A conversation with LGBT activists in Ferguson, Mo., turned into a memorial rally for slain gay teenager Jessie Hernandez at Creating Change, the National LGBTQ Task Force's annual gathering in Denver.
Organizers working on the ground in Ferguson began Saturday morning's panel discussion, titled "#LGBTQFerguson: Let's Talk" by recounting where they where on August 9, 2014, when unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was killed by white former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
"Something was different in Ferguson," the activists agreed.
Two of the activists on the panel were originally from the greater St. Louis area, but all of them reported feeling a need to travel to Ferguson in the wake of Brown's death.
"Ferguson police convinced me to say," said Keith Rose, a queer activist and member of the St. Louis Legal Collective. Rose recounted his experiences being assaulted in custody — while he has handcuffed, he said an officer kicked him and then said "I'm sure you liked it, faggot."
Alexis Templeton, a queer black woman and cofounder of Millennial Activists United, was drawn to the work as a way to work through personal trauma after being the sole survivor in a car crash that killed her father, brother, and ex-fiance. After struggling with depression and multiple suicide attempts, "Mike Brown saved my life," she said. "I was able to put my struggle in this bullhorn."
The standing-room-only audience often cheered, applauded, and snapped in affirmation of unfiltered, unapologetic comments from the panelists. Reaction was particularly fierce when the activists addressed a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which attempts to "water-down" the message by proclaiming that "All Lives Matter." The panelists were united in rejecting the response.
"When I start seeing white people laying on the ground for four hours, then maybe I'll say 'All Lives Matter,'" said Templeton, referring to the fact that Brown's body was left in the street for four hours after he was shot as police claimed to be investigating.
"When you say 'All Lives Matter,' it's not just appropriating," said Ashley Yates, another co-founder of Milennial Activists United and a queer black woman. "It's violence because you're erasing us. ... You lose nothing by saying 'Black Lives Matter' and you gain everything."
As the conversation turned to ways to end the deadly use of force by police, the activists stressed that they want to do more than suggest tepid reforms to a deadly system which disproportionately impacts communities of color. Several panelists called for community-controlled police forces, where residents of the policed communities maintain full financial and regulatory control over the agencies intended to serve and protect them.
"We don't want reform," said activist Brittany Ferrell. "We want revolution."
The 90-minute conversation also focused heavily on intersectionality, highlighting the ways in which oppressed people's struggles are linked. It's been a theme throughout the conference, with more than 100 trans people of color and their allies storming the stage during the opening plenary and demanding better support from the national organization. As a result of their action, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock did not address the conference as planned.
"The struggle for black liberation is the struggle for LGBTQ liberation," said Ashton Rome, an organizer with the LGBT and anti-racist political group Socialist Alternative St. Louis.
Hernandez — and the four other teenagers in the car — were unarmed, and witnesses contend that the police fired first, killing the teen and causing her to lose control of the car, which struck and pinned his leg between the vehicle and a wall. The officer was treated for a broken leg and released from the hospital later that day. Both officers involved have been placed on administrative leave, which is standard protocol for officer-involved shootings. Hernandez's death marked the fourth time in seven months that Denver police officers have fired into a vehicle, claiming the car was being used as a deadly weapon.
Family members of Hernandez had been in attendance, but were not at Saturday's event because they were hosting the teenager's funeral. The family has called for a federal investigation into the shooting, particularly after Hernandez's mother told media that her daughter was shot 18 times.
The family had initially approved of the planned protest, but contacted organizers on Saturday morning, and asked the demonstrators to take no action, reserving the day for mourning.
Instead of marching, several hundred activists hosted a vigil for Hernandez in the conference hotel, gathered around an altar featuring photos of the teen, along with candles, posters, and memorial items. The room was heavy with sadness as activists set aside space to call out the names of other LGBT and queer people murdered as a result of bias.
The solemn gathering concluded with the entire group singing a protest song which originated during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, then chanting, "la lucha sigue sigue, y Jessie vive vive!" ("The fight goes on, goes on, and Jessie lives on, lives on!")
Watch video of the song below.