational resources we effectively deployed in Ferguson. We even created a “Rapid Response Fund” for which our board has assisted us in raising funds.
2) How would you describe the growing national attention and momentum? What are the opportunities for movement-building in the short and long term? (Or, Why does this moment matter?)
Organization for Black Struggle:
We think that Ferguson has provided the perfect opportunity to transform the nature of policing in this country. The momentum is there for us to once and for all bury militarized policing. The excessive tactics and equipment used on peaceful protests was adequately captured on social media and, to a lesser degree mainstream media. The coverage was enough to give us the moral high-ground when it comes to militarized policing. In addition, we also believe that we have an opportunity to change the day-to-day culture of policing. We have pushed for a) third-party monitored body-cams, b) effective civilian review boards with subpoena power, c) public national-level database of police shootings, misconduct, etc., d) national use of force matrix, and others policy reforms.
In the short term, the movement building is already taking place. Ferguson October was all about movement building, and pulling together different national entities to think about themselves as being on the same page. The sheer number of national and local endorsing organizations illustrates the kind of movement building that is taking place–and the different sectors of participants have already been mentioned. Our challenge moving forward, for the long term, will be sustainability. We have to make sure that we don’t fall into the trap of prioritizing certain people’s struggles over others and instead seem them as intersectional. We also have to be creative in our work, which means letting go of some “tried and true” tactics and allowing a younger generation to blossom and be creative in how they resist their oppression. And in fact, the reason this moment matters is because it literally birthed a whole new generation of young people who have explicitly said that they are willing to sacrifice everything, and die for change.
Through their courage, sustained efforts, creativity, and self-sacrifice they have literally demanded a new day! And we all have to either be willing to embrace that or be swept aside with the old world they have committed to transforming. They have said, “It is now or never. We do it today because if we don’t, there won’t be a tomorrow!” And the reality is, tomorrow has always belonged to the youth, but in order for there to be a tomorrow, we have to make changes today.
Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE):
Movement building is always a tough question. My definition of a movement moment is like St. Louis post-Ferguson. So much is happening it is not controlled by any one organization or coalition, and more great work keeps happening. The pieces do fit together though. Youth in the streets know they can take risks, as jail support is well-resourced, for example. I think this moment also raises some fundamental questions about the theory of change. Because so much is happening in the streets, the power structure is trying to figure out what to do, so we are winning a lot. Ferguson, St. Louis County and likely St. Louis City will feature all police with front-facing cameras in the next year. We will win civilian oversight of police in the region. St. Louis City just “Banned the Box” and has also declared amnesty on 220,000 outstanding municipal bench warrants. These wins came not from running strategic campaigns, but by being bold and in the streets. While it is hard to know what starts a movement, having an influx of people and enthusiasm sure helps keep a movement going. This has happened at two critical junctures, the Black Lives Matter Ride and Ferguson October.
Longer-term, we need to provide training and resources for both individuals and organizations who are flexible enough to pivot from their campaign work to see opportunities and take advantage of them. I think the more organizations and individuals who engage in sustained dramatic action, the more movements will grow. Groups like the Dream Defenders and the Ohio Student Association have engaged in dramatic action, and there were takeovers of police stations in New Orleans and Milwaukee recently. Social media can spread work quickly, and a little bit of training can go a long way with people who already possess initiative.
Our members and allies watched in outrage as the events of Ferguson unfolded. National leaders are now paying more attention to racial profiling and police brutality than they have in years, due to the hard work of Black youth and community leaders in Ferguson and across the country. In order to capture the momentum of this moment and secure long-term, systemic reforms that transform policing nationwide, we need the federal government to intervene and set a higher standard of policing. ColorOfChange has joined a coalition of organizers, local and national, to call on the federal government to take concrete and immediate action to address the nationwide police brutality crisis. Around 200,000 activists have joined this call to action already http://www.colorofchange.org/campaign/historictime-national-policing-reforms/.
In terms of movement building, ColorOfChange worked to support local organizations on the ground in Ferguson and St. Louis to leverage our resources to strengthen their infrastructure, impact, and reach. The Organization for Black Struggle has even launched a campaign on our distributive organizing platform http://iam.colorofchange.org/petitions/governornixon-remove-mcculloch-and-appoint-a-special-prosecutor-in-the-case-against-darren-wilson-1 calling on Governor Nixon to appoint a special prosecutor for Mike Brown’s murder case. This week, ColorOfChange also launced the twitter project @KilledByCops, bringing national attention to police violence and misconduct, which so far has around 4000 followers http://magazine.good.is/articles/killed-by-cops.
I do think we have reached a “moment” around issues of policing and bias. The good news is that we are also precisely in the moment when new police chiefs are emerging with progressive, innovative and important ideas about how to re-train police to create a new ethic of policing. This moment also coincides with a strong recognition on the political right (see Rand Paul and ‘Right on Crime” initiatives), the progressive community, and in the current presidential administration, that our criminal justice system is broken. Attorney General Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative has opened up a conversation among law enforcement, academic criminologists and civil rights activists about how to impose real reforms within our criminal justice system. Thus, the movement around policing that has been ignited in Ferguson, which has correlative movements in at least 5 other locations where police killings have raised issues of training and bias, has the potential to create a sustained grass roots base for reforms which can provide momentum for the real change.
