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Cori Bush and Percy Green discuss 2 generations of St. Louis civil rights protests

Percy Green and Cori Bush, two activists of different generations, sat down to talk to each other about what has changed - and what hasn't - in the movement.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis on the Air
Percy Green and Cori Bush, two activists of different generations, sat down to talk to each other about what has changed - and what hasn't - in the movement.

Here in St. Louis, we’re well into the second week of protests following the acquittal of Jason Stockley. It’s a scene we’ve seen as recently in 2014, when protests erupted in response to the police shooting death of Michael Brown Jr.

We’re also in an era of mass protest, on many platforms, particularly about police shootings of African-American men and boys in the United States.

The events have caused some people to draw comparisons to another era of mass protest in the United States: the 1960s. The height of the civil rights, the Vietnam War and women’s rights movements, all drew mass protests into American streets, calling for change.

But how similar are those eras? How has protest changed? On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, we spoke with two St. Louis leaders in civil rights demonstrations from different eras: Percy Green and Cori Bush.

Green has long been recognized as a face of St. Louis protest and fought for fair hiring practices in St. Louis during the 1960s, becoming famous internationally as one of two St. Louis civil rights activists who climbed 125 feet up a construction ladder on the unfinished north leg of the Gateway Arch to protest the project’s lack of African-American workers. He has continued his legacy of activism in the many years since that time.

Activist and Democratic candidate for U.S. representative Cori Bush has been a fixture at recent Stockley verdict protests, organizing marches and meetings to call for collective action. She also made herself known during protests after Brown was killed.

The two joined host Don Marsh to discuss what has changed, and what hasn’t about activism from the 1960s to today. Listen to the full conversation here, or read the transcript below:

Percy, let me start with you because your activism goes back 50 years, and ask: how do you view the protests that are happening today?

Green: I’m loving it. I am so proud of the protesting and the consistency of it. These are issues that, without the protesting, they’re never dealt with. With the protesting, it keeps everyone conscious that we have major problems we need to address.

This police murdering of black people has been going on all during the time that I was protesting. I used to have signs I’d paint on the side of buildings saying "stop white police from killing us," and this was over 50 years ago.

Are the tactics and strategies different or the same as they were 50 years ago?

Green: Comparable. At the time we didn’t have social media and the internet, but the process is still the same. We still had to draw up literature and try to distribute the information to the larger community in order to make them aware of the nature of the protests. Now, the internet makes it a lot easier. You have a larger potential audience, but someone still has to make the information known to the community. I’m thankful we have a large community, both black and white, that is responding.

Cori, let me put the same question to you. You aren’t old enough as some people in this room to remember the 1960s, but you’re familiar, you’ve seen the films, you’ve read the books: when you look back, what are you seeing in the way business was conducted on the streets?

Bush: I grew up in a household where we were fed on the civil rights movement. “Eyes on the Prize” was

"Watching what happened, what happened in Selma, all over the south, as a child, I remember thinking: 'If I was born back then, what would I have done?'" — Cori Bush

what you watched instead of regular TV. Watching what happened, what happened in Selma, all over the south, I remember thinking: “If I was born back then, what would I have done?”

I remember thinking I would have been dead, because I’m not sure I could have handled myself in a way that would keep me safe or keep my family safe. But looking at the times we’re living in now, I see what I would have done. Much respect to those who fought then, and continue to fight now, like Percy Green, who look at what we’re doing now and instead of saying “you’re doing it wrong,” or “you’re not doing it like we did it,” they want to join with us and say “it’s your turn now.”

Aside from social media, which has changed a lot, is protesting pretty much the same? Or isn’t it?

Bush: I think there are a lot of similarities, but the social media thing has made this into a whole other beast. It is one thing to grow up and see the movies and to be taught these things happen, it’s another to see it on a mass level. We see these police killings, but we also see police not coming to justice. It is one thing to pass out literature. Now, you don’t have to do anything, you’re just scrolling and you see one after another after another.

Two things. One, I think we get desensitized to it. Now, it is like “Oh, it is another one.” But on the other hand, people are saying “This is so much, we have to do something.” So, I think at that time, getting the word out was effective, but maybe not as many people were desensitized to it.

Green: See, in addition to that, I could also say it could very well be the same based on proportion. Look at the population then, look at the population now. The concerned people as a result of the advent of social media could very well be proportionate to the number of people we were able to reach by radio and TV and using Jiu-Jitsu to get media out to cover the protests.

