Why Ferguson protests might not have staying power

Ferguson activists protesting the police killing of Michael Brown and the lack of a trial have passion and purpose. But they lack cohesiveness, structure, and political ambition.

Roberto Rodriguez/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
Demonstrators stage a mock shooting during a protest in front of the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, Mo., Tuesday.

After a 4-1/2 minute moment of silence near the United States Courthouse in St. Louis Tuesday afternoon, where nearly a thousand boisterous protesters paused to remember Michael Brown and other black men slain by police, an organizer broke the silence with one of the marchers' familiar chants. 

"United we stand!" he cried out. Rising together, protesters responded: "Divided we fall." 

It's a quintessential American protest slogan that goes back to Patrick Henry and the politics of the Revolutionary War, but it carries a special significance to the unique ecosystem of activists who have coalesced around the Brown case in nearby Ferguson, Mo.

Since riots broke out after the police killing of Mr. Brown, an unarmed black teen, on Aug. 9, a wide array of activist groups has come to Ferguson both to push their causes and keep the peace. Each comes with its own lens, from the black clergy who hark back to the civil rights era to the anarchist-tinged offspring of the Occupy and Anonymous movements.

These disparate groups have found their note of concord in the united fight against police power and for the black community here and nationwide. But, in many respects, the protesters’ vow to bring change on these issues is connected to their ability to remain unified and focused well after the television crews have left Ferguson.

Like the Occupy actions that briefly burned brightly and then extinguished, however, the Ferguson protests show little coordination or leadership that suggest a more-permanent architecture for change could grow from the earnest efforts here.

Take Andrea Schmidt, a nursing student at the University of Missouri St. Louis who participated in Tuesday's protest. She recently helped form a new collective in St. Louis called Gateway Region Action Medics, a group that sees itself as part of a protest medical assistance tradition of that goes back to the 1960s.  

"It's a horizontal, leaderless organization, so basically what that means is that we all work together as a team and we all decided what we want to do as a group," says Ms. Schmidt, who, like dozens of others, is wearing an identifying red cross on her coat as she marches with other protesters. "We have similar views, and we have certain rules that should be abided by, such as, we're here to support the protesters, but we're not here to lead any protests."

Political unity in the Ferguson protests comes in the form of umbrella groups such as the Don't Shoot Coalition and Hands Up United, which form statements of purpose and list "demands" directed to those in power, such as establishing civilian review for shootings and allegations of police misconduct.

Nearly 50 organizations have joined Don't Shoot, including established groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, as well as smaller groups like Sistahs Talking Back and the Coalition to Abolish the Prison Industrial Complex. The umbrella coalition helps pool resources, share ideas, and collectively organize events such as Tuesday's protest. 

The lack of even more centralized leadership is not a function of infighting or lack of passion, per se. It’s deeply ingrained in many of the groups’ worldview. For the most part, they consciously reject any form of top-down leadership, emphasizing instead what they see as the fundamental dangers and abuses of political power. 

But while the tea party has been able to effect enormous change without a centralized structure, the coalition of left-leaning protest groups that have come to Ferguson lack the united political agenda, shared cultural values, or millions of consistent voters. In fact, many remain mostly uninterested in traditional political parties or dynamic leaders. For example, the Tuesday protest in St. Louis took place at the exact same time that the Rev. Al Sharpton – the de facto face of the Ferguson protests – was speaking along with the Brown family in Ferguson.

Of themselves, the protests have been effectively managed. Although Tuesday's march in St. Louis remained virtually leaderless, a colorful supporting web held the group together as it later marched to Interstate 70 near St. Louis's famous Arch. 

Members of the clergy wore bright orange vests, medics wore black with red crosses, observers from the National Lawyers Guild wore lime-green hats, and members of Amnesty International wore yellow shirts. 

"This is a leader-full movement – there are many leaders, but there isn't any kind of top-down leadership, or working under one group," says Casey Stinemetz, St. Louis chapter coordinator for Veterans for Peace, a nationwide association of veterans. "It really is like a coalition of different groups taking on different roles."

Two of the most visible organizing groups among the Ferguson coalitions have been the Organization for Black Struggle and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, both of whom have led trainings on nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience leading up to the grand jury decision this week.

"All around we've been doing nonviolent trainings, know-your-rights trainings to make sure people understand what their rights are, so people know what they're allowed to do, and what they can expect the police to do," says Juliette Jacobs, a member of Organization for Black Struggle. 

Ms. Jacobs face is caked with pepper spray as she speaks – she was at the front of the St. Louis protest as it marched up the ramp of Interstate 70 and shut down traffic in both directions.

But while the organizers focus on the logistics and politics of resistance, others at the protest saw a greater need to participate more in politics. The black majority in Ferguson votes in miniscule numbers, leading to the mostly white municipal government and police force.

"We just want to protect our people, and protect my people and my community from an oppressive system," says Mikale Elliott, a sophomore political science major at the University of Missouri in Columbia. "So this is part of our standing up – we might not be able to change grand jury, but this is part of a bigger thing, so." 

"But I think we really need to see some legislative changes with our judicial system, and our police – we need more policing the police," Ms. Elliot continues. "But to be a part of something like this, it is important for our community to vote."

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