March 7, 2015, marks 50 years since the march on Selma and Bloody Sunday. As the nation opens a dialogue about the abusive and violent past, how much as changed for black lives in America?
March 7, 2015, marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. As the United States commemorates the anniversary with week-long coverage and specials, the Department of Justice released official findings of the Ferguson Police Department on March 4.
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The DOJ report established the department shows a deep racial bias toward blacks and African Americans, yet also found Officer Darren Wilson did not prosecute in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. How? And has Bloody Sunday's lessons already been forgotten in the minds of the general public?
After the march on Selma, a hearing to determine if the protestors had a right to march was convened. Looking at today’s marches, American society seems to hold the same split view. Protests for Brown and Eric Garner, a man killed by police in New York City a month after Brown, have given rise to six months’ worth of protests and initiation for change.
Protestors want to be heard in a world that remains willingly deaf and complacent.
Seems a bit familiar.
When speaking to Attorney Hall about the march’s bloody response in 1965, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Chairman John Lewis described what he witnessed when Hosea Williams, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), met up with Alabama State Trooper Major Cloud. In the archived transcripts, Lewis says that Major Cloud announced the marchers were “an unlawful assembly” and “this demonstration will not continue” because “you have been banned by the Governor.”
Cloud went on to say there would be no discussion or word with Williams after ordering the group to move on. Then the state trooper force pushed forward into the crowd. Lewis described the scene as “they moved forward with their clubs up over their—near their shoulder, the top part of the body; they came rushing in, knocking us down and pushing us.”
Those who observed last summer’s Ferguson protests will remember the force, the threats, the overall menacing behavior of law enforcement—even targeting the media for not adhering to what was considered the continuous sliding scale policy of allowable. Even though President Johnson signed the federal Voting Rights Act six months after Selma, the dismantling of rights by political grandstanding since has reestablished the disparity.
And that’s a problem.
Lewis, now a Democratic Representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, is documenting his experiences through a trilogy of comic books, a visual media aimed at engaging a young audience outside of transcripts and documentaries. These are the truths he remembers and what he learned as the Chairman of SNCC.
The Congressman has also opened up what it was like to be at Selma.
Earlier this week, Atlanta’s Channel 2, an ABC affiliate, ran a special where Fred Blankenship returned to Selma with the civil rights icon, who recalled what it was like to be on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on route to Alabama state capital Montgomery.
Only 25 at the time, “I just wanted to see that these people, along with others in the South, have the right to participate in a democratic process.” The hypocrisy of the Vietnam War, the national push for democracy worldwide when many Americans were unable to even shape their own country, wasn’t just or fair for the SNCC leader.
And being a part of a representative, democratic society is witnessing others who look similar in positions of power when your voice seemingly doesn’t count. Something the people of Ferguson often do not see in their daily lives. Instead a bulk of city money is earned through fees, fines, and ticket revenue, where the racial disproportionally targets black citizens.
Speaking to USA Today on February 24, Lewis said, "But we must keep in mind that the scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society. We have a distance to go. We aren't there yet." He also remembers the cost, the injuries and blood spilled on the bridge, as he rubs the still visible scar on his head. "I don't pay it too much attention, but it just reminds me that some of us gave a little blood on that bridge to redeem the soul of America, to make America better."
In fact, the Department of Justice wrote “Ferguson police officers from all ranks told us that revenue generation is stressed heavily within the police department, and that the message comes from City leadership.” Why does this money issue matter? Look at the national imbalance: the 1% remain free of burden while the 99%, especially those in the lowest wages levels, are taxed beyond burden in a poverty tax. And those in the lowest brackets are usually minorities.
The 2010 racial demographics of Ferguson show that over 67% of the population identifies as black or African-American residents, yet the city has an almost entirely white police force where whites make up less than 29% of the total population. Given the constant barrage of ticketing and fees, along with consistent jail time, it’s easy to see how Ferguson residents are not a part of a representative democratic process.
The Bloody Sunday demonstration with Lewis, Williams and Martin Luther King Jr., was televised on nationally in 1965. Today, the internet often witnesses what happens through live steams and social media. When the rest of the world is sleeping, the internet watches and rallies. Globally, people have witnessed the injustice and the world is now watching in turn. Like when Palestinians offered advice to Ferguson demonstrators on the best way to rid eyes of tear gas and to help alleviate the effects.
This is no longer an isolated world and black lives do matter.
In a previous interview found on YouTube, Lewis described how the troopers “put on their gas masks” and moved toward the 600 or so protestors, the intent for harm already there. And a reminder of the past is found in the modern civil rights movement. "I thought it was my last demonstration. I thought I was going to die."
Ferguson is the epicenter of minorities asking for rights, for white privilege to be acknowledged and broken, and for most importantly for equality. Over the summer and autumn, law enforcement routinely threw teargas to disperse the crowd while covering their own face. Mainstream media crews, like Al Jazeera America, ended up in the middle of a tug-of-war as the coverage intensified.
