I am a child of the civil rights movement. My parents met in 1969. They attended New York University together and protested the Vietnam War. My mother got into NYU thanks to a scholarship that was established in Dr. Martin Luther King’s name the year that he was murdered.
Because my parents came of age in that era, their activism stayed with them throughout their lives. They named their children African names. They collected African art. And it completely informed who I am. That’s why I went to Ferguson.
The American civil rights movement set the stage for the protests worldwide. It was the images of people being attacked by dogs, being sprayed by fire hoses for sitting at lunch counters, of people walking hand in hand with Dr. King, people like Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne marching on Washington, D.C. It was the people, risking their lives — bodies on the streets — who made it a movement.
I use social media a lot. I’m on Twitter especially, and I saw a disturbing trend of people congratulating themselves for tweeting or retweeting things about Ferguson. Social media is a great tool, but to say that it’s responsible for the Arab Spring or the protests in Ferguson is a slippery, dangerous slope. Millennials are getting caught up in the activism they attempt with technology, but it’s an empty kind of activism. You can’t get real results without boots and bodies on the ground.
My father told me stories of getting sprayed with fire hoses and chased by the police. When you live in a comfortable bubble, you think those days are over. But I can’t stress enough how much the photos that you see here are similar to what’s going on now. Being “famous” didn’t change the fact that I was still harassed by the police and had my life threatened when I went to Ferguson. Who I was didn’t matter. I was taking part in a peaceful protest, but the cops just saw someone who was black. They put on their riot gear, lined up in battle mode and agitated the crowd. And after someone threw a water bottle, they started tackling and arresting as many people as they could, indiscriminately.
I’ve been meeting with Belafonte. One of the things we’ve talked about is the inspiration he got from [actor-singer-activist] Paul Robeson. Belafonte said that when he was a young actor, Robeson told him, “Listen, you’ve got a platform; you need to use it for good.” Belafonte took those words to heart. And he has made it his business to reach out to other artists. It’s not because of someone in my generation that I connected with Dream Defenders, a wonderful group in Tampa, Fla., that has organized to change the “Stand Your Ground” laws that came to light when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. It was Belafonte who told me, “I need you to check them out.” When I was in Ferguson it was very clear who had the interest of the people. It’s the organizers who are active all the time, not just people who get riled up around one cause.
The civil rights movement is one of the best examples of humanity we’ve seen. But while we must take inspiration and wisdom from that time, the strategies that were employed then don’t necessarily work today. Information travels so much faster, and people’s ideas of race, class and diversification are completely different. And though racism has reared its ugly head in Ferguson, on New York’s Staten Island and in Iberia Parish, La., it’s not nearly as transparent today as it was in the ’60s. As a result, a lot of people have these self-congratulatory views that racism in America has lessened dramatically — and it hasn’t.
Racism is so deep-rooted that there needs to be an all-out revolution if we’re to have a post-racial America. So unless you’re ready to burn this motherf—er down and start over, we have to find a way to deal with racism honestly, in a way that deals with the realities of where everyone starts from. You can’t have peace without justice.
That’s why I went to Ferguson.
—As told to Frank DiGiacomo
This essay orginally appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of Billboard.