“When the cameras left, everybody forgot,” says Missouri-based Black radical organizer Tory Russell, talking about how quickly national attention turned away from Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer four years ago. But, he adds, activists in St. Louis and Ferguson “sure as hell haven’t forgotten” and have continued to push for justice and accountability since the murder.
In this exclusive interview, Russell, co-founder of the St. Louis-based grassroots organization Hands Up United and co-creator of its community service initiative Books and Breakfast, offers an update on the ongoing efforts of Michael Brown’s family and other racial justice activists in the Ferguson/St. Louis area. As one of the activists who helped organize the initial protests at the Ferguson Police Department on the night of August 9, 2014, Russell was one of the key strategists of the 2014 Ferguson uprising, following the death of Michael Brown. In 2016, he served as a Black Lives Matter representative at the International Pan-African Conference in Zambia, Africa. He is also one of the noted activists in the 2017 documentary, Whose Streets?
Lamont Lilly: Tory, thank you for your time and sharing some thoughts with me. August 9, 2018, marked four years since the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. You’ve been working with the Brown family — and more specifically, with his father — for the last four years. How is the Brown family doing? What has that work looked like for you?
Working with Mike Brown Sr. has been extremely humbling. He’s a father who lost his son and had to watch people speculate every day for the last four years about how his son died, and without any justice, by the way. The Brown family has watched, in other cases, officers be fired and prosecuted—[there are] other families who have received millions [of dollars], resources and continued support.
Folks may not realize this, but the Brown family hasn’t received much of anything in those terms. I mean, while we speak, we’re finishing up our fourth anniversary week together and not one major nonprofit or national organization put any effort or resources toward this.
That’s a lot to hold, especially with very little support. Your son becomes the face of a movement because he was murdered by the police. Then you’re thrown into the national spotlight to answer questions and talk about it and mourn in front of the whole world. But when the cameras left, everybody forgot. Four years later, and even more people have forgotten. For the people who live here, we sure as hell haven’t forgotten. We never will.
A few months ago, I read that Mike Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, was considering a campaign run for a Ferguson City Council seat this year. Is there an update on that?
I haven’t been involved in that process … so I honestly wouldn’t know what to tell you about that. I can say this: It would really be something if Mike Brown’s mother was on the city council. It would definitely make for some interesting council meetings. Sister Lezley has certainly earned her “seat at the table,” that’s for sure.
Speaking of seats and public office, three former protesters of the 2014 Ferguson uprising have now transitioned into local politics. Bruce Franks Jr. is now a Missouri state representative. Rasheen Aldridge was elected Democratic committeeman at 22 years old. John Collins-Muhammad now serves on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. So, how have local organizers there leveraged these positions in their pursuit of justice and providing for the community’s needs?
There are some who ran here and won here, and many who did not win. And I’m not quite sure what it would take to shift the “balance of power” through the current political system, particularly with only a few people in a few key seats.
On the state level, there’s not much there, considering that in the state of Missouri, the Republicans have a supermajority here. If we’re being honest with ourselves, all you can really do on that level is help to better broker a bad deal, and maybe advocate for a few extra crumbs, but nothing structural ever changes.
But I was always taught you heat the pot from the bottom up, though. On the local level, here in the city, we can do some major things. When John [Collins-Muhammad] ran for state representative, he lost. But we used that to run for alderman because our main goal was controlling the resources that directly affect the people in our community. Right now, we’re fixing up recreational centers, getting into the schools and creating community-based service programs for the elders, mothers and youth—everything from the development of community food pantries to community gardens and revised African-centered curriculums in our local schools. We’re also planning around how to get poor and working-class families into decent homes. The leverage is in “the people.” The positions are just the vehicle.
Do let me be clear about something, though: If we’re looking for Black liberation through a ballot box or through city hall, then we’re kidding ourselves. All that can do is create the conditions for us to get free. But it’s the community, the people, the organizers who have to take that entry point and push it forward—whether it’s reparations or the redistribution of stolen land. But that’s another conversation.
You kind of just touched on this, Tory, but in addition to state violence and police terror, what are some of the other local issues that folks are organizing around?
