Something more than fires and rage has been sparked in the streets of Ferguson. There is a growing awakening and reawakening of hundreds and thousands of protesters to their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
I saw it firsthand as I talked to men and women, young and old, black and white, before and after a grand jury decided not to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Before this sleepy suburb in my hometown of St. Louis morphed into an international flashpoint for race relations and police tactics in America, for many of the protesters the 45 words in the First Amendment had as much interest or meaning as the Yellow Pages. Now, the First Amendment, like Ferguson, is a rallying cry, a hashtag, ammunition they can use to protect themselves from any government authority that tries to quell their voices.
Voices like Thomas Bradley. The 24-year-old barber works on the stretch of West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson that suffered the most damage. A week before Brown was killed, Bradley said he was physically and verbally harassed by a Ferguson policeman. In the aftermath of Brown’s death and the grand jury’s exoneration of Wilson, Bradley has taken a place beside other young demonstrators on the city’s streets.
“I didn’t know anything at all about the First Amendment, at least not as much as I should have,” he said. “Now I do. This is not just about Mike Brown but everybody who has ever been abused by the police department.”
Voices like 63-year-old Beverly Adams of University City, Mo., who knew about her constitutional rights but hadn’t exercised them in years.
“I was enraged when [Brown’s body] was left out in the street for four and a half hours,” she said. “I started marching on Canfield,” the street where Brown died. “That’s where I always go, by myself. I think when all is said and done, there will be a special law in his name against police brutality.”
Voices like Ericka Hughes, 42, a business owner in Jennings, Mo., who made some of the T-shirts worn in the Ferguson protests. She took to the streets within the first few days of Brown’s shooting.
“This is not the first time I have marched” for a cause, she said. Brown’s death “hit so close to home in so many ways. I have nephews and cousins and stepsons. This affects everybody.”
Her cousin, Anthony Cage, 49, of St. Louis, has been protesting for more than 100 days and equates his stamina to war.
“Struggle comes in different forms. This was a protest when we were trying to get justice. It’s not a protest anymore, it’s a movement. If I get hurt in this struggle, I just get hurt. It’s called casualty of war,” he said.
These aren’t the viewpoints of “thugs” that critics have lumped in with unlawful looters, arsonists and opportunists who have wreaked havoc on the city. They represent law-abiding citizens across the nation who in time-honored tradition are marching and staging sit-ins and die-ins to make themselves heard. Like civil rights protesters of the 1950s and 1960s, they shall not be moved. They’re proof that living in a democracy — particularly one as racially and ethnically diverse as ours — is an ever-changing work in progress that doesn’t come without a few challenges. It isn’t neat and tidy and certainly isn’t quiet. And more often than not, it now comes with a hashtag.