As the fiery protests that erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer appeared to be on the wane, several St. Louis-area young people reflected on the incident and talked about lessons learned.
While many were demoralized and saddened by the shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, they said it came as no surprise. For years, they said, police have had an adversarial relationship with blacks, especially young men.
Indeed, racial parity, or lack thereof, on the police force seems to be the crux of the problem. Ferguson, a suburb on the northern outskirts of St. Louis, is 60 percent black, yet virtually all police officers are white. The raw numbers are even more telling: Only three of Ferguson's 53 officers are black. Not only that, but the police chief and mayor are white, just one City Council member is black and only one school board member is black.
Three young black men and a teacher at Lift for Life Academy, St. Louis’ first independent charter school, spoke with The Root about aggressive police tactics by white officers in the black community.
Jarrett Cross, 18
The high school senior, who moved to Ferguson two years ago with his family, says he hopes to attend Southeast Missouri State University next fall. And to ensure that he gets there, Cross plans to steer clear of the police. Brown was gunned down the weekend before he was to start trade school. Cross said he went to observe the protests, but didn’t partake in them, saying he wanted to show support in a peaceful way.
“The biggest thing is not about unemployment,” the teen, who works part-time at the St. Louis Zoo on weekends, told The Root during a telephone interview. “It’s more about how police treat people. As a citizen of Ferguson, they are not nice. They are very mean.”
To illustrate his point, he recounted how one day this summer he was bumping popular rapper A$AP Rocky’s hit “Peso” in his 1999 Chrysler LHS while filling up his tank. Suddenly, an officer yelled at him to turn it down, in a confrontational manner that could have escalated quickly, he recalled.
“He started yelling and cursing at me, saying he was gonna give me a $500 ticket,” Cross said. “He was just a spot over from me. All he had to do was ask me to turn it down. I felt very threatened and did what he asked me to do.
“As a young African-American male, I’m afraid of the police,” he continued. “It’s bad enough to worry about other people, now I have to worry about danger from the very people trying to protect me. To be honest, I just do not go outside when I don’t have to and have learned to steer clear of trouble. It’s just not safe anywhere.”
Cameron Cornelius, 17
The 17-year-old high school senior, who lives in Downtown St. Louis, told The Root that he didn’t participate in the protests, but stopped by to show support. He, too, expressed extreme fear of the police, which was heightened by Brown’s shooting and the law-enforcement presence at the protest scene.
“The police don’t seem like they’re trying to protect us,” he said. “It seems like they are out to murder people. To be safe, I just stay as far away from them. I hear about police killing more unarmed black men more and more every day. I just try not to put myself in a bad situation so I don’t have to depend on them for anything.”
While sagging pants and gold teeth are not his style of dress, he believes that the police unfairly target young black men who do choose to dress that way.
“I don’t think the problem is sagging as much as it is about perception,” he said. “Some of the guys who do dress that way aren’t thugs. Besides, hip-hop artists like Lil’ Wayne and 2 Chainz went to college. So it’s a matter of style and taste” as opposed to gang attire.
Sederick Lindsay, 17
Sederick, a St. Louis high school senior who is still sorting through colleges, said he attended protests after the first week to show support, but did not march.
“I saw a bunch of people, not just blacks, but multiracial people,” he told The Root. “It was cool. People were chanting. We were sharing our feelings about what was going on. A lot of us were upset about police using deadly force. They are trained to use other tactics other than pulling the gun on their sides. They should think before they act. They haven’t been doing that.”
On the other hand, he was more forgiving than most about the heavy law-enforcement presence. “First I thought it was overkill,” he said. “But then the late-night protesters began looting. It was needed to calm things down.” And Friday, it was revealed that a majority of the people arrested during the weekslong protests were not from Ferguson.
“It surprised me that people arrested were not from Ferguson,” he said. “Why get arrested and destroy some place you don’t live? You have to think about the city because people still have to live there.
“If the protests continue, I would like them to continue peacefully because it’s an important issue that needs attention and we need justice to be served,” he continued. “Being a young black male myself, I should be cautious of police and of the people around me. You never know what’s going on in people’s heads or what they have going on in their lives. Officers could be on edge and attack me, or someone around me might have issues that could come back on me. During the protests, I excluded myself from the violent part, arguing and yelling with police. I’m not that kind of person. What I’ve learned from all of this is to keep it 100 (real).”
Demetrius Upchurch, 31, Eighth-Grade Teacher
For his part, Upchurch, who lives in nearby Pine Lawn, Mo., said he has been working with his students and 4-year-old son, Aiden, to instruct them on how to conduct themselves around police.
“There is an anti-black-youth sentiment among the police,” he told The Root earlier this week as he walked to the shooting site at the Canfield Gardens complex in Ferguson. He said he took his son to the scene to show him why he could not go to school. Area schools were shut down in the area to prevent students from being hurt as they walked to and from school as protesters and police squared off.
“The protest was a culmination of anger about the marginalization of black youth,” Upchurch said. “I really think there needs to be more getting the youth together, really hearing what it is that they need, what it is that they feel and allowing a leader to emerge amongst them and really mentoring and cultivating that agency. That is how real change is going to happen.”
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.