In terms of Ferguson itself, there is a real opportunity to address core issues of governance and representation that exist not only in Ferguson, but in many working class majority-minority suburbs. While increasing voter participation will help, it will not resolve the lack of governance that is structurally embedded into Ferguson and its surrounding communities. The town is governed by a part-time Mayor (stipend of $350/month) and part-time City Council (stipend $250/month). The real power resides with the unelected town manager and the police chief. This weak governance structure means that no one is in fact responsible for economic development in Ferguson. Instead, traffic fines and court costs are a principal source of revenue for Ferguson, and for the towns that surround it in St. Louis County. From the very outset, my public pronouncements in the first days after Michael Brown’s death focused on the demand that local leaders take responsibility for addressing the needs of the community. Here’s a link to my appearance on MSNBC in the midst of the crisis which began the discussion about the role of Governor Jay Nixon and other local officials. http://www.naacpldf.org/news/after-ifill-lambastes-lack-political-leadership-missouri-gov-nixon-changes-course
We convened a workshop during the Ferguson October weekend on the laws that govern recall elections and write-in candidates. This workshop was conducted at the request of community groups who are interested in demonstrating their political power, perhaps by recalling the Mayor and members of the Council. We will be following up with an all day convening on how Ferguson residents might imagine the restructuring of their local government.
In mid-September I gave a speech at the St. Louis History Museum “From Brown v. Board to Ferguson: the Unfinished Business of Civil Rights.” This speech provides some of the larger civil rights context of the Ferguson events. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQjQmViwfhE&feature=youtu.be.
3) What do you think are critical resource needs? What are the specific types of creative and grassroots organizing that’s happening, as well as the legal support, communications/media narratives, etc.? This can be in the short, medium, and/or long term.
Organization for Black Struggle:
Working together, OBS and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) have deployed a canvassing team that has made contact with over 1,000 households in the Ferguson area on the issue of police and municipal court reform. We’ve identified those interested in having deeper discussions and hosting house meetings with their neighbors, friends and family members. We have already begun to engage these residents in small group conversations about the problems and issues that they feel are most pressing in their communities. However, these conversations must be broached beyond the Ferguson area. OBS has identified 3 municipalities surrounding Ferguson (Dellwood, Jennings, and Pine Lawn) that are afflicted by similar racial disparities regarding policing practices and economic opportunities. We need to expand our canvassing infrastructure to these localities and begin to engage with residents in both deep internal community and broad county-wide conversations. This would generate powerful connections within communities and across municipalities as well as create an organizing network rooted in indigenous power. This county-wide expansion has been really hindered by lack of funding for canvassers and organizers who could facilitate these internal community and county-wide conversations.
It’s likely that some of the issues and problems identified by residents through these canvasses, house visits, countywide conversations could be changed through policy reforms that would require legal and legislative support that is currently not funded. There are also some legislative pieces that can also advance transformative policies but that would need legal support. Not only is MORE continuing its ongoing (and very successful) work on the municipal court reforms, OBS is also planning to launch a campaign to decertifying police departments based on stricter population requirements that would prevent small municipalities (less the 1500 residents) from establishing police departments. This would reduce the number of municipal police departments whose activities need to be monitored. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has indicated that a county-wide civilian review board process will be among the recommendations that they will consider. We have an opportunity to implement innovative reforms, which could cover multiple municipalities, if we organize around, and in parallel to, the ongoing Department of Justice investigation. These are all efforts that require expansive legislative and legal support, which we currently do not have.
Further, in spite of the magnitude and geographically expanded nature of our organizing work, OBS has still been working out of the same small space — Rowan Community Center (RCC) in Ward 22 in the city. The RCC is reasonably close to the county but in it current state, it cannot possible sustain the scale of work that we will be doing over the next few months and years. We recognize the need for a dedicated space closer to the county residents that we will be working with–particularly (and ironically) because many of them cannot drive due to warrants and suspended licenses as a result of the very policing practices that we are attempting to change. However, the space issues is also hindered by funding considerations.
Along the lines of infrastructure, OBS currently has no communications infrastructure to speak of. We have been supported until recently by pro bono and coalition-sponsored team who will soon transition out of this campaign. This represents a huge loss in capacity that needs to be filled for all the organizing work to be optimally successful.
Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE):
There are a variety of different creative organizing forms happening right now. There are youth in the street. There are artists who are doing things like actions at the symphony. There are faith groups and others who are organizing internally within their bases and congregations, and having difficult discussions about racial justice. Another interesting organizing approach is a mass canvass. Right now we (OBS and MORE) have 10 canvassers going out and knocking on doors. Unlike canvassing in non-movement moments, people are unbelievably receptive and off of a canvass, we are setting up a lot of house meetings. If we can figure out how to fund the canvass, we can do outreach to and engage tens of thousands of people while the moment is happening.
