'I Love Ferguson' Campaign at Odds with Young, Outraged Protesters

Ashley Yates views the “I Love Ferguson” campaign as more of a political statement than an expression of support for the city at the eye of a storm over civil rights. And it’s not one she’ll be endorsing any time soon.

Yates is among a clutch of young African Americans who have emerged from the violent backlash over the police killing of Michael Brown in August to lead the challenge to a white establishment that has coalesced around an organisation, “I Love Ferguson”, which is attempting to revive the city’s image.

Ferguson’s political leaders, overwhelmingly white in a city that is two-thirds black, hoped that the protests over Brown’s death would lose steam and fade away. Instead they evolved from the initial televised nightly clashes between angry residents and a militarised police force into a different kind of confrontation that has come to divide the city even more than Brown’s killing.

A group of ad hoc organisations born out of alliances formed on the streets, including Millennial Activists United, which Yates co-founded, used unrelenting, sometimes in-your-face protests to keep alive demands that the officer who shot the unarmed teenager, Darren Wilson, be put on trial. But as the campaign grew and gained momentum it shifted to a broader focus on racial profiling and the use of force by the police in Ferguson, St Louis and beyond.

It also moved from the mostly black neighbourhood where Brown died to Ferguson’s more prosperous, and much more white, business district. There the noisy, anger-infused attempts by protesters to press their case have led to open hostility, turned the farmers market into a political football and prompted accusations of “domestic terrorism”.

The controversy has also put the protesters at odds with some longstanding civil rights leaders, who are concerned that confrontation equates to violence. Yates and other leading activists regard the tactics of an earlier generation as dated. She says what was right in pressing for specific goals such as ending segregation on buses or the right to vote is different from attempts to confront what she describes as a state of mind among many Americans that views black people “as a threat and savages”.

“The thing I am positive of is that this is a brand-new movement,” said Yates. “You’ve seen people go from flooding the streets and being out there not knowing what to do and reacting to police violence to actually become organisers and strategising and learning how to make systemic change on a mass scale.”

The movement that has emerged since Brown’s death has become more organised and diversified in its tactics and targets. Demonstrators have taken their protests to St Louis Cardinals baseball games, drawing racial slurs from some fans, and to a St Louis symphony orchestra concert. They also set the stage for the recent “weekend of resistance” of marches, meetings and civil disobedience in Ferguson and St Louis that drew thousands of supporters from across the country.


But the heart of the campaign remains in Ferguson, to the frustration of city luminaries such as a former mayor, Brian Fletcher, who founded the “I Love Ferguson” group in the immediate aftermath of Brown’s killing.

“I’ve been in tears several times because it’s my home town and it’s not being portrayed as it is. The bigots, the racists left years ago. The whites who live here want to,” said Fletcher. “We’ve lost sight of the fact that Michael Brown died. It’s become more of a civil rights issue. The protesters are putting all the civil rights issues of the US on the backs of Ferguson residents.”

To Yates and others, that is precisely the point.

“I think people have come to realise this is not about Mike Brown,” she said. “It is, but there’s a larger issue. This is about the criminalisation of black people. It’s not just the local issue, it’s a national issue. We’ve come to realise that in the last two months.

“This is about John Crawford, who was an innocent man in Ohio gunned down in Walmart for carrying a Walmart product [an airgun]. Meantime you have white citizens who make a concerted effort to take AK47s and M16s into public spaces to exercise their second amendment rights. If you don’t see that the reason that both of them were shot was that black is viewed as a threat, then we still have work to do and we’re committed to doing that work until people open their eyes.”

Millennial Activists United and other groups, such as Lost Voices and Hands Up United, whose most prominent face is Tef Poe, a St Louis rapper and artist, have concentrated their more recent demonstrations in Ferguson on the more prosperous South Florissant road. They began there in part because the police station sits towards the bottom end of the street. But it is also a busy area for restaurants and shops where protesters can more effectively take their message to those they want to hear it.

The nightly demonstrations, sometimes just a handful of people, sometimes much larger, have raised tensions. Protesters complained of being refused service in local bars and took to demonstrating outside. Then came an incident at Faraci Pizza where they accused the owner, Jim Marshall, of pulling a gun on them.

“The protesters were banging on the windows,” said Fletcher. “They claim he showed a weapon. He denies that. There were protesters around his business. He asked them to stay off his property.”

Protesters attempted to shut Faraci down. White residents turned up in large numbers to keep it open by queueing for pizza. The demonstrators saw that as a stand against their cause.

It was a different story at the farmers market, which many on the South Florissant side of Ferguson regarded as one of the places whites and blacks intermingled most in the city. It shut down early for the season after demonstrators marched through in what locals say was a threatening manner.

“We cancelled the very wonderful street festival because of the same thing,” said Fletcher.