Here in the St. Louis/Ferguson area, it’s the same as anywhere else for Black people, worldwide. Food, housing, health care, economic development and environmental injustice are certainly key issues that we have continued to grapple with here.
I think what people fail to realize is that on a mass level, we don’t control any of the mechanisms to get or ensure those things. We’re depending on the same people and government that enslaved and colonized us, to in turn, now give us the things that we need to be whole and healthy, and most importantly, a free people.
It all boils down to the historical and systematic racism that we were subjected to, and are still subjected to. The same holds true for police terror, because when white supremacists continue to run the country, it will continue to show up in all facets of your life, especially for Black people. All of these issues can be deadly, but some are just more direct.
You’ve been instrumental in the formation of several grassroots initiatives in the St. Louis area, from Hands Up United, to “Ferguson October,” to the Books and Breakfast Program. How did these initiatives come together?
All of those initiatives were created out of the political necessity of the people, just like the Ferguson rebellion was. The Ferguson uprising was what was needed at that time. I think the difference here was that we didn’t listen to the appointed leaders and we just went outside and got it cracking.
Mike Brown was murdered in August. We realized that the narrative of resistance needed to be shared nationally. Two months later, we organized Ferguson October. We wanted the spirit of Ferguson to move throughout activist communities nationwide, so people could be prepared for when a Mike Brown incident happened in their own city.
Like anything that you organize—that is, if its main purpose is to counter what the US government accepts as “justice” and “humane” for Black folk—organizers should be doing the things that prepare themselves and our service programs for the long haul. We must.
The first way that we wanted to do that was through revamping the Black Panther’s Free Breakfast Program by creating Books and Breakfast. It was an ode to the Black Panther’s breakfast program, but we remixed it by giving out free revolutionary books to the community. At its height, the Books and Breakfast Program, which came directly out of St. Louis, was in 40-plus cities around the country. It’s still going on today, but not on the same large scale.
I honestly thought that we were prepared for these things back in the fall and winter of 2014, but we weren’t. I for one, certainly wasn’t prepared. My greatest example of this was the formation of Hands Up United. We created that out of the rebellion as a means to train and activate Black and Brown youth to become grassroots radical organizers in their own communities. It was great in theory, but not in practice. You see, radical readings are great, and so are mass protests and demonstrations; they’re very needed, actually. But organizing for liberation has to become a lifestyle, a practice. It’s nice to hear people quote Assata Shakur, and yes, Fred Hampton, we love that! But we have to live like Fred Hampton and Assata Shakur. Everyday! You know what I mean? We’re not just activists and radical intellectuals. We have to be revolutionaries. And that requires daily practice, and principles by which we live.
You know, even within the movement, some folks want to be “change agents,” but not revolutionaries. But we had change and Mr. “Yes We Can” for eight years. Yet, look at what’s happening in the Black community. Look at what’s happening to our families, our children, our culture.
Chicago is just four hours north of here. Per capita, the same murder rate is happening right here in St. Louis, even worse. We obviously need more than just a little change, because you can’t buy anything with “change” nowadays. We need some revolution!
The lesson I learned most from all of these initiatives is the importance of surrounding yourself with liberation-minded folks and people who are prepared to truly struggle for the long haul and meet our people where they are. That’s not always going to be easy. Most of the time, that’s never going to be easy!
Several leading activists from the 2014 Ferguson uprising have since come under some serious repression from the state. Joshua Williams is still incarcerated. Darren Seals, Edward Crawford and DeAndre Joshua are all dead now. Tory, knowing the FBI and COINTELPRO, I’m quite sure you’ve been targeted. How in the hell have you survived there? How do you live with this kind of threat, yet still do the work?
I often think the same thing … How in the hell am I still alive? Maybe they’re taking a different approach to me than just a bullet. I don’t know … but I do know that, ultimately, I’m still here. And there’s still work to be done.
In all honestly, I think what they’re trying to do here in St. Louis is starve me out. These people and their systems will keep you from being employed or being able to get a job. If you’re too radical and too loud, they’ll exile you, they’ll ostracize you. They’ll tie you up in court and keep you in “barely surviving mode”…. If they can’t stop you, they’ll slow you down. And they’ll use the press to spread lies and rumors about you—to invalidate you.… If they invalidate the organizers, they can invalidate the entire movement. Here in Ferguson, we had to learn this the hard way. But these kinds of tactics are nothing new. This was happening 50 years ago to the Black Panther Party.
