Ask radical activist William Talen, better known as Reverend Billy, what he thinks about Ferguson, Missouri, and you won’t have any doubts about where his allegiances lie.
“Ferguson is a white, racist, militarised southern police force in a slave state. You’ve got a white police force and a majority black community. It’s black and white,” Talen told Business Insider in November.
On November 25th, Talen and his activist-performance group, The Church of Stop Shopping filed onto a bus for a 19-hour bus ride to Missouri. The previous day, the Grand Jury in Ferguson decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. The group’s plan was to join in solidarity with the demonstrators and deliver $US9,000 that they had raised at a benefit show a few weeks prior.
The atmosphere on the bus was tense. Half of the group went to Canfield Drive in Ferguson — the site of the Michael Brown Memorial — and the Ferguson Police Headquarters. While multiple members of the media have experienced threats and even a robbery at the site in recent months, Talen and company experienced a far different atmosphere.
“There was a solemn air around, but people were milling about, talking to each other, and meeting.” says the Church’s music director Nehemiah Luckett.
With Thanksgiving fast approaching and many protesters cleaning up after the explosive protests that had erupted on the night of the decision, the atmosphere was noticeably calmer. National Guardsmen patrolled the area amidst the scattered protesters and activists, giving the area the look of “occupied territory,” says Talen. When asked to compare the protests to others he has been at, Talen said this:
“The protests in Ferguson feel handmade, homegrown, and disorganized. I didn’t see the presence of professional organisers. These people are fighting for their lives. That makes for a very different atmosphere.”
The next day, the group joined a local community leader named “Mama Cat” Daniels, who was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for more than one hundred protesters in the neighbourhood. When the group entered the basement of a church in East St. Louis where the dinner taking place, locals were still arriving, but they were able to get a sense of the protesters.
“It was multi-racial, multi-aged, diverse. That basement could hold about one hundred people and it was packed,” said Luckett. “It felt like nice people caught up with a difficult situation, dealing with it the best way they could.”
After dinner, the Church sang a song called “Get Home Safe,” which was inspired by the Michael Brown shooting and ends with an emotional chanting of the names of those killed by police violence. The chanting stirred the restless crowd. One of the protesters suggested that they demonstrate at local shopping malls and big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart. The protesters wanted to convince Black Friday shoppers to go home, in light of the Ferguson decision.
According to Talen, the protesters were surprisingly organised and disciplined. It was largely because as Talen says, “It wasn’t radical people forming a community, it was a community turning radical.”
The protesters went to a nearby Target without a cohesive game plan, but once inside the Target, the protesters walked silently to the back of the store with shopping carts and began filling their carts. Once the carts were filled, they got in the checkout line. At a predetermined moment, the protesters, Talen and his group included, put their hands up and began chanting, “No justice, no peace.”
“The protesters wanted to chastise people for shopping. There was a strong feeling of ‘How can you be out here shopping while there are these injustices happening on the street. Go home and be with your families,'” says Luckett.
The protesters were quickly escorted out by police officers, who then lined the entrance to Target to prevent further incursions. Undeterred, the protest group then stood in front to chant, sing, and preach — it was led by a church group after all. Talen described the scene outside like this:
It was sobering. The police had large weaponry, police dogs, National Guards vehicles. They shouted at the protesters. The police dogs lunged at them. The people were very disciplined that day. The age range of the protesters was wide. There was an eleven-year-old boy drumming and keeping time for the protesters next to a man in his thirties chanting. There was a man in front of the store talking passionately towards the police. They wouldn’t make eye contact with him. There were women around him pointing at him and asking the police to listen to what he had to say. The police acted like he didn’t exist.
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