Two months after the August day that Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a «Weekend of Resistance» was launched to focus public attention on the urgent need to address police violence in communities of color. The rallies, marches, and civil disobedience actions – known as «Ferguson October» – drew thousands of activists locally and from around the nation. Just two days before the protests were scheduled to get underway, another 18-year-old African American, Vonderrit Myers was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in St. Louis. Police say that Myers shot at the officer first, but his family members maintain he was unarmed.
The protesters staged actions in both Ferguson and St. Louis at multiple sites that included police headquarters, City Hall, a political fundraiser, a university campus and a Walmart store. Religious and union leaders were among the activists who demanded the arrest and prosecution of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown. Professor Cornel West, a well-known activist and author who participated in a civil disobedience action modeled on the Moral Monday movement, was arrested with 49 others at the Ferguson Police Department.
At an interfaith rally the night before, young activists expressed frustration at the tepid protest tactics practiced by their elders, maintaining that more militant action was needed to confront police violence and the lack of accountability. “Missouri is the new Mississippi,” said Tef Poe, a young St. Louis hip-hop artist and Hands Up United organizer. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with activist and author Kevin Alexander Gray, co-editor of the new book, «Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.» Here, Gray assesses the most recent round of protests in Missouri – and the growing movement to confront police violence nationwide.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: One person of color is killed in this country every 28 hours by police or under the cover of law. In South Carolina, this year, I think we’ve had over 35 police shootings. So, this isn’t something new that just happened with Michael Brown. It’s something that has been going on a long time. I’m glad the country is starting to pay attention to it, that young folk are starting to pay attention to it and understand what racism and «skin privilege» is all about. I’m glad they’re understanding the issues involving policing and police departments and making sure that police and citizens are held to the same standards as relates to their culpability for committing a crime, and there’s a movement that’s developing. But we still have to figure out ways in every community, not just Ferguson. Ferguson is the focal point right now as Sanford, Florida was the focal point when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman under the guise of «stand your ground» or under the color of «stand your ground.»
We have to put together a movement that really holds people accountable, that doesn’t just focus on the individual tragedy, that recognizes that we have a problem with police violence and policing. That we have a problem with the militarization of police departments. That we have a problem with racial profiling. That we have a problem with the war on drugs, that we have a problem with how people view black males in general and black people in particular.
There are a lot of issues that have to be put on the table. And they all don’t reside solely in Ferguson.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Kevin, what is the mindset that has to be challenged head on that exists in so many police departments across this country in terms of how they conduct themselves when they’re in communities of color, that results obviously, in violence and the deaths of Michael Brown and hundreds, thousands of others over the years?
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, something has to be done to test a lot of police and to really find out if, in fact, they ought to have that job. There are police that are just straight-up racist or sadist. And they don’t need to be on police departments. I would argue there are a lot of police that are in it for the power. They believe that they are the law. Not that they’re enforcing the peace or even if you want to use the term enforcing the law – ‘cuz I don’t know if I like this term «law enforcement.» People respect the law. People respect the people who are tasked with serving and protecting and being fair to everybody as they do their jobs. That’s what makes the law work, when people respect the law, not when there are people who believe that they are the law and believe that you have to acquiesce to them because they have a badge, and you have to be subservient to them because they have a badge ,and they can kill you at will because they have a badge.
BETWEEN THE LINES: During the civil rights movement, there was a multiracial coalition that pushed forward on civil rights that many credit with an effective protest movement that actually won the day. How important is it that this new burgeoning movement against police violence be multi-racial and cross over into many different communities across the United States?
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, obviously, it’s white kids and white people understanding what skin privilege is and what it means. The progressive movement is about building multiracial, multi-issue coalitions. That’s what progressivism is. It’s not about narrow black nationalism or pseudo-black nationalism or pseudo-white nationalism or liberalization or Democratic party politics. It’s about having a set of progressive ideals that you believe in. You’re against the drug war. You’re against the police state. You’re against government power to kill without due process.
You’re for the so-called beloved community that Dr. King talked about and economically, how do we make that happen because it all goes hand in hand. We’re concerned about poverty. We’re concerned about the «least of thee.» We’re talking about building an egalitarian, fair community – a community that looks beyond race and stereotypes, that tries to reconcile history, that tries to make amends for history and understand what it’s really about.
That is the essence of what progressive politics is about.
The troubling thing about Ferguson is that we get focused on young black men, and no question, young black men are a group that are targeted. But there are people of color; brown folk suffer under abuse because of immigration and other issues. Black women suffer. Poor people suffer. We have to be about building that movement. And when people understand it’s the one percent that’s running this country, that has this police force, this police state in place to keep everybody at bay and keep everybody fighting one another, as soon as we realize that, then we’ll be building a movement and that movement will be successful. And we’ll change government in this country.
To read more of Kevin Alexander Gray’s writings, visit http://thenewliberator.wordpress.com.
- Interview with Kevin Alexander Gray, conducted by Scott Harris, Counterpoint, Oct. 13, 2014 (18:51)
- Hands Up United at handsupunited.org, group organizing «Ferguson October» actions
- «Protesters stage sit-in at St. Louis University,» St. Louis Today, Oct. 13, 2014
- «Cornel West Arrested in Ferguson,» Huffington Post, Oct. 13, 2014
- «Protesters’ unity collapses as tensions rise,» MSNBC, Oct. 12,
- “Killing Trayvons,” CounterPunch.org
- «1 Black Man Is Killed Every 28 Hours by Police or Vigilantes: America Is Perpetually at War with Its Own People, Alternet, May 28, 2013
- «On Leak Prosecutions, Obama Takes it to 11. (Or Should We Say 526?» ACLU
- «Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!»: Gesture, Choreography and Protest in Ferguson,» The Feminist Wire, October 2014
- «Interfaith gathering calling for end to police violence brings hundreds to arena,» St. Louis Today, Oct. 12, 2014