You know, they’ll also hit you with fame, which can be very enticing. If fame doesn’t work, they’ll toss some money at you. If the money doesn’t work, they’ll just ruin your personal life.
For Darren Seals and Joshua Williams, as soon as they were emerging as leaders who could organize everyday Black people, [the state] got rid of them. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about them … or the many faces who made the sacrifices for what they believed in.
Their loved ones are still paying the price for that decision. You know what, we’re still standing, though. And we’re going to keep on standing!
For varying reasons—one being the repression you just clearly illustrated—several of the leading youth organizers of the 2014 uprising are actually no longer living in the Ferguson/St. Louis area. Some left for employment and educational opportunities. Some left for the safety of their own lives. But you decided to stay and keeping organizing, right there in Ferguson. Why?
You know, I don’t think anything can physically run me away from this place. I owe this community to show up because I am this community, and this community is me. Even if I wasn’t here, I would still be helping to organize or bring light to what’s going on here. I was still connected to Ferguson and St. Louis even when I was abroad in Africa and Australia. I also think that for some people, Ferguson was simply a resume-builder, rather than “that place” where the resistance started.
It’s a physical and mental grind here just navigating within the system itself. Each little police department is its own unique land mine. But we’re still out here, man. I’m just saying, if you’re going to organize in the Ferguson/St. Louis area, you have to be more than just an “event planner.” We don’t do pundits here … Jesse Jackson got ran out of Ferguson.
I also think the difference comes down to simple fear. Sure, some left for fair reasons. Others left because they simply weren’t built for Ferguson. Ferguson is one of the hardest places to organize in the world, to me. Yes, the world. Because if you’re not ready for the repression and surveillance, Ferguson ain’t the place for you. I haven’t even mentioned the dozens of municipalities and various ordinances.
This also ain’t the academy. In Ferguson, you have to come through the hood if you really want to move the people, but the hood might not use “activist” or academic language. I don’t think some people were comfortable with that. But that’s what Ferguson was in the beginning. That’s where Mike Brown was murdered—in Canfield, the hood of Ferguson. So that’s where the organizing had to start.
I also think that some folks just haven’t figured out yet, that as Black people, there are no safe spaces for us—only places of limited intellectual and physical refuge.
Former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was never been held accountable for Mike Brown’s death because, ultimately, his actions were legally upheld in a US court of law. How does that make you feel about “the law” in this country, particularly as a Black man? I’m asking because even when these atrocities are captured on live video — such as the case with Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice or Philando Castile — all we as Black folk are ever left with is this constant state of visual trauma, but no justice. But this is “the law” though, right? Well, whose laws are these? Who are these laws and “law enforcers” really serving?
It’s 2018, man. If you don’t know by now that this is the white man’s country, then you’re beyond sleep. The “laws” in this country have a duality to them—written one way and applied another way, depending on who’s in front of the judge. When it’s us, oh, they follow the rule of law down to the letter — hell, down to the comma. But for white people in this country, rape ain’t rape, theft ain’t theft and murder ain’t murder; it’s only a consequence of their mere existence—survival of the fittest, you know what I mean?
In reference to the Mike Brown case, and I do believe for all of the names that you just mentioned, the fact that these cases all took place under a Black US president and a Black attorney general should have told us something. A few Black faces in high places does not create justice. Symbolism is not liberation. Personally, I think it’s time to show the world that either the United Nations is the international center for global accountability, or just a global think tank being used by our colonizers for global domination. Either way, we still have lots of work to do.
We as a people, really need to even stop advocating in these courtrooms and just go to the United Nations, in a real way, without compromising. That means concessions won’t do.
Maybe one day, we can create our own court systems—a justice system made for the people and by the people. Truth is, our oppressors are not going to give us any justice. And they’re certainly not going to give us any Black Liberation, land or political autonomy. We’re going to have to either take or create those things for ourselves. Until that’s done, we’ll have to keep organizing, from Ferguson and beyond.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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