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Mass Incarceration Teach-In

This story was originally told for a Seminarians for Justice teach-in on mass incarceration, bail reform, and racial capitalism on September 20, 2018.

armored vehicle

“You need to get out of here, ma’am,” the voice said behind the mask, armor, and shield, extending a level of politeness in acknowledging me that had been absent when addressing my Black comrades.

I was standing on the corner of Canfield and West Florissant, still in shock over what I had just witnessed.  It wasn’t as if I didn’t believe these things happened, exactly, it’s that experiencing it right before me made it somehow both more and less real.  

I was working in the offices of the Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri when Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager,  was killed by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9th, 2014. It was in many ways, business as usual – Mike was not the first Black person to fall victim to the legal lynching that is police brutality. But there was something different about this time in the level and passion in which people resisted in response.  

I left my office in downtown St. Louis after work that afternoon and headed up to Ferguson, to check in with the Episcopal parish there and bring donations to their food pantry.  Between police barricades blocking streets and all of the shut down stores, the community of Ferguson, which is already a food desert, was having trouble getting access to groceries. It was after visiting with the priest at St. Stephen’s that I headed to West Florissant.  

What I saw was dozens of police officers in dark blue and black, standing shoulder to shoulder across West Florissant, giant guns in their hands held diagonally across their bodies. Behind them was what I later learned is an armored urban tactical vehicle.  People on the street called them tanks. There was a man on top peering through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle pointed out at the people in the street who were several yards away. They were Black, mostly young, angry, nonviolent. I could see that they were unarmed because almost all of the young men had taken their shirts off to deal with the baking August heat.  

“This is an unlawful assembly,” the police said over the loudspeaker, “Leave now.  Go home.”

Mike can’t go home!” one older woman yelled back, her voice on the edge of tears.  

“We ARE home!” someone else yelled out, “YOU go home!” referencing the fact that almost all of the nearly all white police force in Ferguson lived in comfortable white suburbs 20 minutes away.  People began chanting again.

The police, with no sense of irony and with armored vehicles behind them, announced over the loudspeaker that the demonstrators were blocking traffic.  Things were quiet for a minute and then the police began advancing forward towards the crowd in a wall of dark blue, walking in menacing, synchronized steps. Yelling,”MOVE!” in deep booming voices as people scattered, screaming.

I had been standing near the corner passing out water bottles when they reached me.  One officer waved his gun in my face. The officer next to him glanced at him. That’s when he told me to get out of there.

I don’t even remember getting into my car. I realized I was driving around, my hands and breath shakey.  There were concrete barricades everywhere, my GPS was no help in finding me a way out. I just kept making turns and turns and turns until I saw flowers, candles, teddy bears, balloons, a long deep-red blood stain.  

How could this happen? I kept repeating to myself.  How could this happen? I wondered that a lot over the next two years while choking on teargas or jumping after a flashbang or rinsing someone’s eyes from pepper spray or running from rubber bullets.  How can they do this?  How could this happen?

The fact is, though, that this has been happening for a long time. Whether it was quick deaths in the streets or the slow death of denying resources to Black communities like medical care or quality education, Ferguson was not just an isolated incident or one bad police officer.  We had a saying in the streets – Ferguson is everywhere. And the story of St. Louis county is not that much different than stories in other places you may have lived. A history of economic policies like red-lining led to segregated communities, and white people carefully carved out around 90 different municipalities in St. Louis to stay away from people of color.  But all of those municipalities required funding. Funding for mayors, city halls, police departments. And so, because of pressure from the budget, police officers in places like Ferguson were told to ticket and fine their Black citizens, shaking them down and draining their pockets with steep financial punishments for petty offenses, enforced with intimidation or violence, putting police officers in adversarial relationships with the community they are supposed to protect and serve.

I got home from work that evening and crawled into bed with my 7 year old daughter for our usual nighttime routine of singing and family devotions.  I covered her perfect Black little cheeks in millions of tiny kisses and prayed in my heart for a future world that would be worthy of her. 

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