College students are being urged to scrap plans for beer bongs on sunny beaches, in favour of a serious-minded spring break in Ferguson, the Missouri town that was roiled by protests and unrest following the fatal police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old.
Six months after the death of Michael Brown, activist leaders in the St Louis suburb are looking to sign up 250 young people for a grittier week of “community service and civic engagement” including registering new voters, running food banks and cleaning up streets.
“Maybe there were some people who had planned to go down to Miami or Acapulco, and now see that there is something bigger,” said Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman for the town and a co-founder of the Ferguson alternative spring break programme.
Bynes said the week would not simply be a continuation of the protests that spread from the region in August to New York, California and elsewhere around the US. “The movement needs to be more than die-ins, more than ‘shutting it down’,” Bynes said.
Nor will it be a chance for inexpensive frat-style festivities, however. “This is not ‘come party in St Louis and take a selfie at the Mike Brown memorial’,” said Bynes. “This about giving back to the community. Should people decide not to engage, they’ll forfeit the benefits.”
Organisers said students would also help plant gardens and beautify blighted spots. “We are talking to business owners about what kind of help they need,” said Charles Wade, Bynes’s co-founder and one of the leaders of Operation Help or Hush, an activist group. “There are those that need repairs, and we want to make that happen.”
If the group can gain access, they plan to help clear the wreckage of burned-out businesses on West Florissant Avenue, the retail corridor that became the centre of August’s protests. Several were torched during an intense night of rioting last November that followed a state grand jury deciding not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown.
The Missouri History Museum recently sent staff to comb through the rubble for artifacts that could go into a permanent research collection on the dramatic events in the town of about 22,000 people, which is roughly 12 miles north-west of St Louis.
Officials from the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation have been investigating the possibility of bringing a federal civil rights prosecution against Wilson. It is widely expected that no charges will be brought. Wilson quit the Ferguson police department in November.
The Ferguson alternative spring break is scheduled to run for five week-long sessions in March and April. After funding their own travel to Ferguson, students would be provided with accommodation, food and transportation during the program in return for a $100 charge.
The organisers are braced for resistance from some quarters and anticipate their students being labelled “outside agitators” by opponents of the protest movement.
“There will always be criticism and flat-out hate,” Wade said.
Security staff are to be stationed with students and the locations of their rooms are to be kept secret. “Participants’ safety is our foremost concern and will not be compromised at any time,” the organisers say on their registration system.
They said that as well as hearing from activist leaders on community organising and the threat of racial profiling, students would also join talks about concepts such as privilege. In an effort to be as inclusive as possible, the application form for the program offers eight different “preferred gender pronouns” by which participants may choose to be addressed.
While the protests driven by the events in Ferguson have focused primarily on issues facing African Americans, organisers said they hoped students of all races would attend.“When we talk about black issues, they are really issues of equality,” Bynes said.
“The protests have got us here,” she said. “The next step is to target the ballot box, to get people elected and to change policy. Students should take that back to their college campuses and build an infrastructure.” She added: “There is plenty to do.”