By late August, reports of violence in Ferguson, Mo., where police had shot and killed unarmed African-American Michael Brown, were only getting worse. At that point police were arresting reporters for reporting the news. The situation stirred a memory from my childhood: the 1992 Los Angeles riots, pegged to the brutal beating of Rodney King by local police.
Being so young at the time and growing up in Austin in an upscale neighborhood, I will admit I wasn't aware that there was a racial divide in America — much less what it meant that such a divide existed. Yet the L.A. riots seared an impression in my mind that remains even today.
With that memory embedded in my mind, I decided to take my organization, FreeWillUSA, to Ferguson during the heights of the protests there. Two decades later, my nonprofit organization’s very reason for being has everything to do with civil rights, minority communities, and combating police brutality. I made it my mission to not only provide support but understand why Ferguson’s residents were demonstrating. As a victim of police abuse myself, I felt connected to Ferguson and wanted to be closer to the people there during their moment of protest.
FreeWillUSA’s mission is to provide education about constitutional rights. I founded the organization and our two awareness campaigns, "Rights Where It Counts" and "Know Rights or No Rights" after I was wrongfully arrested at a 2011 Pride event in San Diego. Although we emphasize serving LGBT people, the education FreeWillUSA provides is relevant for any marginalized group.
I saw the events in Ferguson as a potential opportunity to bridge two minority groups, namely the LGBT people and African-Americans, which have historically faced some challenges in coming together. I couldn't let the moment pass without at least trying to begin building that bridge. I invited a friend, civil rights attorney Chris Morris, to come along. We were on a flight the next day to an experience that has changed my outlook about America forever.
When I first arrived in St. Louis, I didn't know what to expect. The big debate at the moment I arrived was about how advisable or inadvisable it was to be supplying local law enforcement with military-grade weapons. To see that level of police armament in an American city firsthand was disturbing, to say the least.
For someone who now has lived in relatively well-integrated Southern California for many years, it was shocking to see how literally, metaphorically, and psychologically the St. Louis area is segregated along racial lines. The level of denial among whites about the racial divide there is nothing short of astonishing.
I could turn on any local TV station to see the chief of police in Ferguson saying police are fighting a war in America and that the most important thing — even above the Constitution — is security, and Gov. Jay Nixon saying the exact same thing.
During my time in Ferguson, I felt that the more I listened to the governor and police, the more those officials actually made the argument against using military-grade weapons against civilians. They started arguing with themselves, saying the only way to protect people was to use tanks — huh? Really? It just didn't make a whole lot of sense. It still doesn’t make sense.
Meanwhile, Michael Brown’s mother still wants answers about what happened to her son. A new video has emerged, bolstering the accounts of eyewitnesses who say Brown's hands were in the air and he was running away from Officer Darren Wilson. It's a cell phone video taken seconds after Brown's death. It shows shocked bystanders, including a contractor doing street repair shouting at the cop, "His fucking hands were in the air!" In the distance, Wilson can be seen wrapping crime scene tape around Brown's body.
While in Missouri, I was introduced to a man named Philip Deitch, a St. Louis–area grassroots community organizer, by a colleague of mine. Deitch organized the only LGBT and allied community sandbagging effort during the Great Flood of 1993, shortly after moving to eastern Missouri. These days, in addition to a list of board memberships and community service commitments too long to mention here, Deitch works with the U.S. attorney’s office on an anti–hate crime task force.
Deitch had witnessed all of the strife and police violence in Ferguson since day one. He knew everything about Ferguson and St. Louis. He knew past and present local politics as well as the geographical politics and all the contours of the racial divide across the entire state. I was stunned to hear that, given the large number of African-Americans living in and around Ferguson, how poorly people of color are represented in local government.
Deitch took Chris Morris and me to the street where Michael Brown was shot and killed. A trail of roses leading to a memorial lined the center of the road. On each side of the street two separate church groups using megaphones quoted various Bible verses, but with two far different sentiments: one of peace and one of anger.
Before getting to Ferguson, Deitch suggested we buy diapers to donate to one of the churches, since groceries and other staples had become scarce for Ferguson residents. One particular church had the biggest array of options for donors and those in need. The church even had a stage where people spoke eloquently about what was happening, as its members served food to everyone who came to show support.
I spoke with a young woman taking the donations and asked if I was correct about the vast difference in tone between the two church groups. She told me that her church wanted to promote peace and wanted the man responsible to be held accountable for shooting Michael Brown. She told me that a lot of people are fed up with the way African-Americans are being treated in the region and that people were getting angrier every day with the government establishment dancing around the questions that are being asked by the community.
It seemed clear to me that relations between the people and the police had been, at best, fractured from the beginning — long before Michael Brown was killed.
As my days in Ferguson passed and Michael Brown’s funeral approached, the opportunity for unity among minority groups became ever more apparent and urgent to me.
I've realized that whenever and wherever police are confronted with problems in their departments, they invariably say, “There’s nothing to be fixed. We never do anything wrong.”
When one side of an argument is not even willing to admit any possibility of wrongdoing, what would be the motivation for that side to talk about changing? Until police can admit they are not perfect, they will continue to arm themselves with weapons of war and will continue to defend arrogance rather than come to an enduring solution.
There is a silver lining, however. Police attitudes of infallibility actually create space for different minority communities to set aside past differences and recognize that we all have this one thing in common: We are all part of a larger, often oppressed group of minorities.
The African-American, Latino-American, Asian-American, LGBT, and various other populations have been pitted against one another from time to time. But with situations like the protests in Ferguson, members of minority groups have a chance to come together and become the majority coalition. There is power in numbers. If every minority group came together despite race, creed, or sexual orientation to fight a common enemy — that being anyone who seeks to oppress us — we could push back against discrimination more effectively.
The tragedy in Ferguson can be turned into a movement that paves the way toward ending systematic and social oppression. Until everyone being oppressed stands together to become the majority, police will continue to say that the only way to keep the peace is to go to war — usually against the small groups that struggle to fight on their own.
WILL X. WALTERS frequently speaks about the subjects of equal justice for LGBT Americans. He is the head of FreeWillUSA. Learn more about his organization at FreeWillUSA.com.