”As I drove down W. Florissant two days after the decision, I cried.
I cried because I saw, not the burned down buildings,
But the pain of my people that those buildings reflected.
The same pain that filled my heart when I heard the decision
Even though I knew what it would be
I cried, maybe because God was crying
And I knew people were joined with me in crying
Crying through the rain of indifference
Crying because of the dehumanizing of people through mis-education, lack of healthcare
Crying because we have the number 1 prison rate, a cycle of school to prison pipeline
Crying when God sees his people in pain because they don’t know what to do with the situation”
Excerpt from “Cries From a Community and Our God”-Brittini Gray
When I asked Brittini Gray, Chair of the Gamaliel Network Organizers of Color Table, and Community Organizer for Gameliel affiliate Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU), what the Ferguson community is saying they need following Michael Brown’s death, and decision not to indict Darren Wilson, she directed me to the above poem.
Like many, I have been watching the events in Ferguson from a far distance, and like many, I am deeply troubled by the fact that Darren Wilson was not indicted. While there are several members of law enforcement in my close personal circles that I highly respect, and believe truly did get into that line of work to protect and serve, I believe that, as Jon Stewart so aptly put it, “You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.” (For a good read that articulates this point further, I highly recommend, Kelsey Warren’s recent essay for Afro Punk, “The Brutality Truth.”)
But as I stated previously, I am watching these events unfold from a far distance, and though I have wanted to write about this subject, I feel like the fact that I’m not there disqualifies me from narrating the story. Which is why I asked Gray for an interview.
She has been a member of MCU for two and a half years, and began attending the Ferguson protests a few days after they began. She sees her personal passion and role as an organizer to “not to be on the frontline as a protestor but seeking where I can engage with and develop leaders in the movement.”
She graciously took the time to answer my questions about her experience and MCU’s involvement at the demonstrations, as well as what the next steps are to change the environment that fostered this tragedy.
First could you briefly discuss your background as a community organizer, and how you got involved with Metropolitan Congregations United?
I began organizing right out of undergrad, through Catholic Charities Service Corps in Buffalo, NY. After that year, I knew I wanted to continue the work I began and so I landed in St. Louis with Metropolitan Congregations United. Organizing was a world that I never knew by name, but when I found it, knew it was my place and specifically with people of faith. I believe that the word and more explicitly, the life of Jesus points us not to a life of piety, holiness often times expressed as holier than thou, and prayer only. The life of Jesus as modeled in the gospels, guides us to a life of justice, not charity, restoring people back to community and society, not keeping them in a cycle of being disfranchised for the sake of keeping the status quo, of uplifting the downtrodden, depressed, marginalization and voiceless and leading them to finding their own voice and fighting for their own liberation. For this I organize.
What was your reaction when you heard Darren Wilson wouldn’t be indicted?
I was not surprised, but my heart dropped. In the heart of every organizer and activist has to be an ounce of hope- for without hope we have nothing to fight for. In me, there was 1% of hope for justice, and so when that 1% of hope was gone, my heart dropped. And then after 2 seconds of heartbreak, I became outraged. Outraged at the continual injustice that plagues black communities across America, urban or suburban. Outraged that we continue to operate a system that was never meant to provide justice for people of color in this country and act as though eventually it will. And yet I was also filled grief and despair. This is not a battle, this is a war- a reality that the life of Black children and adults continues to be full of racism, discrimination and injustice and no matter how hard we fight, the systems we operate in seem to fight back harder.
What has your experience been as a participant of the demonstrations in Ferguson since August? What is the narrative in the mainstream media getting wrong, especially in regards to its focus on violence from demonstrators? Is the media getting any part of the story right?
I’ve operated in my primary role as an organizer with clergy and congregations. I have also played a supportive role of activists who protest by being out at night with them, sitting in with clergy when they are arrested to strategize their release, and working on actions together.
The main part of this issue of violence from demonstrators is that property damage is not violence. Violence is what is committed against people. Property is not a human being. While both can be criminal, we need to stop the misuse of terminology that creates a criminal outlook on people who are fighting for justice.
While the media at times reflects the reality of the protests, 80% of the time we are villainized, improperly depicted and losing against the other side’s argument around us.
What has MCU’s role been in the demonstrations and how does it compare with that of other faith based organizations in the area?
Our role has been to train clergy to be present with those on the frontlines, some being on the frontline themselves. We have also been working to build a conscious group of people of faith by having conversations around systemic structural racism and moving people into action.
Not to say that these demonstrations are going to end any time soon, but what’s the next step beyond the protests? Are there other actions to take or policies MCU is looking to support?
The protest have held up that Black Lives Matter and have forced a national and international conversation about the value, worth and treatment of black lives. But protest will not sustain a movement, nor are they intended to. Now the strategic structural work must begin.
The activists who have been on the front line of the protest, wholeheartedly understand the structural issues at play- the understanding of them are reflected in the chants and tactics of the protest used thus far. But now is time for the organizing to begin. Leadership development has taken place on the front lines, but legislative work needs to be done. Tactics have been utilized, now it is time for strategic visioning and process. Now is time for reflection.
For MCU, this is where our work has consistently been grounded and where we seek to engage with others in the region (activists and organizations) going forward. Our work, as people of faith, is grounded in the life and work of Jesus Christ, and striving to reach the Beloved Community of Dr. King. In doing so, our actions are centered around systemic change, leadership development and ongoing consistent reflection.
In terms of the issue cuts, we are aligned with the demands that have come forth from the movement, particularly those of the Don’t Shoot Coalition, which we are a part of. Our primary focus currently is with the incoming County Executive, Steve Stenger, to hold a community summit in which stakeholders, elected officials of the region (both local and state), police departments, and municipal mayors and officials are working together to look at implementing and strengthening community policing as well as reforming the municipal court systems and debtors prison. (You can link to the petition from gamaliel.org.)
I ask this next question because I’ve personally been thinking a lot about what my own answer would be. If you had the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with the Ferguson Police Department, (and knew there would be no physical or legal repercussions) what would you say?
I cannot say what I would say, only what I would ask:
I’d ask them what’s the value of Black life to them? How is that reflected in the policies and trainings of officers? In what ways do they see this value being communicated and what are the areas in which improvement is needed? Have they considered the militarized response to protest over the past 4 months and the trauma, fear, and lack of building relationships it has created? Do they really believe that their lives are endangered when working with Black people? Have they considered how the dominant worldview and history of this country has played into their current department and the occupation of police today across the country?
What has MCU’s response been since the news of the Eric Garner trial? Anything else I didn’t cover that you want to add?
In regards to what has been the response to Eric Garner- I include these links to show specifically how we have tied it right into the work we have done already. Like the rest of the country, we responded by going to the streets and upping the conversation on brutality and value of life.
Finally, in regards to all these questions, you may find my blog helpful in answering a lot. I often express myself in creative means to communicate what I am unable to otherwise.
The first two poems in particular I have used frequently as of lately, [including] “Letter to My Unborn Child.”
Photos courtesy of Brittini Gray, from Ferguson demonstrations on the day of the Grand Jury decision announcement.