Musings & Younger Perspectives
Weekend of Resistance:
A glimpse inside civil disobedience and my arrest
By Colin Cushman
Note: this column has been adapted from Cushman’s blog, illustrating his work in Ferguson, Mo. where Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. The local community and religious leaders gathered to protest the brutality by police officers. Cushman recounts his experience confronting police officers in an effort to have police confess of their tactics and practices against the local community.
Who is “on the ground”?
On October 12th, we prepared ourselves for an evening mass meeting in the Chaifetz Arena at St. Louis University. The evening was to be an interfaith service with the keynote delivered by the Rev. Dr. Cornel West. I was personally very excited for this event, as well, since I was helping to lead the rally in freedom songs.
There were about of 1500-2000 people – reps from each faith tradition, as well as, speakers from the NAACP were in attendance. Many local clergy who have been on the ground were there. Besides three local clergy and a few national figures, none of these clergy had been standing beside the local youth on the ground.
The Youth Takeover
About half to two-thirds of the way through the rally, there were interruptions. The disrupters stood up and shouted for the youth to speak. This call eventually was echoed and soon the whole stadium was demanding the youth who have been in the streets every night, be heard. Speakers on the stage, including Cornel West, chanted along, too.
These youth were taking over the entire movement. One of the chants in the street was “If we don’t get it [justice], shut it down!” And when this portion of the movement was at risk of being co-opted by national and political forces, they did just that: shut it down.
The message was loud and clear: these clergy aren’t out on the streets with young people. They aren’t joining us in our fight for our lives. With the notable exception of three clergy, religious folks have not shown up (!). This message pierced all of the audience. We left with fire in our bones, ready to for what was to come.
Marching to the Police Station
The next day, as a part of the Moral Mondays movement, organizers planned a non-violent civil disobedience action.
It began at a local church in Ferguson. Hundreds of clergy showed up for last-minute training and to prepare for the action. At 10 a.m., we took to the streets, marching a few blocks to the Ferguson police station, a major site of protests over the last two months. This became a site of protests because Darren Wilson was employed by the Ferguson police department and has been put on paid leave and not punished for killing Michael Brown.
At the station, a police line greeted us. We held a service of repentance, including a liturgy of remembrance and outrage. Non-clergy protesters then approached the police officers and told their experiences of police brutality. A chalk outline was drawn around a body, making an altar in front of the police line that marked the site of our resistance as holy ground.
A Call to Repentance
Stage 2 of the protests came next. At this point, clergy approached the officers. The basic statement that we started with went like this:
“Officer Creely (who was my officer), you are participating in a sinful system of policing which is killing our brothers, sisters, and children. I call you to repentance and offer to hear your confession.”
We stood directly in front of the officers, looked them in the eyes, and attempted to elicit their confessions. I was joined by three others who helped me minister to the officer about the harm done by the policing system. As far as I can tell, we did not get any police officers to confess. However, several people had very meaningful conversations with the police officers. Some police officers even welled up with tears.
At this point, no one was being arrested, so we decided to escalate the situation, provoking the police to arrest us. This is a strategic move in civil disobedience actions; it forces the police to show their hand in how brutal their policing tactics are. This was captured by the media and shown around the country so that people can empathize, and even show outrage, in order to force the police to change their tactics.
Standoff: Us & the Police
The police were clearly demarcating a line behind which one cannot pass. A small group of clergy led by my colleague, the Rev. Sekou, broke the police line and pressed toward the police station. Sekou was caught about 10-15 seconds later, but by the time the police caught him, there were so many people swarming past the line, flooding after Sekou, that they had to let him go to deal with the crowd. This began the first standoff between us and the police.
The police team in riot gear stormed out and wedged themselves in front of us, forming a new police line. Clergy stood in front of the officers and refused to move. We shouted chants and protest songs. Many clergy knelt with their hands up, both imitating Michael Brown’s position when he was murdered and making themselves immoveable.
During the standoff, the police were being inordinately brutal. They choked one person with a nightstick, until others intervened and successfully stopped the officer. They also dragged Sekou along the ground, significantly bruising him. This standoff lasted for at least 30 minutes before the organizers had us regroup. We then decided that we would try to break the original police line that had reformed—albeit pushed back 20-30 feet.
Our new tactic was to proceed in groups of four and get arrested. The first group, including Sekou and Cornel West, went forward to demand entrance to the police building to speak to the police chief. After 15 or so minutes, they were arrested. The media circus blocked my view, so I am not sure what exactly went down, but they all were given assault charges, which meant that they touched a police officer. So likely, they attempted to break through the police line by pushing through the gaps between police officers. After they were arrested, the next wave went. Several waves went with the same result, though the police were not eager to arrest people, as indicated by the increasing amount of time it took for the police officers to actually arrest each protestor.
After three waves, we began a new strategy. We fanned out along the entire police line, and would break through there. The outer sections of the police line were very spaced out and weak, since all the action was happening in the center. So then, a minute later, a portion of the line broke through. When my officer had his back turned trying to catch someone else, I went behind his back through the police line. Another officer came from behind and grabbed me. I was arrested.
In the whole ordeal, 40-some clergy were arrested. We had up to 70 clergy and several dozen non-clergy who were also willing to risk arrest but did not get arrested. Everybody in our clergy group was so proud of everyone who got arrested that day. This symbolic and powerful moment made national and international headlines.
This is not the end
That same day was filled with nearly a dozen other protests around St. Louis as well – often planned by the local youth protestors. They were also very powerful.
This is not the end of the issues in Ferguson nor is this the end of the protests. The same folks who have been protesting in the streets for 80+ days now will continue doing so. As we saw in the mass meeting, they are keeping control of the movement. They will not let it be co-opted—meaning that it will not end when the national folks disperse.
Now there are so many more people actively linked into the events in Ferguson. They will be offering support from afar. They will be organizing events, highlighting the issues of police brutality and systemic racism both in Ferguson and across the whole nation. They will be active in protesting in, with, and for Ferguson when new developments happen there. And so, we are not yet done with our work in and from Ferguson.
Boston University School of Theology and a member of Kent UMC in Washington State.