Organizers of protests in Ferguson, Mo., say a change in strategy is on the horizon for the national movement they helped build to address police brutality and racial disparities in the U.S. justice system.
Their marches and arrests produced a groundswell of support throughout the fall, but now, the organizers say, they have to figure out what to do next, given the expansion of those protesting under the umbrella of their cause.
A further complication was the killing Saturday of two New York City police officers by a man who declared on social media that he would avenge the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown — two unarmed black men whose deaths at the hands of officers have been driving forces behind the national efforts.
Police unions in New York were quick to link the shooting to the ongoing protests, which officer unions in several American cities have said are “anti-police” and potentially putting officers at risk.
Protest leaders in many cities say they are warning their participants to be vigilant about retaliation from officers. Organizers in New York are still considering how to move forward in the short term in light of a request from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio that demonstrations cease in light of the officers’ deaths.
In general, the path ahead has been hampered as the young leaders continue to clash over messaging, goals and tactics. The protest momentum has grown to include activist groups in close to a dozen cities nationally, but the expansion has come with some baggage.
“It is deeply necessary right now to kind of get on the balcony, survey what we’ve done thus far and look out on the horizon about where we need to go,” said Brittany Packnett, one of the key organizers of the Ferguson protests.
One thing that is not going to change is that the protests will continue — especially during the rest of the holiday shopping season, through Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month in February.
But much of the organizational discussion is now focused on refining a long-term messaging strategy and crafting specific goals for 2015 that run deeper than the indictment of specific police officers and the shutting down of a local Wal-Mart or freeway for an afternoon.
“The moment that we’re in is confronting what is the right model that is going to have the right impact,” said Mervyn Marcano, a communications consultant who has worked with the protesters in Ferguson and elsewhere. “Direct action is one tactic in a big toolbox.”
Yet the maturation of the movement faces some of the same significant obstacles that were present in the first emotional organizational meetings held in church basements and restaurant dining rooms in the days after the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown in Ferguson.
In the coming weeks and months, organizers say, they expect more solutions-oriented messaging about proposals for systemic changes.
“You’re going to see some broadening of our message and more talk about the justice system overall,” Marcano said. “When you hear some of the chants, like ‘The whole damn system is guilty as hell,’ we’re not kidding.”
The Ferguson protesters have met regularly to discuss strategy with activists and civil rights figures including Harry Belafonte, Cornel West, Martin Luther King III and Louis Farrakhan. And they often discuss their ongoing efforts in historical terms — with several noting that, as of earlier this month, their “movement” is the second-longest post-Civil War civil rights campaign, behind the Montgomery bus boycotts.
Several of them recently attended a special screening of “Selma,” the upcoming film that depicts the Selma-to-Birmingham voting rights marches in Alabama in 1965, and said they hope to emulate the civil rights leaders of that era by employing both direct street action and boardroom tactics.
“It was never then and isn’t now about any silver-bullet strategy,” said Packnett, who has been named to both state and national commissions to examine systemic issues concerning race and policing. “It was the streets all of the way to the boardroom and back and in everything in between.”
The organizers feel that part of their success has been their ability to link activist branches in close to a dozen cities.
With marches, protests and acts of civil disobedience in Oakland, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Cleveland, New York, Chicago and elsewhere, the organizers from the greater St. Louis area have been able to take a step back and reassess their strategy.
“If there is a march in New York and a protest in Cleveland and we’ve got the Mall of America [in Minnesota] shut down, then maybe we don’t have to be out in front of Ferguson PD tonight,” said Charles Wade, one of the organizers who has helped coordinate Ferguson protests.
Johnetta Elzie, one of the most recognizable Ferguson protesters, is now working as an Amnesty International field organizer. Packnett, who is the executive director of Teach for America in Missouri, has been named to both the Ferguson Commission, created by Gov. Jay Nixon (D), and the new White House policing task force.
Even as additional goals and targets emerge, several protest organizers insisted that the actions in the streets will continue, especially in cities where the protests have not been going on for as long as in Ferguson.
For those wondering when the demonstrations may stop, protest leaders say not anytime soon.
“The movement is rooted in protests,” said DeRay Mckesson, a key organizer in the ongoing protest efforts in Ferguson and elsewhere, who describes the protests as a crucial structure for those hoping to enact disruptive change.
Unlike the massive solidarity marches in New York and the District this month, the ongoing protests in cities are not meant as acts of solidarity, Mckesson said, but rather serve to create a collaborative community — which in turn will serve as the driving force behind local change.
While that community is now in place in St. Louis — and already existed, to some extent, in places such as New York and Los Angeles — Mckesson and others stress that many of the cities where Black Lives Matters demonstrations are happening are just now entering their second or third week of protests.
Despite the desire of those uninvolved in the efforts and the media to demand a shift away from the loud public demonstrations, organizers insist that the direct actions remain their lifeblood.
“When the protests stop, we lose the power,” Mckesson said. “The structure has no place for us, which is why we protest. When protests end, the movement ends.”