“It Could Have Happened Anywhere”: On the Frontlines in Ferguson with Jamala Rogers

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Jamala Rogers

This is the first of three interviews FRSO/OSCL will be posting this month with women who have played an important part in the eruption of struggle initially triggered by the people of Ferguson, Missouri in response to the murder of Michael Brown. These interviews highlight the absolutely crucial contributions of thousands of sisters, from veteran fighters to first-time protestors, in this burgeoning movement. The interviews are being conducted in cooperation with folks from Rødt, the organ of Red, the Norwegian left socialist party.

Jamala Rogers is well known to readers of this site. As a lifelong revolutionary, a leading member of the Organization for Black Struggle and Freedom Road Socialist Organization, and being rooted in the St. Louis community, she has been involved with the movement for justice for Mike Brown since the very first day.

FRSO: What’s going on in Ferguson now?

Jamala Rogers: A number of things are going on, simultaneously. There was a police shooting yesterday. [In February, when this interview was conducted. ] We’re still trying to get the information on that, but apparently this young man had already been shot by police in 2009. The State House is in session and there are hearings. In St. Louis, a Civilian Oversight Board was introduced—this is the second time that we’ve introduced it. Last week, the Public Safety Committee held a public meeting for people to come and testify. The room was filled with police officers. And ultimately there got to be a shouting match with the business manager of the police union, Jeff Roorda, who is an ex-cop and a Missouri State Representative. http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/28/us/st-louis-police-citizen-ferguson-outburst/ And all hell broke lose. He ended up grabbing hold of a woman and she’s filing assault charges. So there’s never a dull moment around here.

FRSO: What did this woman do to antagonize this guy at this level?

JR: She didn’t do anything. She just happened to be in the aisle. He was getting up to approach the front and she was just in the way. He had already antagonized some of the young people there. He slyly raised his jacket sleeve so that people could see his “I am Darren Wilson” bracelet. The young people, not being as disciplined as they might have been, began to taunt and just be outraged by it. But he knew it was going to be a button pusher. That’s why he did it. But I think the real deal was that the police could see that people who were testifying on behalf of the bill and supporting the Civilian Review Board – and I think that sort of rubbed them the wrong way.

FRSO: For the rest of the country it seems like now there isn’t much going on in Missouri, but you’re telling me that there’s quite a lot going on. It may not be in the news but it’s going on, right?

JR: The same thing is happening other places and none of it gets the media attention that it deserves. There are pockets of struggle all over this country because the same thing happens in all communities of color and poor working class communities. Here, because it was the epicenter, it’s still very raw. When you get ready to settle down and start to get some normalcy, then here’s another police shooting. That kind of logs on the fire has kept this thing going.

FRSO: How did it happen that Ferguson, which had never been in the news became the epicenter? Because there are police killings of young black men all over this country, right? I mean that’s not an unusual thing.

JR: Well it’s not unusual and I think it could have happened anywhere at any time, but I think it’s just the accumulation. It’s like a thousand cuts to a community. In Ferguson the demographics were part of it; an over-zealous police department; a municipal court system that relies heavily on giving citations to black citizens; and then the real kicker was the fact that Mike Brown’s body lay in the open air for four and a half hours. It was like, all right, you all done this and then you don’t even let the boy have any dignity and not even let his mother go to his body.

I think with the city there was some sense that something was going to happen, but in Ferguson… here’s the thing that happened differently in Ferguson. Ferguson had a demographic change very swiftly. In the corridor around north county, a number white people had fled the city to get away from black folk and ended up in those places. But the trajectory of black folks migrating also meant that they went north. The black folks were met with a lot of hostility, resentment, and a lot of police violence.

Within a ten-year period the demographics in Ferguson flipped. Ten years ago it was 70% white and now it’s almost 70% black. But Ferguson still has a predominantly white city council, predominantly white school board. Everything is still in place just like it was predominantly white. That kind of almost an apartheid existence doesn’t really exist in that way in other places in North County. They are more half and half or if it’s 70% black, it happened over a longer period of time. So that shock for both white people and black people in Ferguson meant that there was never a process of how they would be integrated into the life of the community and in some ways they’re still segregated pockets. I think that’s going to be an issue going forward. There’s talk about running people for office but the fundamentals are economics and police brutality.

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FRSO: Having organization in place has meant a great deal in terms of the ability to move things forward the way you have. Could you talk about organizations that have been at the forefront?

