Did Hip-Hop fuel the uprising in Ferguson? One professional and resident of nearby St. Louis, Missouri tells AllHipHop about the transformation within a small, sleepy town. And himself.
Over the course of the past two weeks, I have born witness to a transformative event in American history. It took place right here in Ferguson, Missouri, 15 minutes away from where I live here in St. Louis. And it started with the courage shown by a handful of black youth who decided that enough was enough and they had power to draw a line in the sand. They have inspired me.
In the 60’s the technology used against civilians who protested against racial injustice in public was limited to batons, police dogs, and water hoses. It is no surprise that over 50 years later the technology is updated. They used sonar sirens designed to create pain and fear in the listener, tear gas, rubber bullets, tasers and pepper spray. These are weapons of violence and modern warfare. The injuries they inflict caused serious, possibly long term injuries.
Police used airplanes and drones, they shouted threats, they pointed guns and rifles directly at the people. Almost all of these were unwarranted assaults on peaceful demonstrators and probably violated both the people’s constitutional and human rights. All of them were attempts to intimidate the protesters. They failed miserably.
“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”
The protesters endured and gained courage from chanting their slogan, a tribute to the last action that Mike Brown took in his life. While that chant was in the air, I witnessed things I have never witnessed before. I witnessed protesters showing no fear while huge guns were pointed at them and angry, red faced police shouted threats at them. I witnessed on multiple occasions police run in fear from groups of protesters with simply their hands up expressing their desire for justice—youth with just their empty hands against men armed with heavy artillery and apparent carte blanche to use them as they saw fit—and the protesters had the courage and the police scuttled away in fear and cowardice.
“And the Punk Police Can’t Fade Me”—Tupac
Music plays an important part in this too. “We Shall not be moved” is the name of the old “Negro Spiritual” that protesters sang as they faced down the Bull Connor’s of the world during the civil rights movement. The protesters were also inspirationally unmoved in the face of great violence being brought upon them, but the soundtrack for this did not include Negro Spirituals. I went to the strip in Ferguson almost every day that first week, and mostly I heard lots of Tupac, with some Bob Marley sprinkled in and Lil Boosie song about the police. Narratives about police violence against the community have a long history in Hip-Hop, so the intersection of the facts on the ground with the Hip Hop worldview was seamless. For example, the 20 year old Tupac songs I kept hearing did not just happen to be what was on the radio at the time, but for this generation this was their soul music and spoke to their experiences directly.
“Pump Your fists like this”
This uprising was unplanned, unanticipated, and unsponsored by the local activist/church/ non-profit organization infrastructure. It was raw. In reality, this probably could never had happened with a functioning civil society infrastructure directing it—it was too dangerous, too disrespectful, too angry a moment. But the pattern of police violence against the black community over the generations has a gaping wound, and people see their struggle as one that implicates questions of life and death—no time for politeness. At the same time, there was a real sense of pride and unity in the community. St. Louis is a town looked over by many, seen as a blip on the map. At least for a moment, they had gained worldwide notoriety for standing up against injustice, and the world was on their side.
Those were the last words that Mike Brown ever said, spoken to his friend before a police officer ended his life by putting a bullet into his skull. It is a mythic moment. Just like Mike Brown’s last act of throwing his hands up organically emerged as an easy to remember, empowering, even catchy chant that has swept around the world, his last two words apply not only to his friend but to all of us. We are now in a race. This moment could become a movement against racial violence, racial profiling, and police brutality. Or it could simply stay a moment in time, crippled from moving forward by an ineffectual civil rights infrastructure in the region, and national leadership too diffuse and “old school” to capture the energy of a Hip-Hop led resistance. It’s up to the youth to lead us here.