FERGUSON, Mo. — Religious and community leaders from Boston are among the thousands of people in Ferguson, Missouri, for Michael Brown’s funeral. The unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by a police officer on Aug. 9.
Boston residents who have been monitoring the resulting tension between residents of the St. Louis suburb and police there are divided about whether the same sort of tensions could ever erupt in Boston.
‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’
Chanting protesters from around the world lined the streets of Ferguson several times a day — mostly at night — with several demands. They’re calling for an independent investigation of the Brown shooting, charges against the officer involved, and closer scrutiny of law enforcement.
Among those in Ferguson is Pamela Lightsey, associate dean at Boston University’s School of Theology.
“This is about systemic racism,” she said. “And I think until our country fixes systemic racism, these kinds of protests are going to keep happening.”
Lightsey has been in Ferguson for almost a week, chronicling the protests with videos and photos. She decided to come after she saw local police use tear gas on demonstrators. Although she’s armed with a gas mask and has been frightened during some of the standoffs, she said she believes she’s supposed to be here.
“I really felt a sense of call to be down here to support black people, being a black woman,” she said. “And I also felt a sense of call to be down here as a scholar, to really help and have conversations with people.”
Dialogue about the issues raised in this crisis is what several people say they hope will continue. Danny Bryck, a Boston-based actor and playwright, spent almost a week in Ferguson with a group of national artists working with the local arts community.
“The idea is just to have mostly theater artists from around the country come here together in solidarity to show support and witness and be here with people and start to have a conversation about what we can do as a national theater community to amplify the voices of the people here,” he said.
Calling For Change
What’s in many of the voices here is anger — they’re demanding that charges be filed against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown. They’re also asking for changes in law enforcement policies about violence and the use of military-style equipment, something President Obama has promised to address.
Another Boston-area clergy leader said young men also feel marginalized by some of the national black leaders, and that fuels tensions. The Rev. Eugene Rivers, co-founder of Boston’s TenPoint Coalition and director of the Ella J. Baker House, has been meeting with clergy, gang leaders and rappers in Ferguson.
Rivers said they feel ignored by those he calls their fathers — leaders of the black community.
“The anger, in particular, of the young men who say, ‘We’ve been abandoned by our fathers’ is profound, and some of the rage that has been exhibited was a justifiable response — a rational response — to the leadership vacuum at the national and local level.”
Based on his meetings with young people in Ferguson, Rivers says the violence could have been worse.
“The reality is that once the teargassing and the assault on children sort of exploded, there was a point — and the men talk very candidly about this — where ‘We were ready to arm ourselves,’” he said.
Communication In Boston
Communication, Rivers says, is what helped prevent that. He also says that’s why a Ferguson-like situation would not happen in Boston.
Rivers was instrumental during a time of high racial tensions in Boston — the 1989 murder of Carol Stuart. It was eventually learned that she was killed by her husband, but first police conducted a massive manhunt in the city’s black neighborhoods and arrested an innocent black man. After that, Rivers says said police and community leaders worked together.
“This does not happen in Boston because there are bridges,” he said. “It is standard operating procedure in less than a half hour in Boston, if there was a major incident, there would be phone calls made to a half-dozen significant black church leaders in the city. They would meet. If it were 2 a.m., that would happen. You don’t have those relationships here.”
But not everyone agrees that Boston would be immune to inflamed racial tensions with police.
“St. Louis is as racist as Boston. There’s no question about it, in terms of what my personal experience has been with police,” said The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, of the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, who’s been in Ferguson for more than a week.
Sekou witnessed firsthand the violence between police and protesters that have turned Ferguson into a national symbol of racial unrest. In fact, Sekou was injured running from tear gas. He said young people in Boston can understand some of the criticism of police in from Missouri.
“The stories of youth that I’ve heard, like Youth Against Mass Incarceration in Boston, in particular, have just told me some of the most awful stories about police harassment,” Sekou said.
In Ferguson, Sekou has been working with organizations similar to those he works with in Boston — groups that work on social justice and environmental issues. He cited groups such as the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project and Alternatives for Community and Environment.
He also has experience in St. Louis. He has family there and he worked as youth pastor for the Friendly Temple Missionary Church.
At services there Sunday, Sekou joined local clergy in blessing the pastor who will be leading Michael Brown’s funeral services Monday.