“I Love Ferguson” is running a fundraising campaign on behalf of businesses hit by looting in the initial rioting or because of a collapse in trade after the heated atmosphere discouraged shoppers from neighbouring suburbs.

Fletcher has been a vocal critic of the nightly demonstrations, blaming them on “outside agitators”. Certainly there has been a steady stream of supporters from beyond Ferguson and St Louis, including the couple who travelled from Tennessee to sell T-shirts emblazoned with “Don’t shoot”. But Yates said her group and other local organisations made a conscious decision to move the protests to South Florissant and that it is mostly locals participating.

“No matter where I go, black is viewed as a threat, so why not stand in front of your eyes and show you that fear is removed?” she said.

But, she added, she would rather have dialogue than confrontation.

“We are really trying to talk to the officers on the front line on the humane level. Not having diatribes but speaking to them as people: if you have orders, and you know that they’re wrong, will you obey them or will you choose to respect humanity and your morality?” she said.

Yates said “I Love Ferguson” contacted her recently and offered a meeting with Brian Fletcher which has yet to take place.

“We are willing to sit down and talk about where this impression came from that it’s outside agitators and the views that he holds, not only about the murder of Mike Brown, not only about the subsequent protests, but also this idea we’re imposing something on them,” she said.

Angelique Kidd has been maintaining her own vigil outside the police station when she is not at work at the local library. She has lived in Ferguson for 11 years and got involved after the police chief, Thomas Jackson, initially said he would name the officer who shot Brown and then didn’t. So she painted a question on her car: “Who shot Michael Brown?” The next thing she knew she was surrounded by police cars. One of the officers was taking pictures.

Now she has a different slogan painted on her car: “Film the police”.

Kidd’s stand hasn’t gone down well with some in the neighbourhood.

“I don’t know if the protests are making a difference at all but I think they’re costing me a lot of friends, especially because I’m white. A lot of people who go by flip me off,” she said. “I had a woman call me a looter. To some people looters and protesters are the same. People need to open their eyes to what’s happening here.”

Kidd is disdainful of the “I Love Ferguson” campaign.

“People like Brian Fletcher want to make it Ferguson against the protesters,” she said. “Some people care more about their image and property taxes.”

The demonstrators’ more confrontational tactics have drawn frowns from some traditionally minded civil rights activists. Yates is not going to apologise for it. She and Tef Poe crossed swords with a group of clergy at a mass meeting on Sunday evening that was billed in part as a strategy session. Instead it featured one cleric after another condemning injustice and telling Bible stories but not proposing to do anything.

The younger activists in the audience grew restless, demanded to be heard and ended up taking over the meeting.

Tef Poe was quickly at the microphone, criticising the earlier speakers for not joining the protests on the streets.

“The people who want to break down racism from a philosophical level, y’all didn’t show up,” he said.

Yates followed him.

“People take our anger and they try to make it violent when the real violence is the AKs and the M16s pointed at our heads,” she told the crowd, to loud cheers. “I’m OK with being angry. I think when you see what’s happening in our streets, if you see a dead body lying in the street for four and a half hours and that doesn’t make you angry, you lack humanity.”

The intellectual and activist Cornel West acknowledged that an older generation “has been too obsessed with being successful” and dropped the ball on civil rights.

Yates said that meeting marked a turning point.

“This is not the civil rights movement. It’s very, very different,” she said. “There’s an entirely different lane that I’m not sure that older people who went through that, or who really admire that movement, understand if they’re not in the street. I think that’s where a lot of the disconnect came in that you have not seen the clergy on the streets.”

The protests have had tangible successes. They have drawn a national spotlight on police killings of young black men. The backlash prompted the Justice Department to launch an investigation of Ferguson’s police department for civil rights violations. The city council has said it will set up a civilian oversight board for the police and made changes to the racially charged system of ticketing for driving offences.

Yates, Tef Poe and other young African American leaders are appearing onstage alongside political leaders such as Senator Claire McCaskill, taking their views to a wider audience. The mayor of St Louis has agreed to meet the protesters. But Yates says it is not nearly enough.

“We’re not seeing the impact that we deserve, the policy changes which reflect the severity and the gravity of the issue. We’re not seeing people removed from power that have aided in this tragedy, that have aided in the hurt of the community. Thomas Jackson is still in power,” she said.

“But on a smaller scale – a more humane, one-to-one scale – I have seen some changes. I have talked to some people in positions of authority that have said they want to see changes as well. We’ve definitely gained some ground in that people understand that we’re not going away and this issue was not something that was bred out of our imagination.”

Fletcher is one of those who says he believes change is coming, at least to Ferguson’s almost all white city council. Black voter registration is up by 30% and new political leaders are emerging.

“I do see African Americans running [for election],” she said. “But I’m concerned if they’re not running for the right reasons. Are they running with a chip on their shoulder and to fire everybody up and get rid of the police chief?”


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