Two years ago today, Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, was killed by Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Some witness accounts say he had his hands up and said “don’t shoot.” His death became the tipping point for a community, nationally as well as locally, that had had enough of police violence and abuse. People poured into the streets of Ferguson to protest amidst violent police repression. Hands Up Don’t Shoot. Stop Killing Us. Mainstream media distorted the story, as usual, but the ugly truth was unfiltered on Twitter, where the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter started trending.
CCR put staff on the ground in Ferguson within days of the shooting, and over the next three months as protests continued, we spent weeks there. Among many others who were there as well, we were determined to do our part to help turn the moment into a movement. Our unique contribution was to help build a legal support infrastructure for the emerging movement; one piece of that was the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee.
The achievements of the Movement since then have been extraordinary. It has consistently demanded visionary change and has articulated comprehensive policy solutions, most impressively in the newly released Platform (which we at CCR are proud to be endorsing). It has forced responses from those in power, from local officials to the Obama administration. It has skillfully avoided being coopted by institutional politics while continuing to engage with institutional players and helping shape meaningful reform agendas.
For our part, CCR has continued to support and feed this extraordinary movement of Black people as a legal and advocacy organization. In addition to providing support in Baltimore after Freddie Gray was killed, we launched the groundbreaking Law 4 Black Lives convening last summer. The excitement the convening generated led the organizing committee – pulled together by CCR initially but coming from many different movement groups and organizations – to decide to keep Law for Black Lives going as an entity.
Above all, Black Lives Matter organizers and activists have understood the oft-quoted Frederick Douglas line that “power concedes nothing without a demand,” which is to say they understand that it takes disruptive protest to generate the demand. Whether it’s shutting down bridges and tunnels, interrupting press conferences and campaign speeches, or striking, hundreds and thousands of people in countless places across the country have made it their business to say, No more business as usual. Black Lives Matter has changed the conversation and raised awareness across the entire nation.
Yet police killing of Black Americans continues unabated. As does police impunity.
The numbers on the Guardian’s The Counted page change almost on a daily basis, sadly, but as of today, police have killed 164 African Americans in the U.S. in 2016 (and 647 people total). Last week, the Chicago Police Board released videos in the July 28 killing of Paul O’Neal, an unarmed teenager, whom police fatally shot in the back. And then they handcuffed him while cursing at him. And then high-fived each other.
There are words to describe my reactions. Anger. Despair. Grief. But I also find myself grappling more with seemingly contradictory, dual states of both utter incomprehension, yet somehow complete, clear comprehension of how two officers of the law, sworn to protect their community, could exhibit such depravity.
But now what? When will it end? What will it take to actually, finally have the rest of America – cops, politicians, white folks – look at people of color and Black people specifically and see people. When will Black lives really matter?
I don’t know the answer any more than anyone else, but working and building towards it is what we all should be doing. I do know that it will never happen without the kind of protest and disruption and demand that the Black Lives Matter movement continues to make because, like everyone else’s, Black humanity and dignity are not subject to negotiation and compromise. And so while I mourn Michael Brown’s death on this anniversary, and Paul O’Neal’s, and Rekia Boyd’s, and so many others in between, I am also grateful to the movement that came out of Michael Brown’s death and am committed to personally and organizationally doing everything I can to make it stronger.