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U.S. civil rights groups gather pace

By Edward McAllister
Taurean Russell was preparing to coach high school football in St. Louis last Aug. 9 when his Twitter feed began flashing images of a black teenager lying facedown on the street of a nearby suburb, shot dead by police.
    Within hours came photos of the dead 18-year-old’s stepfather, stony-faced, holding a cardboard sign that read: “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son!!!”
    “I’ve seen dead bodies on the street all my life,” said Russell, 30. “Michael Brown’s death was different. I had to do something.”
    Russell would soon throw himself into a rapidly expanding civil rights movement with a new cause: to bring what the movement views as widespread police aggression and racial discrimination in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, to the nation’s attention.
    What began with a small vanguard of activists that met in
local cafes and churches has evolved and spread in a way unseen in a generation.
    The shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer sparked widespread protests, some of which turned into violent clashes with the police. It stoked a debate over race relations, policing and the criminal justice system.
Since then, civil rights groups have begun to coordinate in ways they did not before Brown’s death, according to interviews with a dozen leading organizers. Through weekly conference calls, emails and cell phone texts, groups that had acted independently now work in tandem.
    The progress of their efforts is hard to quantify. Funding and resources are constraints, as is the slow nature of political change. Rioting in Ferguson and elsewhere has sometimes overshadowed peaceful demonstrations.
    But in a year in which the United States has become acutely aware of the deaths of young black men at the hands of police, and protest movements have emerged from Baltimore to Oakland, California, many say they have seen a turning point.
Police in major cities now wear body cameras, a key demand of Ferguson protesters. New York state will appoint a special prosecutor to handle investigations when civilians are killed by police.
“If a young black man is killed by a policeman now, it is front-page news,” said attorney Thomas Harvey, co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, which provides legal services for St. Louis’s homeless people.
“A year ago, the same thing was seen as a blip.”
    While the death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 in an encounter with an armed neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, provoked scores of nationwide rallies, at times drawing huge crowds, the fervor faded. Protesters returned to their day jobs. News coverage ebbed.
    Organizations like Black Lives Matter, which started as a Twitter hashtag after Martin’s death, struggled to sustain momentum.
“Black Lives Matter went viral for a while (in 2013), but then went dormant,” said co-founder Opal Tometi. “We really re-engaged once Michael Brown died.”
    Black Lives Matter now has 30 chapters, with thousands of members. National phone calls are held every month; it coordinates with about 20 other civil rights groups, including Dream Defenders, the Organization for Black Struggle and Ferguson Action. 
    These groups have planned protests to mark the Aug. 9 anniversary of Brown’s death. Hundreds are expected to gather in Cleveland next week for a Movement for Black Lives convention. At the end of the month, 600 legal advocates will convene in New York to discuss strategies to help civil rights organizations with legal issues.
    Police shootings of black men in St. Louis are not novel. Unarmed 30-year-old Christopher Jones was shot dead by police after a car chase in July 2014. There were no protests after his death. Media coverage was limited.
It is hard to say what sparked the outcry over Brown’s death a month later. Some point to him being left dead for four hours on the street or the police’s use of armored vehicles and other military-style gear. Others say it was one death too many.
“You had a community of people that said enough is enough,” said Dante Barry, a New York-based organizer who went to Ferguson after the shooting. “What you saw in Ferguson was not just about Mike Brown.”
    For Taurean Russell, who had been to civil rights rallies before but was no activist, unaware that civil rights groups were even active in St. Louis, it started with a tweet on Aug. 9.
He called for a gathering outside the Ferguson police department; soon, more than 100 people arrived. There Russell met other activists, a loose group that would form the backbone of protest groups including Hands Up United and others. 
He was present at a gathering of about 15 people in the boardroom of a St. Louis healthcare union building on Aug. 12, the first formal meeting led by activists including Montague Simmons from the Organization for Black Struggle and local musician Tef Po.
They spoke about logistics and their goals: demanding body cameras for police, the formation of a citizen review board and the arrest of the police officer who killed Brown. (A grand jury would later decide not to bring charges against the officer, Darren Wilson).
    By the end of that week, scores of protesters, lawyers and activists were attending daily morning meetings at the local St. Mark’s Church.
Russell appeared at news conferences and on television. He became a soft-spoken, local voice of a national movement.
“I quit my job, I quit everything,” Russell said. “It is crazy to know I was in those meetings. I’ve been on television, I’ve had debates with lawyers. I’m not saying I won, but I didn’t lose.”

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