Commentary: Solidarity and Activism After Ferguson, by Vincent Assington

This piece was written by Ember Assington, a frequent attendee of the Society and an activist working alongside many others to protest racial injustice in Ferguson and St. Louis.

This piece is presented in accordance with the Society’s commitment to the debate and discussion of ethical ideas, in order to challenge us to deeply consider our ethical responsibilities. The Society does not necessarily endorse everything that is written here, and individual members of our community will take different views on contentious issues.

We invite members to share their perspectives: contact James Croft at jcroft@ethicalstl.org if you would like to present an editorial on our site.

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On Monday October 20, I took part in the city-wide day of civil disobedience with the group of young activists who marched on St. Louis City Hall and occupied the building, asking to speak with Mayor Slay. I’ve heard members of the Ethical Society say that they have been watching the protests in Ferguson, and aren’t sure what it is the protesters want. This is amazing to me. If you don’t know what the protesters in Ferguson want, then you simply haven’t been paying attention to the people protesting.

On October 20 our demands were clear, and not dissimilar to the demands that protesters have been raising since the Ferguson movement began: 1. An effective civilian review board 2. Body cameras on any police directly interacting with civilians 3. independent investigation of all police-involved shootings 4. removal of STLPD from the 1033 program and any other program that allows police to acquire military-grade weapons and armor.

To me, all of these demands seem like obvious things the city should already be doing. The police should be actively involved in open communication with the communities they serve; we should be able to keep a record of police activity and hold officers and the people they interact with accountable for their crimes; criminal investigations should not be performed by the lead suspects of the investigations; state and local police don’t need to be using military weapons (which they are not even required to be trained to use) against civilian populations.

In our action at City Hall, I was confronted with my privilege as a white person. I and two other people hid large, folded banners reading “BE ACCOUNTABLE OR BE GONE” “WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON” and “WE ARE THE PEOPLE WE HAVE THE POWER” under our clothing and smuggled them through the security checkpoint set up at the main entrance. We had intended to hang these banners from the second floor balcony while a larger group of protesters (which ended up being 80-100 people in all) marched up to meet us in the rotunda. By the time we arrived, however, the police had blocked off the second floor, and so we joined the larger group of protesters and opened the banners on the first floor, holding them up ourselves until we were able to hang them from the staircase railings. The first protester to attempt to tie one banner off was arrested, but dozens moved in to take his place, and by the time they had carried him away, we had two banners hung on either side of the room.

I and a young man of color, who I had never met before, were left holding the third, and he pointed up the stairs, motioning me to follow him up with the banner. In that moment, I was distinctly aware of my privilege: if I were to take the lead, and march up those stairs with him following me, I would put us both at risk of arrest. But the risk would not be equal. I, a young white person of male appearance, had privileges that this black man would never know. If we were both arrested, he would be far more likely to face abuse, and he would be scrutinized to a much greater extent than I would be simply because of the color of our skin.

Beyond that, I realized that the risk I was taking there in that place, the risk of arrest that I was willing to accept that day, is a risk that he is faced with every day of his life. Black men in this country must be constantly vigilant, walking on eggshells to avoid anything that could possibly be construed as threatening or criminal. As a white person, I am able to express myself in whatever way I desire, and am given a great deal of lenience by law enforcement and society in general. As a black man, he is under constant threat of abuse, arrest, and even violent death if he ever does anything that the police could possibly interpret as threatening or criminal.

When asked to write about my experience with the Ferguson protests, I was hesitant at first, because I don’t think a white person who moved to St. Louis a month after the protests began is the ideal person to do so. However, I do think that someone within the Ethical Society of St. Louis should be bringing more attention to this, and we seem to have a troublesome shortage of black activist voices among us. I hope you are asking yourself why that is, and what it says about the Society.

I moved to St. Louis this September, so the city and the Ethical Society are fairly new to me. It has been very strange over the last several weeks to hear people questioning whether the Society should become active with the Ferguson protests while simultaneously wondering why the Society lacks racial diversity and how we can become more appealing to people of color. To me, it seems apparent that one of these questions answers the other. The Society is unappealing to people of color simply because it does not take an active role in advocating for many of the issues that matter to them.

I’m told this wasn’t always the case, and historically, Ethical Societies (including this one) have played important roles in activism for racial equality. I haven’t been around long enough to see this take place. I wasn’t here before the Society moved from a relatively diverse area in downtown St. Louis to the nearly entirely white-populated City of Clayton. We have a beautiful building there, and one to be proud of, but being proud of its location is difficult. While the Society does have a history of standing against racial oppression, I certainly hope we didn’t leave that behind in the move to a more affluent, white neighborhood.

Of course, I don’t expect the Society to adopt positions incongruent with its principals just to attract a larger, more diverse membership, so maybe it’s a question worth asking after all. “Should the Society take an active role in opposing institutional racism?”

What I’m not going to do here is waste my time trying to convince anyone that institutional racism exists. The statistical evidence is so overwhelming, that denying its existence at this point would be as anti-science as denying evolution or climate change. I have no time to waste arguing with people who so blatantly disregard science and evidence in favor of their own personal biases.

So, starting with the assumption that we aren’t entirely discrediting the clear evidence that institutional racism is a real issue, in setting out to write this, one of the first things I thought was “How can I make white readers understand the importance of this issue? How can I demonstrate the ways that institutional racism affects everyone, even privileged white people?”, but then I realized that I shouldn’t have to. We call ourselves an “Ethical Society”, and I care because I am ethical. The effects of institutional racism don’t have to personally affect me (though I believe that to some extent they do) for me to care and feel a duty to act.

If we accept that institutional racism is a problem and believe that we are devoted to living ethical lives and standing up for the oppressed, then what else stands between us and getting involved in a movement to fight racial oppression and work to defend the lives and safety of people of color?

I suppose there are still people who get all their news comes from corporate, white owned and operated, mainstream, establishment media. I would have hoped that by now we all would have realized how biased and unreliable traditional media has become. Since the Ferguson movement began, major news sources have made every attempt to ignore the protests, and when they could no longer be ignored, to demonize protesters or boil their message down to those handy little sound-bites the press likes so much. If that is a person’s only source of news about what’s happening in the world, then no doubt they will be severely misinformed about these protests as well as a vast number of other things.

I’ve also heard people in the Society claim they agree with the protesters, but that they are uncomfortable or inconvenienced by the protests or hesitant to join them for fear that the protests might get rowdy or the police might become violent. These people should be damn thankful they were born white.

White privilege provides us the ability to decide whether to get involved, and the luxury of choosing to avoid confrontations with the police. Had we been born with a different color of skin, confrontations with the police would be inevitable, and these issues would directly impact our lives no matter how we attempted to distance ourselves from these protests. This is the height of our privilege, and many in the Society appear to be embracing this privilege wholeheartedly, grasping desperately for any excuse to avoid taking an active role in fighting for the oppressed people all around them.

Through my participation in many protests in Ferguson and St. Louis, I realized that I have a duty to follow the oppressed into the fray and stand beside them in solidarity. How else will we build a more just and peaceful society?