We realized early on, if we called a press conference just to announce something, the white news media would ignore it. But if we would say there’s a high probability there will be someone arrested, then someone would come out.

Let me tell you something I’m seeing, which is that people are commenting on how surprised they are to see so many white people involved with the African American demonstrators. I would say to them ‘Ask Percy Green, he had white colleagues back in the day.”

Green: That is so true. Basically, I think probably why you have more proportionally than I had at the time in support is because of the cameras, the iPhones and the cameras. I think many whites were conditioned to think blacks were making up conditions we were living under, racism and so on. Relatively fair-minded white people now can see how white police officers were abusing their authority, shooting folks, and lying. Now, whites can compare what white policemen used to say compared with documentation. If that is the case now, whites are beginning to say "These policemen must have been lying all along.”

What’s your take on that, Cori?

Bush: A lot of our white allies now can see what’s happening at the protests. Even if they didn’t want to come out before, because they were afraid, so many have come up to me and said “I didn’t come out during Ferguson and I’m sorry, but I was afraid of what was going on,” but now they’re looking to see what’s going on in the protests.

After 45 became our president,the Women’s March and sister marches brought so many people out. It radicalized so many people who had not been radicalized before.

Are the protests effective?

Bush: Yes, oh yes.

"Protesting is very effective because it does two things. It enlightens folks to the issues. And it impinges the economics of those that are responsible."

Percy Green: Yes. Yes. Protesting is very effective because it does two things. It enlightens folks to the issues. You’re communicating with the larger audience and, at the same time, it has to be effective by causing some economics. It impinges the economics of those that are responsible, the white power structure.

Demonstrators today are demonstrating for the same things you were in ‘60s. How effective can they be?

Green: The effectiveness, again, we’re dealing with the population, the scope. Once upon the time, the black population in the city of St. Louis when I took on Southwestern Bell and the utility companies, we were only 10 percent of the population. Here, in 2017, we are a little better than 50 percent of the population.

I hear what you’re saying loud and clear. Protests have peaks and valleys. Sometimes you carry on the protest, it reaches a certain amount of success and then after people see they’ve made certain demands, laws come along and they’re ratified, many people feel that once laws are passed, they’ll be enforced. We now realize that the power structure is such that you can pass laws that are supportive of your ordeals, but if you don’t get enforcement, things will remain as they have been.

That’s what we’re dealing with now in these police shooting. There was a time when it was lawful for a policeman to shoot a fleeing subject. Now, that’s changed and policeman modify their lies and say that someone turns and faces them with what they thought was a weapon, and that justifies it.

Let me turn to you Cori, with regard to effectiveness, this current situation, 11 days old, have you seen the protests be effective in any way yet?

Bush: I’ll say it is effective, just looking at what happened in Ferguson and seeing, first of all, our narrative was snatched from us when we didn’t know we needed to keep one. We didn’t know that we needed to make what we were fighting for clear. Now, that we are putting out 100 percent our message is: "Stop killing us. Y’all going to stop killing us." We’ve seen how people who would not stand before are now standing with us.

I don’t know if people have noticed, but we have so many elected officials that have been out on the streets with us. We have so many clergy with us. Right now, the generational divide is broken. The divide between clergy and community, business leaders in the community, all those things have been broken down this time because we started this out differently, because we said “We’re going to fight this together.”

This is different than Ferguson…

Bush: Yes.

Green: But unless it becomes economically feasible. I think it is effective in terms of enlightening people. But I don’t think we have stopped white policemen from killing black and brown men. What I say in essence is that this is a system that I define as the white police establishment. I mean that the prosecuting attorneys, the mayors, the judges, they all benefit from the white police males who are shooting black males.

Why do I say that? Because they mainly campaign on getting tough on crime. If you look at the color of all those officers, they are primarily white. But the point is that when they campaign being tough on crime, that is a dog whistle. They mean they want to be tough on black folks. And, for all practical purposes, are elected as a result of such.

Bush: I think we’ve been effective in the way of economics. As of a few days ago, we’ve stopped $8 million from rolling into areas through concert shut-downs, malls. That’s $8 million from regular folks in the streets. When you start messing with people’s money, people pay attention. We have all these business leaders saying, hey, we stand with the protestors because they support our business. When you start impacting the money, that’s when it is effective.

