A week ago I responded to a call for experienced street medics to come to Ferguson, Missouri to provide emergency first aid at the spectacular protests that have captured the imagination of the whole country and beyond. In addition to that mission of directly providing care, I’ve had two objectives: teach protesters how to stay safe and take care of each other in the streets when the cops get extra nasty, and to train locals to take over the provision of street first aid and health & safety trainings.
You’ll notice none of this has anything to do with actually participating in the protests. You’ll also note that all of the knowledge and leadership I’m here to provide is essentially technical in nature. This despite my 22 years of protest experience—20 as an organizer, 14 as a street medic closely studying protest tactics and police crowd control operations. I also have expertise on social movement strategy and history.
But I didn’t come here to give advice about strategy and tactics, objectives or structures, and when folks here ask my opinion on such matters, my only line is don’t listen to white people. I will tell stories that might be informative, because my “wisdom” is not proprietary. But I’m not a leader here, and I should not be, and no white person should be. Period.
This is not our struggle. I have been beaten and falsely arrested by police, but this is still not my struggle. I recognize and validate and am in awe of everything from the rage to the discipline expressed by the people of Ferguson and the black and brown activists who’ve come to support and participate. This place and the people rising up are beautiful, and hell yes I am fortunate that I had a very valid reason to come and contribute in one small way.
At the same time, I have been disgusted by the behavior of some white activists who have come from outside (including as nearby as St Louis) to join the protests. Many of these folks are intent on imposing their messages and their tactics on this local struggle, or pushing their way into otherwise black conversations and even meetings to contribute opinions they’re certain are vital (they’re wrong!).
Yes, the struggle has larger implications. Yes, it affects us all. But how are we going to affect it? When it comes to participation, that makes all the difference.
If you’re a white activist who has come to Ferguson to participate, or who is thinking about doing so, I urge you to consider what you have to offer.
If your answer is a warm body and loud voice on the streets, keep in mind that the ratio of of locals to outsiders has shifted tremendously over the last week. And it is likely not a coincidence that far fewer locals are coming out night after night. Consider the implications of outsiders coopting or deflating an empowering local/black struggle for justice. Then choose not to come, out of respect and humility.
If your answer is that you can offer ideology or politicization or radicalization or even just a different kind of voice, go home now. Go as fast and as far as you can. The people of Ferguson are amazing; they don’t need you. Not even a little bit.
If you do have a technical skill of some sort and have been invited by organizers on the ground, consider passing that skill on and going home. This is what medics are focused on now, and we hope other “specialists” will do likewise. As wonderful as it is to be part of an amazing, probably historic struggle, that’s not really the point.
This call isn’t just inspired by my own pre-existing views or observations. I’ve been talking to locals and organizers every day. Some organizations on the ground have explicitly asked that we discourage outsiders who lack specific needed skills sets from flocking to Ferguson.
For anyone who thinks I’m advocating white folks abandon Ferguson or the broader black community: think again. I’m arguing that we aren’t needed on the front lines or in the leadership or even on the streets of this specific movement manifestation in the first place. When folks most affected by the issues at hand want help, they can ask for it. When they ask for solidarity from the outside, as they have, make an effort to provide it as requested. But don’t come rushing in here to be part of the spectacle. Just. Don’t.