Blood is dripping down our faces onto the stainless steel of the armored police van. The hot yellow light flickers against the angry eyes of six young black men. We are trembling in pain and rage. Our chests are heaving. We are still breathing. One man’s eyes stare into mine.
“They didn’t have to do that,” he says. He is shaking. “How they hit me in the face when I’m already cuffed? Kicked me too.”
We all chime in, recounting the details of how we were just brutalized.
“They kicked my ribs.”
“They straight smacked my face.”
“They scraped my skin across the asphalt.”
We had just been arrested by the police on the streets of North County St. Louis for peacefully protesting the murder of another unarmed black person. Minutes ago, we were standing together calmly. We were talking, praying, listening, chanting and looking each other in the eyes. Then the police broke into the crowd and started grabbing people. Everyone started to run. I got around one line only to meet the next line in riot gear. I was tackled to the ground. Multiple cops jumped on me. One grabbed my face and smashed it into the concrete. I felt one of them slam his knee onto the back of my neck. All around, the police were doing the same thing to innocent people. My brothers were laid flat on the ground with automatic weapons pointed at their heads.
I was dragged across the street and thrown at the foot of a cop car. The cops yelled, “masks on!” and pulled on their gear to protect themselves from tear gas. They let us choke with our hands cuffed behind our backs. Then we were pushed into the back of the police van. The last time I was handcuffed, beaten and put in a wagon like this was in Palestine.
I think of Gaza and look at the young black men by my side. Dehumanization. Whoever thinks Ferguson and Gaza are disconnected doesn’t understand that we are in a desperate struggle against the poison of dehumanization. Wincing in pain, we catch our breath as the chaos continues outside. I heard the world is watching. But they can’t see inside of this steel cage police van.
I’m here in Ferguson because I can be. And I can be here because of many privileges. I have my health. I have relationships with people who have offered their hospitality. I have freedom of movement. I have access to compassion, which makes me want to respond when my family is under attack. I was on tour with my crew, the Peace Poets, and we had enough money for gas to drive here. In addition, no matter where I live or what my culture is, I have the privileges of white skin, which are significant in this moment as they are in all instances in this country. All these are privileges that many people do not have, and so I must first recognize that these factors and many more have allowed me to come here to St. Louis during this moment of crisis.
Beyond that, there are a number of personal reasons as a human being and strategic reasons as an organizer, educator and artist that brought me here. The source of my pain and rage is clear: I see and feel all people as my family. In the United States, my family members with darker skin are systematically criminalized, consistently killed and regularly denied justice. These are my brothers and sisters. I’m in the streets of Ferguson to demand justice for my brother Mike Brown and for Ramarley Graham, Anthony Baez, Hilton Vega, Nicholas Hayward Jr., Shantel Davis and all the many more. I’m also here because I see the repression as connected to the violence of white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia. This connection reminds me of what Frederick Douglass once wrote: “I will be a slave until all my people are free.”
Inches away from my face, another brother is pushed into a separate area of the armored van on the other side of bulletproof glass. Bring the cameras in here. This is the crisis. The emergency. He writhes in pain, his face contorted by the burning of pepper spray. We all went silent for five seconds. They must have put him alone so we couldn’t even lend our shoulders for him to wipe the burning off his face. He was right next to me but I couldn’t reach him.
I yelled through the glass, “You all right, brother? You breathing?”
He shakes his head no and utters, “I can’t breathe…”
His head shook, his body convulsed. We yelled for the cops to help him. I screamed to get my voice to the front of the van, where the cop sat in the driver’s seat waiting for the order to take us away.
“Heeeeey! He can’t breathe! Open the door! He needs help! Hey!” I yelled.
Through the two layers of scratched bulletproof glass, I saw the cop casually raise his white-skinned hand with an open palm as if to say, “Oh well. Too bad.”
I shuddered in rage.
This is Ferguson. This is every city in America. There are white hands causing and dismissing the unspeakable anguish of black brothers and sisters. There is a debate about what’s happening here. But those talking can’t see these vile, sinister inhumane racist acts on your television screen. They can’t hear me yelling through the glass to this brother, “Look at me brother! Say something!”
We beg him to stay strong. I strain my eyes to see if his chest is still moving. It is. He rests his head on the glass, tears uncontrollably flowing out of his clenched eyes. I place my bloody forehead against the glass next to his, trying to talk him through the worst moments of the chemicals singeing his skin. In my throbbing head, I’m terrified he won’t make it. I renew my promise to never stop fighting the oppression raging against our family. His tears and my blood are smeared against the glass of the police van. Michael Brown’s blood on the concrete. Same blood. His mother’s tears and cries for justice. Same tears.
With zip ties cutting off the blood flow to our hands, we keep talking about the police violence and ideas for solutions. These young men are awake. Their courageous resistance is why we’re here. At 5 a.m. when we’re processed and let out onto the streets of St. Louis, we embrace. We’re all asking the same question: “You going out there tonight again?”
Bravery abounds here, and what I’m realizing now is that what we must recognize Ferguson all around us: in our communities and all the way out to Palestine and countless other places. We must see the disgusting oppression and powerful resistance. We must raise up the beautiful voices of the people screaming, “Don’t shoot.” If we’ve been made blind by media and mis-education, we must strain our eyes like I did to see if that young man was still breathing. When we look, we’ll find that we are fighting for dignity and survival in the face of countless insidious acts of hate in all corners of this country. We cannot look away.
Of course, not everyone can be in Missouri right now, and not everyone can block the tanks in Gaza. But still we are all being called to respond. Speak out for justice and dignity! Call out white supremacy and racism! Love your community, your family and ourselves enough to see this moment for what it is: A brave invitation to escalate our struggle for human dignity.
Everywhere Ferguson now.