Written by Lauren Ballester, New Sanctuary Movement organizing apprentice
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri, hoping to show Latina solidarity with the movement for Black Liberation and learn from the people who have been organizing sustained action for racial justice and for a year now. The weekend, entitled #UnitedWeFight, was organized by a coalition of organizations including the Organization for Black Struggle, Hands Up United, The Don’t Shoot Coalition and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, among others.
Saturday was dedicated to the memory of VonDerrit Myers, a young Black man killed by a St. Louis police officer October 8th, 2014. The day began with a march from his memorial block party on a main street nearby. The march was led by VonDerrit’s family and friends and included a marching band, a troop of seven or eight year old cheerleaders doing choreographed dance routine and hundreds of participants. It immediately struck me that showing up for the Myers family was an act of joy, not just resistance. It was an expression of the deep community that exists. That expression continued throughout the march and persisted throughout the weekend.
At the end of Saturday’s march, we came together in prayer with the Myers family, and with other families of victims of racialized police violence. We stood in silence together and felt the weight of the situation lay heavy on all of us. It’s so easy to forget that Mike Brown, Vonderrit Myers, Rekia Boyd, Mya Hall, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and too many others are not hashtags, they are human beings with families and communities who are grieving the loss of their life. It sounds simple, but in that moment, witnessing the tears of the families, being a part of their grieving process, it became real and human in ways that were really important. I have never had a family member taken away from me due to a racist political system, but this wasn’t the first time I had seen the effects of racialized violence. I was transported back to other moments in which I have witnessed this kind of loss. From the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine where mothers lose their sons and daughters to the violence of occupation, to my own city, where I’ve seen children separated from their parents due to deportation and incarceration.
After we spent time in silence, we stretched our arms to the ground, gathering the energy of our ancestors, and lifted them up to the families to send them that energy. I was reminded in that moment, and would be reminded again throughout the weekend, that we need each other. We deeply, deeply need each other. One man at the front of the crowd looked at VonDerrit’s mother and said “You are not alone. We are here with you. We are fighting with you and we are not backing down.” This moment made me wonder, who are the Mike Browns and the Vonderrit Myers of Philadelphia that we are not paying enough attention to? How can we fight for them too? It seems important to express our solidarity with Ferguson, but it seems equally important to center the fight for racial justice around the experiences of people in our community.
Next, we shared food and time with each other at a block party. Children were dancing, the food was made by local businesses who wanted to show their support for the movement. It was joyous. And not in a way that felt distracting from the deep sadness and loss of the event, it was joyous because the people of Ferguson know that we have to find joy together if we are going to resist together and get free together.
Sunday was dedicated to the memory of Michael Brown, a young Black man killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 9th, 2014. Michael Brown’s death sparked protests from the people of Ferguson after his body was left lying in the street for four and a half hours. These peaceful protests were met with incredible violence from Ferguson police, and later the National Guard. Tear gas, riot gear, Army tanks and rubber bullets were (and still are) routine in Ferguson.
We met at the corner where Mike had been killed exactly a year ago. It was a surreal feeling to be standing in a place I had seen in the media dozens of times. Many community members spoke out about the need for continued resistance. His friends and family shared their poetry and songs with a crowd of a thousand people. At 12:02pm, the exact time Mike Brown was shot, we paused and shared four and a half minutes of silence, representing the four and a half hours he spent lying in the street after he was killed. We heard a few more words from community members and began our march to Greater St. Mark Family Church, a congregation that has been at the center of resistance in Ferguson.
The march was silent. This was new for me. I found that while the music and chants of the previous day’s march brought us all together and fed our energy, Sunday’s march brought us together in focused reverence. Something that prevailed throughout my time in Ferguson was that all of the actions were centered on strong relationships in the community and were lead by the families and community members most affected. When we arrived at St. Mark’s Church, there was a service for Mike. We prayed and sang together once again.
The sense I continued to get throughout the march and the weekend in general was that the organizing that is happening in Ferguson is based on deep, trusting relationships and deep love. I think we could all use more of that in our work. Time and time again I saw the ways in which people were not just loving ideologies, but loving people. The work of building relationships is happening outside of coalition meetings. It’s happening in coffee shops, in church, around the dinner table. A friend I made told me about an event he had been planning that would bring together groups working on migrant justice, Black liberation and justice for Palestine to speak on the connections between their work. Two days before they were to hold the event, the venue told them that they either needed to cancel the event or hold it without the groups representing Palestine due to some complaints they were receiving. Instead of allowing themselves to be divided, they came together to protest this decision. Out of that moment relationships grew. They refused to have their analysis leave anyone out. For the organizers of the event, they would not just be leaving out ideas, but their Palestinian friends and community members. From this, a coalition of people-of-color lead organizations was formed to support the movement for Black liberation in Ferguson. Their success has been because of the real relationships they have built with each other.
