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How ‘Ferguson October’ Ended Up Occupying a Plaza on Saint Louis University’s Campus

On Saint Louis University’s campus around 1:30 am, October 13

Hundreds of people took to the streets of St. Louis last night following an interfaith service at Chaifetz Arena at Saint Louis University (SLU). They eventually made their way on to the SLU campus by 2 am and, by early morning, twenty-five people remained with tents in Clock Tower Plaza on campus.

It was all a part of “Ferguson October,” a “weekend of resistance” for transforming a moment of protest against white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson who killed the unarmed black teenager Mike Brown into a movement. But the events of last night did not go by schedule at all—and that is part of why it worked so well.

Organizers had planned for well over a thousand people to gather in an arena for a keynote from Dr. Cornel West. It would be an “evening of reflection and resistance.” They would feature a “new generation of youth activists,” who had been on the front lines in Ferguson, Missouri, since August 9 when Brown was killed. However, there would be faith representatives, like priests, rabbis, an imam, a humanist, and the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They would give conventional speeches and address an audience, like a typical pep rally for a movement. The pep rally would lead into “Moral Monday” actions in St. Louis by faith-based groups.

NAACP President Cornell William Brooks was on stage giving his remarks when a small group of African-Americans in the arena turned their back to the stage. They were upset with how the NAACP had failed the community of Ferguson so far yet had continued to use the moment for their own public relations purposes. Then, a younger man shouted at Brooks as he wrapped and a discussion took place as a few people came over to talk to him.

There were young people who were upset by the program and openly called for their voices to be included in the program. They brought the event to a halt with their protest and, instead of having security haul them out of the arena, those in charge of the event made a split-second decision. They decided these young people were right. The community did deserve to hear more from them and a group of people came down to stage. The program for the evening was reshuffled to more accurately reflect the movement that has been growing in the streets of St. Louis.

One young African-American woman, added to the program, expressed the key frustration over this meeting:

…What do we do with this platform? What are we really doing with it besides creating awareness? We have all recognized this active issue. We are all here together. Clearly, we see there is an issue. But what is our follow-up? What is our plan? Where is our action? Our words? We have to put action to them…

…What are we going to do? What’s the next step? We have this platform here. We need to utilize it to the best of our ability. And that means making sure that the people in the community are heard with what they are doing…

When the meeting wrapped around 10 pm at night, there were people who had stood up on stage and called for those in attendance to join together and march in Shaw, where Vonderritt Myers Jr., a young African-American man who had been shot and killed by an off-duty cop while working his security job four days ago. And the call worked because nearly half of those who attended the meeting came out to march in the middle of the night.

The family of Myers came out to march. At one point, there were two groups that were marching on the sidewalk. A police patrol kept its distance but setup at a QuikTrip gas station on Forest Park Avenue and Grand Avenue about a block away from SLU campus.

When the two groups converged, police had officers in riot gear with their batons drawn, as they surrounded a Starbucks Coffee on the corner. It seemed for a moment that the chaos of the convergence would end how these actions typically have ended—in a standoff with police and with officers ordering people to disperse or face arrest. It seemed like this would escalate to pepper spraying, to tear gassing, to officers brutally hitting people with batons to get them to step back and move out of their way. Yet, the protesters regrouped and headed down Grand to an entrance to SLU.

Students flashed their IDs to campus police and informed officers that all these people were their guests. No officers on campus nor the administration was prepared for this and everyone entered. They chanted, “Out of the dorms! Into the streets!” to all the students who came out to see what was happening.

The group made their way to the Clock Tower Plaza where everyone gathered around. Leaders of the action stepped up in front of the tower to give the Myers family a moment to address everyone.

“I’d like to thank everyone for coming out and showing us support,” Vonderritt Myers Sr. declared. “This lets me know that my son was loved, and he is still being loved right now, as you are all coming together out here. And for all the young students that’s out here with us, bless you, you guys.

Myers added, “I’m loving every minute, every second and every hour that we’ve been out here. This is pleasure to me. It makes my heart feel easy.”

Three to four hundred people, at least, gathered around and held a moment of silence for four minutes—each minute representing a day since Myers was killed. Everyone stood there. Bugs could be heard chirping in the night. Nobody was moving. Even media was respectful and turned off their cameras with lights when they were asked so the family could have their moment.

Dhoruba Shakur and other protest leaders soon informed those gathered that it was Christopher Columbus Day. They were there to reclaim the campus. They were there to push for an end to systemic racism and white supremacy. The plaza was now occupied.

