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A Reflection on Aug. 9, 2014: Why I Visited Ferguson

Editor’s Note: Equal Voice News is sharing this Oct. 24, 2014 essay from Neva Walker, a social justice leader in San Francisco, because Aug. 9, 2017 marked the third year since Michael Brown passed away.

All this month, people around the country are taking part in actions and events as part of Ferguson October. A few weeks ago, Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth members participated in a series of dialogue sessions about Ferguson. Our members – all low-income Black, Latino and Pacific Islander youth and parents – shared their feelings of anger and sadness about the killing of Michael Brown.

Neva Walker. Photo courtesy of Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth

They talked about how they felt a strong sense of connection to the growing resistance movement in Ferguson – both because of their own negative experiences with law enforcement and because of their leadership in Coleman’s ongoing work to end the school-to-prison pipeline in San Francisco.

Our members were excited for me to represent Coleman when I traveled to Ferguson twice in the past month to support local organizers and to plan with others around the country about how we can take relevant action back home.

From Oct. 20 to Oct. 26, Black Lives Matter sponsored coordinated actions, events, workshops and community healing spaces as part of a National Week of Action against state-sanctioned violence. The week was planned around the Oct. 22 National Day of Solidarity against police brutality that has been taking place since 1996 and includes over 100 mobilizations around the country.

As executive director of Coleman Advocates, I have a strong and clear stake in these issues. We organize students and families primarily around education equity issues in San Francisco.

In a city where Black students as young as five years old are arrested and taken out of classrooms in handcuffs and where Black students make up more than 50 percent of suspensions but are less than 10 percent of the student population, public education system reform and criminal justice system reform are inextricably linked.

Multiple studies show that suspended or expelled students are exponentially more likely to drop out, repeat a grade and have contact with law enforcement and the juvenile justice system. Once that contact is made, there is a racial bias against Black people at every level of the criminal justice system.

Black people are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. We receive longer sentences and are subjected to disproportionate supervision and harassment by the legal system. And Black people are disproportionately injured and killed by law enforcement – one Black man is killed every 28 hours by the police or vigilantes, according to a recent study.

Photo source: Black Lives Matter Facebook page

But my pain and outrage about the many ways law enforcement and the criminal justice system are robbing Black communities of our young men (and increasingly our young women) – and my dedication to making change – do not stem exclusively from my role as the director of an organization working to build better schools and a better future for our Black youth.

I am the mother of a 27 year-old Black man. I know how it feels to fear for the safety of my child every time he leaves the sanctuary of home. When he was growing up, I didn’t worry that my son would get involved with gangs (even though he had cousins on both sides of the family who did) and I didn’t worry that he would be harmed in a crossfire that wasn’t meant for him.

My deepest fear for my son has always been about what might happen when he encounters the police. We should not have to live in fear of the people who are paid to protect and serve our communities.

Yet, at an age when no parent should have to lecture their child about anything more serious than the importance of doing homework and eating vegetables, I had to teach my son – as a matter of survival – about racial profiling and the potential dangers of interacting with the police.

It’s a talk every Black mother knows and dreads.

And I know, first hand, the very specific trauma of losing a loved one to police violence. While in Ferguson, I found myself nearly overwhelmed by my feelings of empathy for Michael Brown’s mother.

This was not simply the compassion of a fellow mother; rather, my sense of connection to this young man’s family was sourced in a very personal pain. Three of my male cousins – in two different cities – were killed by police officers.

There are no words to describe the grief that consumed my family in the wake of these killings and the ongoing trauma that continues to impact our daily lives.

When a loved one is stolen from you by a police killing, the right to mourn in peace is stolen from you as well. There is the shock and then the anguish and you think to yourself, “No pain could be any greater than this.”

And then, almost immediately, the police launch their “demonize-the-victim” offensive, throwing salt on your wound, intensifying the pain. With no regard for the truth or for relevancy or for the broken hearts of grieving mothers, law enforcement agencies – bolstered by a sensationalist and racially-biased media – pull out every possible punch to create obstacles to accountability and to keep us all on the defense, rather than fighting for justice.

I made the decision to go to Ferguson despite a dozen competing priorities because I was exhausted and frustrated and my heart hurt. I had to do something, anything with these feelings. But even more so, I went to Ferguson – and I remain connected to the ongoing organizing – because I have a boundless love for my people, a deep desire for connection with others who share my vision for change, and a powerful yearning for a better world for our Black sons and daughters.

Photo source: Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth Facebook page

Ferguson has become a metaphor for race relations in the United States; an embodiment of the daily oppressive forces that so many Black communities face in our country: Poverty, segregation, police brutality, gentrification, under-resourced public schools, unemployment, lack of representation in local government and federal and civic neglect, among other injustices.

Michael Brown was not the first of our Black children to die at the hands of law enforcement. Nor, unfortunately, will he be the last.

This killing though is unique in that it became the catalyst for an organized uprising among people from all walks of life – but especially young Black men and women around the country – demanding concrete change in the form of accountability, transparency, new policies and practices, government spending reforms and redress to affected communities.

I am forever grateful to Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Ayo for founding the critical movement that is Black Lives Matter and for their invaluable leadership organizing solidarity efforts and support for the Ferguson community and for building bridges between the movement in Ferguson and our fights around these issues in our home cities.

On my last trip to Ferguson, I had the opportunity to meet some of the inspiring young people leading the organizing work there and in St. Louis. Leaders from organizations like Millenial Activists United, Organization for Black Struggle and Hands Up United.

Now, in my darkest moments – when I find myself feeling powerless in the face of so much injustice – I look to the fierce courage, strategic vision and the unwavering determination and hope of these young organizers and activists to rekindle my faith in the possibility of transformation.

My belief in our young leaders – at Coleman, in Ferguson, and beyond – fuels my belief in change.

I am a Black mother and a Black organizer in the United States of America. I have so much to fear. But so much more to fight for.

Neva Walker is executive director of San Francisco-based Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth, a community group made up of people from different races. The group supports human rights and dignity for all people. About the top image: Jeremiah Parker, 4, stands in front of his mother, Shatara Parker, as they attend an Aug. 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. AP Photo by Jeff Roberson 


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