A passionate group of people who had long called Ferguson home were ready to utilize the tragic moment created by Brown’s death to change their town for the better. In 2014, Darren Seals, a longtime resident and community leader (who was tragically murdered in 2016), said to Myles Bess of the media nonprofit Youth Radio (YR), “We’re losing people every day because of this system.”
During those first few weeks following Brown’s death, my social media feeds were flooded with images and videos from protests.
Chants echoed through the night skies, full of raw emotion; Many people from other cities were moved to travel and see the action for themselves. Residents were fueled by the ongoing support and continued their quest for justice and systemic change, even as officials involved in investigating the shooting continued their coverup. The radical stance of Ferguson’s fed-up residents was applauded by national activists, celebrities, and many others who offered their support to protesters.
“We do not get anything to lose. We’ve been teargassed, we’ve been shot, we come back the next day like nothing happened. And you know why? Because we do not get nothing to lose. We do not care, ”Seals said in his YR interview.
Although Ferguson protesters sparked a massive movement, there was criticism — from more seasoned activists and community leaders — about the methods young organizers used to mobilize the masses. Almost five months after the shooting, Oprah Winfrey told People magazine during a press run for the movie Selma, “I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest and it’s wonderful to see all across the country, people doing it… but it’s not enough to march.” She continued, stating her hope that while viewing Selmapeople “take note of the strategic, peaceful intention required when you want real change.”
Winfrey’s comments caused some outrage, with young organizers pointing out the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and Medgar Evers as the reason the current movement had no face. The idea of a decentralized movement had been encouraged throughout organizing spaces, in order to lessen the chances of one person being targeted by those in opposition to their demands.
Cheyenne Green, who was part of The Lost Voices and is now a political consultant, once said to a crowd gathered to protest police violence, “As we’re occupying, we’re going to have conversation, something you can take back home to your families. ”
Green’s type of leadership has impacted me and others throughout movement spaces across the nation. Political education and conversation have played a role in working to better organize communities so that change is possible and freedom gets a little closer. That is one way community movements are built. So why is it that some insist we need a charismatic leader at the forefront of the people’s movement?
Short answer: We shouldn’t, and we don’t. There are people dedicated to improving the everyday conditions of their communities, every day. They may not be in the spotlight, or household names, but they exist. A decentralized movement gives more people the confidence to pull together local support. A decentralized movement is how I began organizing. And when people feel empowered, they can empower others.
Organizers in places such as Hong Kong, France, Egypt, and Palestine have utilized decentralization.
From experience, drawing people in requires meeting them where they are. In this regard, social media has become an invaluable tool for organizers. A tweet can reach hundreds of people in a single area, which is how the social media campaign #ItsBiggerThanYou mobilized a thousand people in Atlanta for a march in solidarity with the protesters in Ferguson.
Apps such as Signal, which uses end to end encryption, ensuring messages remain private, have helped organizers provide safe spaces to work on risky demonstrations. Seizing a moment is an effective way to allow people to come together to process their emotions around a certain cause. In Hong Kong, organizers now utilize the digital tools LIHKG (similar to Reddit), and Telegram to prevent the arrests of leaders as they have occurred in the past. The need for charismatic leaders is no longer undeniable as the idea of a decentralized movement has increased in global popularity in recent years.
As Winfrey’s critique of the decentralized movement gained traction, social media activists like Shaun King, Tamika Mallory, BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors, and others took advantage of the moment and thrust themselves into the spotlight. Appointing themselves leaders of the fight, they began to seek “donations” to continue their work. They were known in activism circles as “ambulance chasers” or “grifters.”
Ferguson residents blew the whistle, with Seals specifically calling out the Black Lives Matter Global Network founders for living well while organizers known to the Ferguson community were struggling to make ends meet.
A Ferguson livestreamer, Bassem Masri, who has since passed away, also critiqued BLM leadership for hoarding resources in 2016. “We all kind of felt like we were kind of getting other people rich and getting other people fame for our oppression. We were left here to suffer from the systemic abuse from the police. And, like, I do not care about credit, as long as the job gets done. But the thing is, the job hasn’t got done. ”
Tory Russell, a community organizer in Ferguson, said, “[Black Lives Matter founders] should not be walking around no Black people, no Black communities. They should be somewhere in shame. ” In 2021, some seven years after Brown was killed, Russell and Michael Brown, Sr. demanded that BLM distribute funds to Ferguson community leaders so they could finish the work they set out to do.
Even though the momentum Ferguson residents built was hijacked by grifters, the town has seen some progress in its efforts to enact local change. In 2020, Ferguson elected Ella Jones, the city’s first Black mayor. Just a couple of years prior to her historic win, Wesley Bell, who protested during the uprisings, was voted in as prosecutor, removing Bob McCulloch, who’d served seven terms before being voted out. Protester Cori Bush made history when she was elected as a representative for Missouri 1st District in 2020. Bush made headlines At the end of 2021, just ahead of the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white supremacist teen who shot three protesters in Wisconsin, killing two of them. She tweeted that white supremacist vigilantes also shot at protesters in Ferguson and nothing was done about it then, in an effort to emphasize how the system picks and chooses who to punish.
Critics of decentralized movements still underestimate the power in taking the responsibility of one person mobilizing the masses out of organizing. Yet movements tend to die with fallen leaders.
Consider Fred Hampton, who was the chairman of the Black Panther Party in Illinois and co-founder of the Rainbow Coalition. He was murdered during a 1969 police raid of his Chicago home.
Hampton was a passionate leader and was targeted by the FBI to prevent him from organizing on a national scale, which would move more Black people toward action, and solidify cross-racial alliances.
Distraught members of the [Rainbow] Coalition unofficially disbanded, and a handful of the leadership went underground after Hampton’s assassination, fearing for their own safety. Thousands of people lined up to witness the open crime scene, while lawyers from the People’s Law Office disputed the later-disproved official police account, which had falsely claimed a heavy firefight on both sides. Having assassinated its most vocal leader, the Feds had effectively crushed the 1960s’ most promising push for united, cohesive social resistance in Chicago.
Back in Ferguson, Seals and Masri were two of many leaders; though their deaths did hit their broader community hard, the movement did not end with their untimely deaths. So refusing to assign the role of “leader” to one person is more fitting when liberation is the goal.
Despite the mishandling of the movement by the self-appointed leaders, organizers on the ground are continuing to move forward. In a January 2022 New York Times interview, when asked about BLM Global Network’s fundraising, Tory Johnson, a Huntington Beach activist and organizer said, “I do not tell people what I’m actually going through. I do not tell people how stressed I actually am. But, you know, I actually have to live through all of this. ”
Now more than ever, people need to lean into organizing. Between the skyrocketing costs of living, stagnant low wages, an ongoing pandemic, the war on reproductive rights, and a housing crisis, we owe it to ourselves to get our boots on the ground.
This story was produced through the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows (DKEF) Program. Read more about DKEF (and meet other Emerging Fellows) here.