It has been over a year since the protests in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown. In the year after the violent death of the unarmed black teenager, who didn´t pose a threat to the white police officer, Darren Wilson, over 300 black Americans have been killed by the police. This is almost 33% of the over 1000 police shootings in the United States in 2015, while African-Americans only make up a mere 13,2% of the United States population. White mass shooters have left scenes of their crimes well and alive, while African Americans as young as 12 have been shot by police for simply playing with a toy gun. Other African Americans died under suspicious circumstances in police custody or were simply denied respectful treatment, such as leaving Michael Brown´s dead body in the place of his death for over four hours. Darren Wilson has never been on trial for shooting Michael Brown and, rather, has even gained money from the incident with fundraisers set up for him on the internet.
Numbers and incidents like these show that 150 years after the implementation of the Jim Crow Laws and 52 years after the Civil Rights Acts, racism is still alive and well in the United States, especially within the police force.
Josalynn Smith, an African-American English student at Washington University in St. Louis, took part in the protests in Ferguson, which escalated into riots. Police used tanks and tear gas against protesters and Amnesty International sent personnel to the United States for the first time ever. In this interview she describes the situation during the protests in Ferguson, as well as the American public’s reaction to racial inequality in the aftermath of it.
What made you want to join the protests in Ferguson?
Before the Ferguson protests, the ways I expressed my frustration with the system was through art—film specifically—or attending lectures or panels with activists, and that was how I was engaged with Ferguson early on, as well.
Mike Brown died on the 9th of August, and we went back to university about two or three weeks later. We probably held four different student protests in the autumn of 2014 on campus and at the chancellor’s home; it was mostly to demand acknowledgement of how the university plays a part in the system that allowed Mike Brown to be killed and that this was a moment that affected students of colour immensely.
Being involved on campus was not enough after a while. I wanted my kids or the next generation of black Americans to know that I did my best to stand up for them, that I put my body on the line for them—on the line for a better future.
I did my first nonviolent protest training in October with Missourians Organizing For Reform and Empowerment, anticipating that the verdict for Darren Wilson would be out soon. So in November when they said they’d announce the decision to indict or not, I only let my cousin know that I was going to Ferguson, so she could bail me out if I went to prison. If I told my mom she’d be super worried. That night was huge, and to keep the momentum going I went to protest our courts the day after, I protested at a variety of places in St. Louis between November and January.
How did you experience the police force in Ferguson?
The police in Ferguson were incredibly intimidating. People stood in front of the police station, chanting and playing the drums; I felt a great sense of community. However, when the announcement was heard over the amplified radio, everything just dropped. The police put on riot gear. The National Guard was there in military vehicles. There was a helicopter circling above that was commanding people to get off the streets or face arrest. Honestly, I was most afraid when the police started shooting; I remember running with the other students and trying to stay low to the ground when we heard the gunshots. I wasn’t aware until I watched the news that the police were shooting rubber bullets. Then these big billows of purple smoke started to rise up. The way we came was blocked off, so we had to run through this residential area behind the police station for a couple blocks area to get away and back to the car.
I assume that moment was the closest I’d ever get to being in a warzone.
Do you feel like Ferguson has changed something in the American public?
Ferguson exposed St. Louis’s dirty little secret. St. Louis is a Midwestern city trapped between the north and the south. For that reason St. Louis has both the housing segregation of the north (the town of Ferguson is upwards of 65% black) and the confederate sympathizer syndrome of the south. St. Louis was sort of a quiet place when it comes to uprisings or protests before last year, but I believe Ferguson showed the rest of America that any city, high or low profile, can come together, stand up, and demand justice.
How would you define the work and goals of the #BlackLivesMatter movement?
#BlackLivesMatter has chapters and leaders in all major American cities so people are able to come together under one banner and organize. For example, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment uses the #BlackLivesMatter banner at protests to present united goals and solidarity across the United States.
Furthermore, #BlackLivesMatter allows leaders to take charge of their communities and make their own demands to local municipalities. We live in a different time, and now’s not the era for a Martin Luther King, we can have multiple leaders and people can contribute in their own ways.
The goals of #BlackLivesMatter is just to treat black people like human beings and that starts with not killing us without cause. White people are rarely ever killed by the police while being arrested, even if they have a weapon or just murdered a bunch of people (e.g. Dylan Roof).
Do you feel like racism is more openly discussed since Ferguson?
Yes. I’ve been thinking about, but probably not talking about race the same amount for the last four years. Since Ferguson I feel more comfortable “clapping back” or being very clear about when I see biases with my friends or in the classroom. A lot of my black friends, especially, have been more comfortable starting conversations about race on campus, and that’s something I’m proud of going to a predominately white institution where speaking up can be daunting.
Has everyday racism changed since Ferguson?
Racism has not become worse in Ferguson or St. Louis or America in general since Mike Brown’s murder. It’s just that technology has given visibility and media attention to the murders of black people. In the same way the technology has helped #BlackLivesMatter get their message across, it has also allowed white people to troll us and let us know how they really feel—like we didn’t already know.
How do you see the latest occurrences of violence, e.g. the shootings at a BlackLivesMatter protest?
In America, a lot of white people believe their freedom is fragile. On a subconscious level, white freedom always has to be in opposition to black oppression. The shootings are in retaliation for #BlackLivesMatter encroaching on the supposed limited amount of freedom in America. So, I’m in no way surprised that the shootings happened. It will either be physical violence or systemic violence reacting against our movement. It kind of reminds me how my mom thought hiring discrimination increased after Obama was elected. She said her company did not hire new black people in administrative positions the first four years of his presidency.
There will always be backlash until the American system is completely overturned, not just amended, and I believe in revolution and I believe #BlackLivesMatter is revolutionary in this epoch.
Since this interview the cop shooting the 12-year old Tamir Rice, because of playing with a toy gun in an open-carry state will not face charges and while the cop who arrested Sandra Bland is charged for perjury, there will be no further investigations in her mysterious death. These are just two examples of the on-going systemic suppression of African-Americans, showing that the fight for equality Josalynn and so many others are fighting will not be over in the near future.
By Céline Sonnenberg
Picture 1: Chris Wieland licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Picture 2: Anette Bernhardt licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0