At the moment, legal support is in great shape. A legal collective has formed and most folks are being connected with lawyers. However, if they decide to press charges against everyone, it will be much stickier and a lot of resources will be required. Particularly if there is no indictment, people will be out in the streets in a pretty serious way, and significant legal support will be required. Also, there is considerable need to compile everyone’s statements and stories and look for legal angles that have not existed.
Communications is a huge hole for us. We have imported some communications talent, but among the local organizations, new and old, there is currently no indigenous communications funding or staffers.
While there is a lot being won in the streets, we cannot underestimate the necessity of legislative support for some issues that require contentious legislative bodies to fix. For example, state legislation is being introduced that would require independent investigations of every police shooting. While the bill has bipartisan sponsors, those working in the capital will need to figure out how to work both sides of the aisle, given the power of the Fraternal Order of Police in the legislature.
Longer-term we hope that there can be support provided to a wide array of emergent organizations, who are bent on transformation. Larger support of a growing organizing infrastructure in a medium sized region, can create some significant long-term policy wins. Also, we have the ability to try some pretty cutting edge organizing experiments and demands.
In the short term, we believe that local organizations on the ground need immediate communications support to assist in crafting and amplifying their message to a broader audience.
The greatest needed faced by all organizations in this moment is more resources to build rapid response programming. We need funding to strengthen and build our infrastructure, so in moments of crisis we can effectively respond while driving a narrative for long term systemic change and leverage change locally that can create models for the future.
This community needs to see options. How might they re-imagine their government? What kind of policing would be appropriate and effective for this community? They need the opportunity to develop regional solutions for policing and governance. I have been pushing local activists to be ambitious in their vision of what they could achieve. The Ferguson uprising has resulted in the emergence of new leaders – who are badly needed in this community. Those grass roots leaders and groups should be supported. This uprising emerged and has been sustained largely on twitter and other social media platforms. Social media has played a key role in documenting police practices (I even found myself sending “vine” videos to the Dept. of Justice). The documentation of this set of events should be preserved in a narrative that can be engaged on social media and can be made accessible to other young activists around the country.
The local legal system needs a major overhaul, especially the municipal courts system. The local legal community should be compelled to engage with the National Center on State Courts and national judicial organizations to adopt best practices in due process and court organization.
4) What do you want funders to understand about this moment? What do you want them to understand about longterm organizing? E.g., since we know that lasting change takes sustained multi-stakeholder organizing, what should funders keep in mind if they are interested or committed to supporting local and/or national work over the long term?
Organization for Black Struggle:
This transformation has to occur on multiple fronts–it can’t just be electoral. It has to involve indigenous organizing, policy transformation, and it has to be nationally coordinated. The push for justice in Ferguson is incomplete if it does not also include conversations about similar or intersectional issues across the region and across the country: the militarization of police, structural failures of US immigration policies; the erosion of public education, and the rising costs of college tuition. These are all seemingly disparate issues that are deeply connected to the nature and culture of policing in this country. OBS is currently working independently on some campaigns but we also coordinate with partners like MORE the local Don’t Shoot Coalition in the ongoing work around Justice for Mike Brown and broader police accountability issues. These kinds of coalitions need to be plugged into extended national networks so that the results of the organizing work is resonant and consistent.
Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE):
It is a complicated time, and money has the potential to play out in a challenging way. Groups that were the first in the streets are the least likely to access significant money, and some might want to become more organizational, while others want supplies and to be movement groups. It seems we need to invest in a good faith table, with resources, both monetary, communications and technical support, available to everyone. If we can do that and thread the needle among the nonprofits, the community organizations, the movement organizations, and those who want to continue to be out there, then we can really focus on transformation. I would encourage funders to not have preconceptions about their theories of change, and to listen to what local folks are saying, though ask hard questions.
If we do this right, the St. Louis region can be a model for transformative organizing and incredible progress towards racial justice.
This moment has illustrated the strength and power of emerging young leaders and youth organizing. Organizations now need support to help develop the next generation of civil rights leaders and organizations, especially those forming in smaller metropolitan cities like St. Louis, Columbus, and Detroit.
Additionally there exist a serious communications and narrative change challenge in the racial justice space that aligns with our infrastructure gaps, but also exists even where we have infrastructure. As demographics change and our media landscape becomes more participatory due to technology, our ability to drive and shape narrative with a clear agenda and solid research will be one of the major keys to achieving systemic change.
Ferguson is a reflection of what is happening in small working class majority-minority suburbs throughout this country. These jurisdictions lack the political and economic infrastructure to create real opportunity and outlets for their population. Many of these suburbs, like Ferguson, were created as a result of desegregation efforts, as white residents fled cities to avoid integrated schools, and as African Americans left cities in search of better economic opportunity and housing. Thus the recent events in Ferguson should be viewed as part of a longer continuum in which race, class, housing and education challenges require intentional, thoughtful and innovative problem-solving and governance. It would be powerful to demonstrate in Ferguson how the challenges of these communities could become engines for real change.
We developed a resource guide called “Ferguson in Focus” which we imagined would support funders, media, scholars, and activists who need to understand the facts about Ferguson in historical, educational, economic, and political context. You can find it at this link. http://www.naacpldf.org/files/publications/Ferguson%20in%20Focus_0.pdf