Within hours of the announcement that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson, a wave of anger swept through Ferguson, Missouri. The stunned silence following the condescending explanation of the grand jury process by prosecuting attorney, Bob McCullough, hardened into a furious eruption of looting, gunfire, and frustration. For a town that had been lulled into a brief respite of peace following the shooting of Michael Brown, it was clear the peaceful protests had been sidelined…at least for the night.
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The peaceful protest playbook that had been used in Ferguson, Missouri is a modern revival of the strategy that effectively dismantled much of the Jim Crow south. The images of protestors chanting, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” are a 21st century remake of “We Shall Overcome” made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others as they moved through the streets arms locked in unity.
Before Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, there had been classes and conversations about how to resist peacefully when approached and asked to forfeit a seat for a white passenger. As African Americans prepared to boycott, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference schooled protesters on nonviolence by focusing on the traditions of their faith. Alabama became the test case for the gospel of nonviolence, and it worked. The Civil Rights Movement had its marching orders for change, incorporating two week training sessions for protestors as the opposition became more violent.
“Mrs. Parks and I had had conversations in my office for over a year about everything dealing with the Civil Rights Movement including what one should do or what would be appropriate to do in the event an opportunity presented itself. I was the last person to talk with Mrs. Parks before she was arrested that day,” recalls Fred Gray from the law firm he owns in Tuskegee, Alabama. At the time of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Gray was a young attorney eager to challenge the racist laws that had defined his life and motivated his interest in the law.
Decades later, similar classes and discussions were being held as protesters awaited the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case. Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment has sponsored classes to teach protestors methods of non-violent resistance and how to serve as medics in the event tear gas is deployed. Incidents of civil disobedience have landed area politicians and national names like activist-academic Cornell West, in jail. His arrest occurred during what protesters called “Ferguson October,” a round of civil disobedience acts staged at high-profile venues in the St. Louis area.
One of the most surprising protests interrupted the critically acclaimed St. Louis Symphony during a concert in October. As the musicians sat on stage and concertgoers waited for the music to resume, protesters rose from virtually every corner of Powell Hall singing, “Whose side are you on.” The disruption filled the grand auditorium with an unrest that, until then, had been confined to the streets.
Minister Richard Jackson says, “So, things such as interrupting Powell Symphony Hall are subject to happen at any moment…with no violence.” He emphasizes, “When they interrupted Walmart, they didn’t steal. They didn’t take anything out. They just came in there to let them know we might be anywhere at any time.”
The power of nonviolent protests drew Americans from other parts of the country to Ferguson. Lauren Boas-Hayes, who is white, grew up in Philadelphia and traveled to St. Louis to help friends teach classes about protesting peacefully. She explains, “That’s where I’ve been really, really empowered in this community. There were more than 150 people in a class, learning how they can sit down if a line of police is coming at you…lots of good work like that going on.”
For civil rights pioneers like Gray, there had been some concern that the advances in race relations were being lost due to a growing complacency among younger generations of African-Americans. He says, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of my generation to give the younger generation a blueprint as to how to go about doing it. You should see the problem and with all the education and technology, you should be able to take it from where we have brought it and take it forward.”
As the world watches the situation unfold in Ferguson, those who trust the power and the history of nonviolence to affect change are concerned the recent violence will overshadow their efforts. The grand jury decision is still fresh. Once the initial disappointment burns off, what will happen? Peaceful protest or angry resignation?