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A New Form Of Leadership Takes Root In Ferguson

Emanuele Berry|St. Louis Public Radio

As organizations and events around Ferguson have evolved after a Ferguson police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, the calls for action are starting to resemble a movement. But if the continued pressure for justice, systemic and social change is in fact a movement, who’s in charge? The short answer is everyone.

There are newly formed grassroots organizations like Millennial Activists United, Lost Voices and Hands Up United. Established entities like the Organization For Black Struggle, and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment have worked on issues of social justice for years. National organizations are also involved, like the NAACP and the National Action Network.

And then there are the coalitions. The Don't Shoot Coalitions includes 45 different organizations. Other groups, such as the Michael Brown Leadership Coalition, have just as many members.

All of these entities have issued demands, held press conferences, led protests, rallies, marches and community meetings. With so many organizations, it can be confusing says Patricia Bynes, Democratic committeewoman for the Ferguson Township.

Credit Rebecca Smith| St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Township Committeewoman Patricia Bynes, State Rep. Courtney Curtis and St. Louis County Council Chair Hazel Erby are members of the Ferguson United leadership team.

“It is basically leaderless,” she said. “Trying to move it is very slow. You have to know the key people who are involved in order to influence anything."

Bynes is also a member of the Joint Community Relations Group, which works to find common ground among the many organizations involved in issues surrounding Ferguson. She says it makes sense that there is no definable leader.

“This movement has really been about standing up to authority,” Bynes said. “So it’s no surprise to see on the ground that nobody is really in charge. This is almost St. Louis at its best. At the micro-level as far as the fragmentation ... it has lots of legs, but no head basically.”

But Bynes doesn't see a headless movement as a bad thing.

“I think that if there was one leader, one group, there would have been conversation, a compromise to stop what’s going on,” she said, “because I know that many different people have been trying to talk to all these organizations and it’s just worn them out trying to talk and see what does this one want, that one want. So the thing that makes it maybe its weakest point makes it its strongest point.”

While no clear leaders have been identified over the past three months, differences in approach and rhetoric among organizations have been.

Youth Demand A Voice

Even though youth -- defined here as under 30 -- have led on-the-ground efforts in Ferguson, the young grassroots activists have sometimes felt overlooked by older, more established organizations. What happened at an interfaith service and meeting that was part of Ferguson October is a clear example.

People raise hands at a mass meeting for Ferguson October at Chaifetz Arena on Sunday, Oct. 13.
Credit Tim Lloyd | St. Louis Public Radio
People raise hands at a mass meeting for Ferguson October at Chaifetz Arena on Sunday, Oct. 13.

Hundreds gathered at Saint Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena to hear faith and activist leaders, including Cornell William Brooks, national president of the NAACP. In a recent interview, Brooks said that most of the speakers were over the age of 35, while the audience skewed younger. The speeches were not going over well.

“I cannot say I enjoyed being subject to a standing ovation and being heckled in the moment,” he said.

Audience members were frustrated with the lack of younger voices on stage and what some called a “passive” tone to the remarks. Some turned their backs on Brooks as he spoke.

Eventually, the Rev. Traci Blackmon who hosted the event, shifted speakers around allowing young audience members to speak instead of those listed in the program.

Brooks says the youth in the audience were right to demand the chance to speak.

“It was an important civic moment because, the first time I was in Ferguson I heard young people say 'Tell us what to do'; and the last time I was in Ferguson I heard people say 'Listen to us.' It seems to me that we have to do both, both inform and be informed by the people who want to be heard.”

Brooks says the NAACP has worked as both a catalyst and conveyor of information on an individual and systemic level to bring justice for Michael Brown and others who have been racially profiled. Although the NAACP has worked to address issues surrounding social justice, Brooks says Ferguson has offered the organization new lessons.

“We have to be prepared to work with a diverse group of change agents,” Brooks said. After Michael Brown's death the NAACP has organized events that have been both celebrated and critiqued by youth.

"So it’s not about being commended or criticized, it’s about being diligent,”Brooks said. “The reality is that we love, care for and believe in deeply the young people in Ferguson, and they represent the very best of the spirit of the NAACP … The same strong uncompromising spirit of critique and criticism that they have, their grandparents had, and we have. Their spirit is the spirit of the NAACP today.”

Paving their own path

If you ask Ashley Yates of the organization Millennial Activists United who’s in charge , she doesn't hesitate.