JR: There are numerous organizations and since Mike Brown’s shooting there’s been many more created. The organization that I belong to—the Organization for Black Struggle—just celebrated its 35th anniversary. We’ve been on the forefront of the fight against police repression for all of those years. Even before the founding, people like myself and other members were part of predecessor groups who also got with the fight against police violence and police repression. It’s been an on-going struggle in this community for a very long time.

There were a number of us who came out of organizations of the sixties – the black power movement, student movements, black artist groups. Then in the 1970’s, we began to look at this vacuum that had been created by COINTELPRO, the malaise around the economics, we had Nixon in office, I mean there were things happening in our community but there was no organized response. There was a group of us that started meeting to talk about how to fill that void and what an organization would look like. Now we had the NAACP and we also had the Urban League but there was nobody really fighting – not just fighting for black working class people but also empowering them to fight their own fights. So we founded the Organization for Black Struggle and we intentionally gave it that name so that people would be clear whose fight it was and what they were going to be doing.

So the Organization for Black Struggle is what we’ve been doing for 35 years. But the interesting thing about that is, because we have been on the ground, a number of organizations went to us for leadership when Ferguson kicked off. And we were able to put together a broad coalition called the Don’t Shoot Coalition which had about 50, 60 organizations, community based, state based, union, just really broad to tackle some of these systemic issues. The young people were still keeping up the pressure with the street actions. You had the pressure on elected officials and the powers that be, and you also had demands that people could start to rally behind.

FRSO: Are some of those demands economic?

JR: Absolutely. For example, there’s a ring around St. Louis of about 90 municipalities. Sometimes in about five miles you go through six or seven municipalities. If you get a ticket for a broken tail light, you can get that same ticket from seven municipalities. They were just crushing people with these citations, and so what’s being discussed now is how to consolidate some of the court systems – not necessarily the municipalities but the court systems – so that you eliminate that. But also many of them were in violation of a state law that said that only 30% of their revenue could come from municipal court fines. And in Ferguson it was way over that. So these people have been using poor black folks for a long time to run their cities. Yet these are the same people who get victimized by the police. These are the same people who get shafted on the jobs. These are the people who haven’t been integrated into those communities. Yet they are paying the bulk of the city revenue.

FRSO: What about young people getting involved? Are they forming organization? Are they working with each other?

JR: That’s always an issue because when you come into this thing new, you got a lot of passion, you got a lot of ideas. Some of them have never been in organizations before. So you might have one group that came together and got their name, got their organization, they may even have their tee-shirts and then two weeks later, that group has become two groups.

OBS has been doing it for 35 years so we call a meeting and we get a full room. That’s because of the relationships we have with those people. It wasn’t because we just threw out something on Facebook. We’re trying to help young people understand that it’s about credibility and those relationships. They’ve been on the front line since day one but I have to remind them that they haven’t been there by themselves. If they look around the country, all of the protests that have been going around police brutality have been intergenerational and interracial.

This is the way I explain it to them: You may be the gasoline for the car, but the car’s got lots of different parts. The gasoline’s important because you’re going to get us to where we’re going. That’s the energy. But never think for a moment that you’re doing this by yourself or that you’re not part of a continuum of struggle.

FRSO: I know in our generation we had a lot of trouble with gender—guys taking over. Are these younger folks doing better with those kinds of issues?

JR: I think we’re seeing some of the same stuff although maybe not as much in your face. It’s not the sort of optics you would see in the civil rights movement where you got all these men in a row and no women there except in the background. But still there’s issues of gender equality—something seemingly as simple as who gets to have a microphone. But again, that’s all part of the educational process of what it means to be in a democratic space and what is your role in making it as democratic as possible.

FRSO: Are you seeing mainstream co-opting of a movement whether it’s by NGO’s or the Democratic Party, or whatever it might be?

JR: It’s still grassroots. Naturally you have funders that are putting money into Ferguson, putting money into youth programs, and that sort of thing, but I don’t see cooptation at this point. Now the money thing always gets people a little riled up because it’s like who gets it. I know a lot of the young people were saying why weren’t they getting more of the money, but you have to explain to them that no funder’s going to give people money who just came together two weeks ago. One of the things that we’ve been able to do in the Organization for Black Struggle is to be a conduit for some of the funds going to young people and their organizations. What they need to learn is the credibility, the viability, all of that has to do with not just getting funds from funders but everyday people who want to be sure that you’re going to be there next year and the year after that. The Organization for Black Struggle has had that kind of staying power.

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Jamala Rogers with Amiri Baraka

FRSO: Are you seeing a kind of class base as well? Are these working class people who are getting it together?