Gas masks are items of privilege and money. Law enforcement’s pockets are lined with government and citizen funds while the activists are forced to use taxed money to peacefully assemble. Equality became a visible us-versus-them mentality that superseded any level of humanity. And memories of the past slammed into the minds of those still searching for equality.
Last August, Democracy Now interviewed Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a pastor from the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, was dispatched by the Fellowship of Reconciliation to help and support the protestors. What he encountered was disheartening. "It is a tragedy that as a clergyperson I need a tear gas mask more than I need a collar to be able to do the work that I feel called to do.”
Will you (still) stand if you may stand alone? If you can say yes to this without wavering, then you understand the nature of struggle.— deray mckesson (@deray) March 7, 2015
Recently, leaders like DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta "Netta" Elzie, and Larry Fellows III, have stepped up to keep the Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter movements going—changing careers as needed to provide better representation. Twitter has become a binding tool for concerned citizens and for women of the #BlackLivesMatter movement to join together. Elzie told the Atlantic that "there are many wonderful black women who made the civil-rights movement move, but you don't know their stories." However, "I feel like this movement is so all-inclusive because blackness is all-inclusive. Blackness is not just black straight men."
When asked about the commune of women in the movement, she had nothing but praise. "I've met some of the most brilliant, smart, and beautiful black women ever. And they've changed my life. I've never felt so empowered before; I've never felt that I've had such a true purpose in life. Being around these super-smart black women, I've been wrapped in love. Like a cocoon almost. It's just so nurturing and loving. It's nice to have sisterhood in struggle." Perhaps some lessons have been learned since the original civil rights movement 50 years ago.
And as the latest civic rights leadership convenes and communicates with predecessors, the world watches. Remembering the televised and documented attack, the subsequent trial that proved the protestors were in the right to peacefully march.
Those who have kept the movement live for over 200 days feel the pressure, too. Early last month, The Guardian reported Ferguson police arrested Heather De Mian, a member of the movement who has live-streamed the struggling community for months, and unbelievably took away her wheelchair after pulling or knocking her out of it.
De Mian suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disorder affecting connective tissues around the skin, bones, blood vessels, and other organs. Wheelchair-bound, the activist was charged with third-degree assault for hitting a police officer and failure to obey. She flatly denied the claims to the St. Louis American. “They tried to say I hit them with my cell phone holder. I am a pacifist. I have never hit anyone in my whole life.”
Yet somehow, the woman was a threat to able-bodied officers—the same officers that showed no compunction in arresting protestors, demonstrators, and activists without cause. The world watches and it documents. No news reel is needed in the showing of what happened. Live-streams prove incidents without a doubt. And the world responds the very next instant. Globalization demands transparency.
The lack of humanity and empathy reverberates as stories gather, as protestors are treated without compassion, by a department well-known for such behavior.
The DOJ even noted that "FPD’s approach to law enforcement has led officers to conduct stops and arrests that violate the Constitution. Frequently, officers stop people without reasonable suspicion or arrest them without probable cause. Officers rely heavily on the municipal “Failure to Comply” charge, which appears to be facially unconstitutional in part, and is frequently abused in practice."
Abuse of power is standard protocol for the department, yet again Wilson escaped prosecution. How? Where are the lessons of Bloody Sunday? Accusations of profiling are not new to law enforcement, but questions must be asked if a better system is meant to be in place. Aggressive acts on citizens calls for more accountability. Where is the accountability for those harmed by those meant to protect?
De Mian later tweeted that the officer then took her phone and hit her hard enough that her glasses bounced 10 feet into street. Ferguson routinely abuses employment privileges, like wiping out tickets against friends, while using aggressive force to commands respect instead of earning through community involvement.
The right to peacefully protest and assemble are givens for citizens and has been determined by the atrocious actions of the past where Lewis’s skull-fracturing injuries remind the government that Judge Frank Johnson, Jr., ruled in favor of demonstrators’ “constitutional right to march.”
In total, 58 people faced injuries by the state troopers on Bloody Sunday.; And March 21, 1965, saw the Federalized National Guard walking beside the 3,200 demonstrators that would revolutionize and galvanize a historical movement meant to forever change the lives of black Americans. But was it enough?
Will the same happen for Ferguson, as leadership uses social media to unionize a solid movement? No one knows, but Bloody Sunday’s incivility should not be ignored in a vain attempt to rewrite history.
While law enforcement in Ferguson and Missouri will face a hard battle in maintaining a department that has been found to be lacking public service as required by post, the past draws citizens back 50 years and a lifetime that never seemed to move at all.
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Sources: Channel 2 Action News, Democracy Now, John Lewis, St. Louis American, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The National Archives, U.S. Census, USA Today.