From left, Alexis Templeton, St. Louis Public Radio's Durrie Bouscaren, Brittany Ferrell and Ashley Yates. All three are members of Millennial Activists United.
Credit Emanuele Berry|St. Louis Public Radio
From left, Alexis Templeton, St. Louis Public Radio's Durrie Bouscaren, Brittany Ferrell and Ashley Yates. All three are members of Millennial Activists United.

“All of us are, all of the young leaders who stepped up and took it upon themselves to take a stand,” Yates said. “To find the way that was right for them in order to make change, to make a difference, and didn't stick to the old ways and really kind of just paved our own path. So all of us are out there leading.”

Yates says that lack of a clear identifiable leader makes people uncomfortable.

“Cause you don't have an MLK , a Malcolm X, you don't have a Huey Newton, you don't have Stokely Carmichael,” she said. “So it definitely hampers people from being able to compare this movement, which I think is a good thing because this is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”

Yates says national organizations or more established organizations that have funding are just starting to recognize their efforts on the ground. However, she said they are not all supporting youth who have sustained the movement.

“Now that they see that this is something that has been sustained and it is something that's real, I do feel like a lot of them have come in and tried to impose what their ideals are, or what they feel should happen,” she said. “Or what they saw back in their day and feel like we should be doing now. The reality is a lot of young people, self included, don't wait to hear that, we don't want you come in with that attitude. We are open to your experience; we are open to your wisdom; but you cannot impose it on people.”

Yates says while some established leaders  have lifted youth activists up and provided support, others are only offering lectures, suggesting that voting and becoming part of the governing system are the ways youth should engage. Yates says it’s a system she doesn't trust.

“We don't trust that justice is going to be served with a hands-off approach,” she said. "We have people saying you know ‘Vote, go ahead and vote and everything will be OK,' or you know 'Go ahead and stay in the system that left you lying in the street for 4 ½ hours and let 20 something hours pass before they said something about it. But go ahead and stay in that system.’

“There is definitely a disconnect there, as far as the trust that we have that justice will not only be served, but that we will be treated as humans in this system. So when you come to young people and say this system that has repeatedly failed you time and time again in life or death situations is the same one that you should stay in to implement change, we’re not on board,” Yates said.

A Common Ground

The Rev. Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ doesn't think youth are alone in recognizing the limitations of government bodies. She believes the older generation knows the system has failed.

"You have a generation now that says this system has failed us we have to work outside it, and then you have another generation that says if you want to see any sort of change, we have to work through these mechanisms, even if they are flawed,” she said.

Traci Blackmon, second from the right, locks arms with Leah Gunning Francis,  Rev. Karen Anderson, Betty Thompson, and Valerie Richmon at the front of the Mother's March on Oct. 18, 2014.
Credit Camille Phillips/St. Louis Public Radio
Traci Blackmon, second from the right, locks arms with Leah Gunning Francis, Rev. Karen Anderson, Betty Thompson, and Valerie Richmon at the front of the Mother's March on Oct. 18, 2014.

Blackmon says she doesn't see the tactical differences or mindsets between new and old organizations as a flaw.

“Not to make it over simplistic, but what I see is an older generation that is lacking in vision,” Blackmon said. “And I see a younger generation that is not rooted in history -- not that they don’t know history but their work is not rooted in it -- and that causes a chasm between the two. Because the younger generation has great vision, they can see things that we would never see happening … there is value in both; and when we learn how to connect the two it will be extremely powerful.”

One phrase that Blackmon says she continually hears when she’s out at demonstrations is “I’ve been out here since day one.” She says although she understands the premise, day one did not happen the day Michael Brown was killed.

“As a 51 year old if you say to me where you here since day one, the thing that automatically comes in my head is -- no and neither were you,” Blackmon said. “Day one happened before I was born. Day one happened in the generation that preceded me; and those are elements of the story that have to be carried forth. I’m not assuming that they don’t know any history, that’s not what I’m saying, but I’m saying to be rooted in that history to know that this is not a new fight, and to know that all of their energy and all of their brilliance and all of their creativity is welcomed because it’s not a fight that we have conquered, but we’ve been fighting it a long time.”

The fight. That's what all these organizations, young and old agree on.

Ashley Yates says while there are different methods, and voices, what unites them is their end goal.

“We don't need a figurehead. We don't need someone who goes out and speaks on behalf of everyone there, because there are so many different viewpoints. But the common denominator is that we all want change and we all realize that the police state that we live in is a problem. We all realize that there is a problem when they can gun down young black people that are unarmed and not be held accountable for it and the fact that we all have that commonality amongst us lends trust in each other.”

A trust Ashley says has only grown with time, as communication between groups improved, despite many voices being involved.