JR: Oh definitely. But you also have the Ferguson Commission and we wanted to make sure that not only there was working class people but there was young people on there, so we pushed to make sure those demographics were on there. But I think by and large because this is an issue that affects young people, that affects African Americans, working class people are at the forefront of this struggle. And I think the allies that have stepped up have given it that much more power.

The fact that the powers that be are now moving to policy and legislative changes is something they have refused to do in the past. We’re pretty sure that our Civilian Oversight Board is going to pass. Probably it wouldn’t have passed had we tried to do it last year, but now with the heat of Ferguson—and I mean that literally and figuratively—the heat of Ferguson behind these politicians, now they’re seeing the need to do something. So we’re going to ride the wave right now to see how much that we can get done while the irons are hot and the money’s coming in to do some of this work.

FRSO: What’s the next step for revolutionary socialists? What’s the next step for you on the ground there?

JR: As Freedom Road Socialist Organization, we’ve been having political discussion about how to put together a people’s assembly and we talk about state power. There’s a lot of harassment of the young leaders by the police – everyday harassment, people being followed, phones being obviously tapped, and all kinds of things, so they were saying maybe we need to have something about COINTELPRO. We as revolutionary socialists can let the movement know that none of this stuff is new and we can provide the kind of political education, the kind of analysis that young people need. First of all it’s a capitalist system but it relies on the police state to keep us under control. I think that particular viewpoint is pretty widespread now.

You know after Ferguson I don’t think there are very many people who don’t believe that the police are an extension of the state. When the police started asking for the State Troopers to come in, folks were like “Whoa, wait a minute.” And even now the police chief is trying to get drones and people’s education has been such that they say, “Oh no. Now we can see that it’s a police state.”

I think we’re going to need to continue to make the analysis, give people the alternatives. What could the state look like? What would it look like if we got to choose how our police department functioned? Those are the kind of conversations that people are now trying to have. And some of them are saying, “We don’t want police.” If you don’t want police, what would that look like if people need some protection for domestic violence or other kinds of conflicts that come in? How are we going to resolve those things as a community?

One of the interesting things that has happened in Ferguson, in Canfield where Mike Brown was killed, is they do have a Cop Watch now. That’s the kind of thing people never would have envisioned last year or even seven months ago. But now the thinking is completely different. It’s very encouraging. It’s been inspiring to see young people out there and not just young people. I mean this has really been a defining moment here — anything that has to do with people’s humanity, their dignity. Youth had to step up and be in this struggle. Folks who consider themselves progressive or radicals have definitely been part of shaping this movement.

It’s hard work. There’s lots of meetings. There’s lots of one-on-ones. Trying to educate people about little things – even how to pass a law. I mean for the first time people are saying, “We want this, we want that.” Well okay you have to have a law. Here’s how it works. Fundamental stuff that people didn’t even care to know about, but now they’re very interested in how things happen, how policies get made, how to make change in your community. All of that stuff now is on the table for people to start grappling with.

FRSO: I remember seeing the signs here in Austin that it isn’t that the system isn’t working, it’s working.

JR: We’ve had that conversation here – the system may not be working for us but it’s working. Those are the opportunities and you have to talk about the alternatives — what a community could look like if you didn’t have all this repression and oppression and people were empowered to dream about the kind of community that they really want.

The other thing is connecting the dots so that not just the people in other places across the country felt a Ferguson moment but people here could see how this struggle inspired other folks. That kind of synergy is really important because the folks here a lot of times feel isolated. Nobody has ever heard of Missouri; nobody’s been to St. Louis. It’s like we don’t even exist. We’re invisible.

But now people say, “Oh yeah. What’s happening in Ferguson?” So it went international. I mean that first week when all hell was breaking loose, there were young people over in Palestine that were telling the young people here how to make the home made tear gas mask. So now you have the opportunity to talk about the Palestinian question. You have a chance to talk about the occupation and what it looks like there and here. These are the things you talk about for years and folks glaze over. Now they’ve got somebody on their cell phone showing them how to do this. It’s been inspiring and gives you a chance to talk about their struggle, how it connects with our struggle, and that this is an international struggle for humanity and against globalization. So we’ve raised it a notch here – not just here but all over the world.

Jamala Rogers is an editorial board member and columnist for BlackCommentator.com, founder and Chair Emeritus of the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis. She is an organizer, trainer and speaker. She is the author of The Best of the Way I See It – A Chronicle of Struggle. Some of her other writings can also be found on her blogjamalarogers.com.

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