Detroit to Ferguson: Part 1
Reflections of a Detroiter
by Isis Smith
This is not the story you think it will be. Perhaps the beginning will not surprise you. My growing awareness of the realities of Black life in this country has been punctuated by my own encounters with police officers on dark, deserted Georgia back roads and metropolitan Detroit courtrooms. But also in other moments, when I am overwrought with tears seated in front of my laptop or TV screen, and I hear another tale that feels too tragic and heavy to bear. I remember the moment I found out about the Zimmerman verdict. It was July of 2013. I was in, of all places, Louisville Kentucky, at a backyard barbecue, with my then-boyfriend and one of his best friends. Conversational points of interest were Egyptian history and the rules of corn hole. We are millennials, constantly logged into multiple social media accounts. Most of us there were keeping tabs on what was going on in the trial of George Zimmerman between bites of baked chicken and pasta salad. After dark had fallen, I got a simple text message “not guilty”. Tears came easily. I was heartbroken. My then-partner and his friend shook their heads, asked me “Are you surprised?” “What did you expect?” “This is America.” But the sink in their shoulders and tension in their faces revealed a certain heartbreak of their own.
It is important to acknowledge that Trayvon Martin is not Michael Brown is not John Crawford is not Oscar Grant is not Rekia Boyd is not Aiyana Jones is not Ezell Ford is not Renisha McBride is not Jonathan Ferrell is not Amadou Diallo is not Kaijeme Powell.
But what must also be understood is that these people are me. Context is important.
On August 10th, 2014, my Instagram feed began becoming flooded with disparate details about an 18 year-old boy named Mike Brown, from a St. Louis suburb I had never heard of. There were hundreds of re-tweets of a man holding a cardboard sign saying that police had just shot his son down in cold blood. What struck me most was the imagery of his body lying on the ground, blood visible on the concrete, while his mother stood yards away, grieving in the arms of relatives, begging police to identify his body (and being denied). I watched, enraged, as I learned of his body being left in the Missouri summer heat for four and a half hours, before being carted off, not in an ambulance, but in an unmarked, black SUV.
As fact and falsehoods concerning this boy and his death emerged, a witch hunt ensued. But not for the still-at-large killer of an innocent human being; a hunt to justify the murder itself, to dishonor and discredit. There was the myth of the stolen ’rillos (cigarillos), substantiated by incomplete footage of a person who may or may not have been Mike Brown, in an altercation with a store-clerk, but ultimately appearing to reach into his pocket and pay for the items in his possession. There were inquiries into Michael Brown’s non-existent juvenile records.
I cried along with Michael Brown’s mother as she begged the world to understand that she had raised her son to be a different type of Black man—one who graduated from high school and continued his education. They called him “Mike-Mike”. He could have been the “Mike-Mike” I grew up with. What people from outside of our communities may not understand is that we do not watch apart, with detachment or disbelief.
Before my tears could dry, I learned of John Crawford, shot dead in Walmart just for holding a pellet gun he planned to purchase. I learned of Ezell Ford, a developmentally delayed man shot and killed by LAPD for not complying with orders, and another “officer-involved shooting” of a young Black man in New Orleans.
The stormed that surged in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder seemed to be raging again. It seemed time for something. I was heartened by the demonstrators in Ferguson, appalled the military-level repression, and the media blackout. I was moved by the tweets and posts from people in Ferguson thanking activists in Palestine for information on how to counteract the tear gas being dispensed by the police conglomerate comprised of Ferguson, St. Louis County, Missouri Highway Patrol, and other local law enforcement agencies. When I was to eventually make my way to Ferguson, local residents would emphatically remind me that tear gas was being dispensed in their neighborhoods, not while they were protesting police or curfews, but while they occupied their own private property, on front lawns and in their driveways.
The Detroiter visiting Ferguson will easily be reminded of sections of Oak Park or Southfield. Like many former industrial centers in this country, it is a town in which residents have not been treated kindly by the economic downturn. But Ferguson does not fit into the trope of the violent, urban ghetto. By contrast, it is a suburb of 21,000 people and Mike Brown’s death was the first killing this year.
Those of us who have followed the stories of Mike Brown and Ferguson, Missouri have been well-aware of these facts for awhile. But you may, perhaps, be unaware of another aspect of this story.
Surely there are those who went to Ferguson aiming to be part of history. I and others in my group certainly went prepared for a certain type of “war”. But we were provoked by a modest sentiment: Black Life Matters.
When I heard that people around the country were organizing a “Black Life Matters Ride” to Ferguson, I was immediately interested in joining the Detroit contingent. I was quickly informed that if I wanted a group from Detroit to go, I would have to organize it myself—with support from the national group. Again social media takes prominence, as the Facebook group became the central organizing platform and meeting place.
With just a week’s notice, we met, used an online fundraising site, raised $2000, rented a van, found places to stay, made the drive, and arrived in St. Louis shortly before dawn. We had come expecting the worst.
What we got was more than I ever expected. On Saturday morning, we gathered in the sanctuary of a Lutheran (?) church, with stained glass windows depicting Heaven as beautiful and God as white. Having parted ways from a Christian theology over a decade ago, and understanding the way Christianity has been used to justify the enslavement of African and indigenous American people, oppression of women, and exclusion of queer people, I could not quite feel comfortable staring at the wooden cross in front of me.
Fortunately, I was in for a wonderfully affirming surprise. There was not one, but three sermons calling upon everyone there to show one another love and affirmation. Multiple times, the falsity of the singular Black narrative as being one of male, Christian, heteronormativity was dissected. James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Bayard Rustin were referenced as examples of beloved queer activists. In the pews of a church, we were told that queer, transgender, atheist, muslim, educated, gold-teethed, with dredlocks, our natural curls, or perms, whether we were latin@, multi-racial, continental or diasporic Africans, whether we were most fluent in Ebonics or perfectly articulated English, from cities and suburbs, that we were ALL welcome, that ALL of our experiences were valid, and that ALL of our struggles were a part of “the struggle” for Black liberation.
Before leaving, Black Lives Matter: Detroit had had a few uncomfortable conversations regarding the fact that this particular ride was explicitly and exclusively reserved for Black people, with specific skill-sets. That this was necessary was something most of us (of all ethnic backgrounds) easily recognized. However, there was a young, white couple who expressed hurt at this exclusion.
It was an experience that I had never had before. I cannot remember the last time I was so affirmed, and it is an experience I seek to duplicate, over and over again.