I was left wondering, how can we bring this depth to the coalitions we work with here in Philly? How can we build the kind of relationships we need to sustain a movement based on love and joy and rapture? How can we build relationships that are not just in opposition to the oppression that all our people are facing, but in unity around how we’re going to get free together, leaving no one behind?
I am particularly interested in this because I am Dominican. If you haven’t already heard, the Dominican Republic recently announced that hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent will be deported in the next few months. Even on an island that has seen slavery, colonization, violent dictatorship and manipulation, racism is alive and thriving institutionally. My Dominican roots (my ancestors came as slaves from West Africa, farmers from the Canary Islands and Lebanon and colonizers from Spain) and the experiences of the immigrants in my family are what bring to this work. At the same time, I see the ways in which Dominican identity (and often Latin@ identity in general) is defined as a constant distancing from Blackness. It makes sense that this would be the case, it’s a survival mechanism. I want to be part of a movement that recognizes the collective trauma we all hold and recognizes that we can’t all be free unless we are all free.
That evening there was a panel centered around faith-based organizing and the position of the church in the movement for Black liberation. Speakers included Dr. Cornel West, Bree Newsome (the woman who climbed the flagpole at the North Carolina state capitol in an act of civil disobedience to bring down the confederate flag, a symbol of centuries of slavery and racism), Rahiel Tesfamariam (writer, public theologian and founder and writer for Urban Cusp) and other community leaders and clergy. We were reminded of the roots of the movement for Black Liberation– the pews of Black churches across the country. At New Sanctuary Movement, we have seen the house of worship as a house of liberation and movement building as well. I was so moved by the presence of God in the room, and the idea that we were not only praying with our mouths this weekend, but praying with our feet. Rahiel reminded us that “It has always been in our places of worship that we see power of hope & vision of a world that has not yet come.” The vision that God has for God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom where we are all free. Bree Newsome said “My God is a God of liberation,” mine is too. The wisdom that was shared in that space is something I will continue to hold and hope to bring back to the faith-based work we do for immigrant justice in Philly.
Shortly after the event, another protest took place outside of the Ferguson Police Department. I was not present, but we found out shortly afterwards that another young Black man was shot by police, tear gas canisters were shot into the crowds and the police were in full riot gear. This happened exactly one year after the death of Mike Brown. The man is alive and in critical condition in the hospital. It’s hard not to get disheartened when people just keep. on. getting. murdered. Somehow the heaviness of Sunday night only turned into positive energy for the next day’s actions.
Monday, my last day in St. Louis, was a day of civil disobedience with actions and arrests spread out throughout the day. I attended the first action where we gathered at Christ Church in downtown St. Louis and sang hymns together. We received instructions on how the action would go, as many planned to be arrested. The room was filled mostly with clergy and people of faith from all over the city.
This was a day we would be praying with our feet, demanding that the Department of Justice do its job and hold the police accountable for the violence they’ve been consistently inflicting on their residents, including the man who had been shot the night before.
When we arrived at the DOJ, there was a steel fence surrounding the entrance and several police officers. We prayed together, and a local rabbi anointed the ground on which we stood and anointed all the participants. Several community members shared their words and songs with us. One leader announced, “we’ve come to demand we be treated like the children of the creator, each one equal.”
After much prayer and excitement shared among the several hundred of us, fifty six participants surmounted the fence and gathered together, arm in arm, preparing for arrest. The rest of us gathered around and sang songs of support. Soon, about seventy five more police officers arrived to conduct arrests, and we continued to hold them in the light.
After that action wrapped up, there was a march to the next action, where people shut down a local highway. I wasn’t able to attend that one because I headed to the airport, but several more people were arrested.
I’m a pretty strong introvert, I expected to be utterly drained and exhausted by the time I got back. But I wasn’t. The energy, the joy, the community that I was blessed to bear witness to filled me all the way up. I am still overflowing. I am excited to continue the conversations here and Philly and take wisdom from the people of Ferguson on how to center lived experience of the people right in our community, build deep relationships, and live in both the joy and sorrow that comes from living and resisting in a world where not all life matters.