Those who seized the space were not from the core group of organizers who had planned the “weekend of resistance” and negotiated with police to shut down roads so that there would be no problems. The leaders of this actions specifically wanted spontaneity and the possibility of something unknown happening so individuals in authority would feel the power of their action.

Well over half of the people that had been marching left the plaza by 2:30 am. There were no police in riot gear threatening anyone with arrest or a beat down if they did not disperse. Everyone who left decided it was time to call it a night.

Meanwhile, twenty-five to seventy-five people who remained in the square with SLU students who were curious about what was happening on campus had cases of water brought out for everyone. They ordered pizzas. They setup tents and planned to be there all night.

*

In the morning, the president of SLU, Fred P. Pestello, sent out an “important update” to students, faculty and parents:

As many of you know by now, hundreds of protestors marched to our campus early this morning protesting police brutality and other social injustices, and held a rally and sit-in around the clock tower. The march started in the Shaw neighborhood and proceeded up Grand Avenue to the Frost Campus. The University had no prior knowledge that this action would take place.

Once on campus, the protestors were peaceful and did not cause any injuries or damage. In consultation with St. Louis Police and our Department of Public Safety, it was our decision to not escalate the situation with any confrontation, especially since the protest was non-violent. While the protestors were sometimes loud, they were respectful of the students they met. At the same time, we ensured that all of our residence halls were secure and that DPS was carefully monitoring the scene. As of 6 am, approximately 25 protestors remain on campus in tents just north of the clock tower. We remain steadfastly committed to ensuring the safety of all of our students and campus to the very best of our ability. To that end, our response has been non-confrontational and consistent with our mission.

Pestello mentioned the peaceful arena event that had taken place last night and ended his update by acknowledging protests would likely continue, “some near our campus.” Those demonstrations would be handled with the “care of our students foremost in our actions.” So, “Let us all pray for better days ahead.”

There is an implicit expression of fear and trepidation that runs throughout the update. The administration obviously dreads the possibility of a scene unfolding on campus with students, St. Louis residents and police officers where violence occurs. The administration knows people are angry. They recognize the perception created by police department chiefs and fueled by media coverage that suggests all of the protesters on the street are likely to damage property and engage in threatening conduct that makes people unsafe.

Yet, as Ashley Yates, Milennial Activists United founder and one of the lead organizers of “Ferguson October,” declared during the event in the arena, “People take our angry and they try to make it violent. Well, the real violence is the AKs and the M-16s that are pointed at us.”

It’s when a man gets tear gassed and has to go the hospital when all he was trying to do is “stand up for black life,” Yates added. “It’s when you see a sniper pop out of a top of a tank with a smile on his face when all you have is your hands and your words and your anger.

She concluded, “I am okay with being angry. I think if you see what is happening in our streets, if you can see a dead black boy lying in our streets for four and a half hours and that doesn’t make you angry, then you lack humanity.”

CommunityFDL Main Blog

How ‘Ferguson October’ Ended Up Occupying a Plaza on Saint Louis University’s Campus

On Saint Louis University’s campus around 1:30 am, October 13

Hundreds of people took to the streets of St. Louis last night following an interfaith service at Chaifetz Arena at Saint Louis University (SLU). They eventually made their way on to the SLU campus by 2 am and, by early morning, twenty-five people remained with tents in Clock Tower Plaza on campus.

It was all a part of “Ferguson October,” a “weekend of resistance” for transforming a moment of protest against white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson who killed the unarmed black teenager Mike Brown into a movement. But the events of last night did not go by schedule at all—and that is part of why it worked so well.

Organizers had planned for well over a thousand people to gather in an arena for a keynote from Dr. Cornel West. It would be an “evening of reflection and resistance.” They would feature a “new generation of youth activists,” who had been on the front lines in Ferguson, Missouri, since August 9 when Brown was killed. However, there would be faith representatives, like priests, rabbis, an imam, a humanist, and the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They would give conventional speeches and address an audience, like a typical pep rally for a movement. The pep rally would lead into “Moral Monday” actions in St. Louis by faith-based groups.

NAACP President Cornell William Brooks was on stage giving his remarks when a small group of African-Americans in the arena turned their back to the stage. They were upset with how the NAACP had failed the community of Ferguson so far yet had continued to use the moment for their own public relations purposes. Then, a younger man shouted at Brooks as he wrapped and a discussion took place as a few people came over to talk to him.

There were young people who were upset by the program and openly called for their voices to be included in the program. They brought the event to a halt with their protest and, instead of having security haul them out of the arena, those in charge of the event made a split-second decision. They decided these young people were right. The community did deserve to hear more from them and a group of people came down to stage. The program for the evening was reshuffled to more accurately reflect the movement that has been growing in the streets of St. Louis.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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