Let me take that one step further. Some of these demonstrations, today and in the past, have involved burning, looting and costing people, in many cases, who provide jobs. That’s an economic side of the equation as well. And that’s damaging to the cause …

Green: Well, you’re going to have what I consider collateral damage in the struggle. All during the protest movement, when there was strictly picketing and press statements, you’d have white folks who would come and bomb churches where black folks were worshipping. When you have protests, you’re going to have that. In some situations, you have people who will deal with certain situations different. Some people feel like the time for passive resistance is long overdue. That you have to do something to the establishment so they can be held accountable. In some cases you have some, if the protest movement is not recognized, you’re going to find youngsters, black and white, who feel that the system has failed and the only way to deal with it is violence. And then you’ll have pain.

"You can replace a window, but you can't replace an Anthony Lamar Smith."

Bush: You can replace a window, but you can’t replace an Anthony Lamar Smith. We can come together as a community and replace inanimate objects, but when you’re talking about lives. If all those people who are angry about broken windows and flower pots, if they say “I’m tired of this,” or if “Blue Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter,” if all came together and said “I’m tired of this, I may not care about black people for real, but I care about my loved one coming home safely.” Why don’t we band together and say let’s get rid of all the corrupt cops, racist cops, crooked cops, to make sure the police force is a safe place and that we can put those two groups together.

What I’m hearing is that you two think pretty much the same way.Cori Bush: For me, it is all about legacy. When I wake up in the morning, thinking about not what can I do about now, but what can I do to impact my children’s children. I’m half of Percy’s age, what he did then is now what I’m walking through. We get to pick that baton up and walk forward.

One thing I look at and I’ve read it in books, but I wasn’t there, was just how people came in to try to infiltrate the movement. I don’t know what you experienced at that time, Percy, but it is so strong today. It is really ugly, it is really strong, and it is a real thing. I was wondering from you, how heavy was that?

Green: It was exceptionally heavy. And then, of course, things were dangerous then because we did not have such tools to be able to show the situation as the moment. All we had at the time was if someone happened to have a camera, but it wasn’t instantaneous. It was word of mouth and then the new media interpreting. In some cases they had good intentions or in some cases they just didn’t know. In other intentions, you had racism within the news media that was distorting the news. It is harder now, when you have instant communication.

Percy, are you surprised that you and Cori are on the same page with all this?

Green: Yes and no, I have to be honest. Because, it’s unfortunate, that many people that start off in the movement get co-opted. Many of the members become professional politicians or they get a job within the establishment, but then all of the sudden they criticize the protest of that date. In other words, they saw the need of protesting when they were protesting. But when they benefited, to some degree, they lined up on the side of the establishment and criticize the protestors now. I happen to not be one of those. I will always criticize the establishment.

It is a matter of profit. Racism is a business whereby they profit. It is shown in three different directions: politically, economically and socially. It isn’t until we as protesters begin to cause that behavior to be a liability rather than an asset before we see change.

You’re not saying Cori is part of the establishment?

Green: She’s part of the establishment in that she is not part of the run of the mill. Those politicians out there protesting, like Maxine Waters, she’s what I’d like to see all of our  politicians to become. She’s an activist on the local and national scene, and a St. Louisan. If a person wants to be a politician, that’s a real politician that is needed for the times.

Bush: You’re saying I’m part of the establishment, is that what you said? What?

Green: Of the establishment, in that you’re a politician running for office, not in a negative sense. I’m saying that even if I was an elected official, I’d be doing the same thing I was doing now.

Do you have a final thought on all this, Cori?

Bush: I think we’ll make this work much better when we open up and listen to each other. Even with Ferguson, I felt like I was in the middle. I didn’t feel young enough to be in the young crowd and I didn’t feel old enough to be with the old crowd, so it was like I didn’t have a place, I had to make my own. I can understand both sides. The older generation feeling like the younger generation was wild and unruly. The younger generation feeling like they won’t listen to us, why are they telling us what to do now.

"The next judge is going to have to think about what the consequences are going to be. That's how people learn. There has to be a cost."

Now is the time to break that down. Looking at pictures, hearing the stories, I don’t know if that was the case then, but I think we have the chance to break that down now.

Green: It is about economics. As long as it becomes costly, the demonstrations bringing about the economic pressures, making it accountable for the bad decisions this judge made. The next judge is going to have to think about what the consequences are going to be. That’s how people learn. There has to be a cost. As you make that racist behavior a liability, people will see the need to make some sort of change.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.