In the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, the case of Dred Scott was first heard in 1847. Dred Scott and his family sued for freedom from their slave owner on the grounds that they had been removed from a “slave state” and brought to U.S. territories in which slavery was illegal.
The case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1857 ruled that Scott had no standing to sue for rights under U.S. law since no black person – free or slave – was a citizen of the United States.
Fast forward to this past weekend: October 11-12, 2014. Three thousand protesters from throughout the country gathered in the literal and figurative shadow of the Old Courthouse to call for justice in the police killing of Michael Brown two months earlier in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.
The Ferguson October weekend of action and resistance is four days of protest, forums, discussion, prayer, and reflection aimed at putting a spotlight on Mike Brown’s killing and the broader issues of police brutality and accountability nationwide.
One of the most striking things about the event is its breadth and diversity.
Saturday’s march, titled “Justice for All” had a large local contingent, but also drew students from colleges such as Grinnell University, Howard University, University of Cincinnati and many others.
Carpools arrived from as far away as California, Florida, Maine and Washington state. Large groups of young African Americans came heeding the call “Black Lives Matter!” – but so did Latino, Arab, Asian and white marchers. Signs were in Korean, Spanish, Arabic and English. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, all faiths, and Atheists, were represented.
Activists from the environmental justice movement, Palestine solidarity movement, immigrant rights movement and the civil rights movement, both new and old were here in solidarity. Labor unions, community organizations, student groups and churches marched behind their banners.
All ages participated, from babes in arms to 90-year-old human rights activist and Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein. The mood was somehow both mournful and exuberant.
One of the greatest accomplishments of the movement in Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area in the past two months is the development of a dynamic group of young people who have been peacefully marching, protesting and calling for Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown to be indicted. The grand jury had its deadline extended into 2015, a delay that leaves the family and the community waiting for answers.
These young people – many of them sleeping in tents in and around Ferguson for weeks – have been harassed, arrested, tear gassed and vilified by authorities ever since the police turned peaceful protests into an uprising eight weeks ago. Rev. Renita Lamkin from St. Charles, Missouri has spent weeks working with local youth and mediating with police during almost nightly confrontations. She was hit with rubber bullets fired by police recently while working to keep the peace.
Speaking to the assembled crowd Saturday, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou said he believes a national movement against police brutality has begun in Ferguson.
“The blood of Mike Brown has seeded a great revolution in this country,” said Rev. Sekou
Meetings throughout the weekend discussed taking the movement outward both to keep attention on the unresolved situation in Ferguson, but also to address the everyday experience of racist policing across the country. Whether this moment in history can become a historic movement is up to the organizers and activists heading home after this weekend. But many here believe there is a unique and rare opportunity to make headway on these issues right now.
The system of racism that subjects black people in particular, and people of color generally, to all sorts of indignity, suffering and death may not seem that different that the one that enslaved Dred Scott one hundred and fifty years ago. But one thing that has changed is the rainbow of support and solidarity that was represented here this weekend. It reminds us all that Michael Brown was a human being deserving of rights and life, and that black lives matter. To all of us.