Ferguson Protesters


The following piece is from TIME. It was written by Alex Altman.

By: Alex Altman

At the beginning, they just wanted to pay tribute. Neighbors stood on cracked sidewalks behind yellow police tape, watching the dead teen’s body bake for hours in the summer heat. They tried to scrub his blood from the pavement with soap.

It was Johnetta Elzie’s first protest.

She didn’t expect the cops to show up to a candlelight vigil with canine units and riot gear. Crowds filled the streets that night. The next day they did it again. Elzie, 25, had been getting ready to return to college but kept coming back instead. She chanted and marched, dodged plumes of tear gas, took a rubber bullet to her left collarbone. And she tapped out tweets to tell the world what was happening in an obscure township in Middle America. “I was just hoping someone would care,” she says.

An unarmed black man shot dead by a white cop is a tragedy, but a recurring one; the uproar can fizzle as fast as it flares. There was no reason to think Michael Brown’s death on Aug. 9 was destined to be different. But Ferguson was the spark that started a fire. Demonstrators couldn’t win the indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who fired the fatal shots. Yet they built a movement that revived a dormant national conversation about race and justice.“We made the world pay attention,” Elzie says. That was a triumph all its own.

Events that might once have slipped by unnoticed coalesced into points on a troubling graph. In late November, protesters took to the streets in Cleveland after police killed Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old, within seconds of encountering him with what turned out to be a toy pistol in his hand. Less than two weeks later, protests cascaded across the nation when a New York City grand jury declined to indict the white police officer who choked Eric Garner, leading to the death of the unarmed black father of six suspected of selling loose cigarettes. The street chants and hashtags that started in Ferguson knit these isolated tragedies into an inescapable story line. “This is not a black-and-white issue,” said Garner’s daughter Erica. “This is a national crisis.”

Protest is a performance that can make the unseen visible. In this angry epic, thousands found a role. They clogged freeways in Miami and Chicago, carried coffins across the Brooklyn Bridge, clashed with cops in Berkeley, Calif., flooded streets in London and toted signs around Tokyo. At colleges from Boston to Baton Rouge, students staged “die-ins” to dramatize the social value of black life. Players for the St. Louis Rams took the field with their hands raised in solidarity—a gesture repeated on the floor of Congress.

A black President who so often seems reluctant to talk about race was forced into the fray. Barack Obama brought young Ferguson protest leaders into the Oval Office and announced measures meant to increase police accountability. Republican Senator Rand Paul criticized the disproportionate incarceration rate of African Americans and called for criminal-justice reform. “People need to know,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio after the Garner grand jury decision, “that black lives and brown lives matter as much as white lives.”

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