April V. Taylor
In a surprising turn of events during an event keynoted by Dr. Cornel West, a group of young activists who have been on the front lines in Ferguson, Missouri protested a speech given by NAACP President Cornell William Brooks at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis. Activist and journalist Rosa Clemente describes what happened as follows, at “a gathering of over 3,000 people…at some point the young people stood up in the audience and turned their backs on the president of the NAACP and a lot of the clergy and started chanting and getting very upset because they felt they weren’t being heard.” As a fellow audience member, I agree that the disruption completely, “changed the nature of the gathering that seemed to be disconnected from the lived reality of what these young people are facing.”
As Brooks attempted to give a fiery speech, stating, “Oh say, can you see Ferguson, MO, transformed,” the crowd responded tepidly. One of the young leaders stood up at that point and yelled, “Go to Canfield with that! We got revolutionaries out here [on the streets] starving!” As some in the crowd tried to pacify the group of people who stood to turn their backs and chant during Brooks’ speech, one of the young men called Brooks an Uncle Tom for his refusal to actually engage with the youth and stand beside them and for only giving useless platitudes rather than any real action or genuine solidarity. It seemed as though the young people protesting Brooks’ speech feel that him and the NAACP work more with the people they view as enemies than with the Black people they claim to represent. As the crowd chanted, “Let them speak! Let them speak,” the group was guided down to the stage. As Dr. Cornel West greeted them all with hugs and open arms, the crowd broke into a call and response chant that thundered through the arena, “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”
The order of the program was changed, and the group of young activists were allowed to speak just before Dr. West took the stage. Hip-hop artist and activist Tef Poe challenged older generations, stating, “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.” He went on to call out many of the events speakers about the fact that they had not done anything to stand with those resisting in the street day after day, telling them, “Get off your a$@ and join us!” Ashley Yates, who helped lead many of the events during Ferguson October also spoke, telling elders not to judge the anger of younger activists. Yates reminded the arena that if a dead body lying in the street for four hours doesn’t make a person angry, “then you lack humanity.” She went on to say, “I’m OK with being angry…See my humanity. See me for who I am…Through the way people express their rage, don’t judge it.” When Dr. West came to the podium, he stated, “I didn’t come here to give a speech. I came here to go to jail!”
The events revealed an inter-generational divide between young people and those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960’s. The young people of Ferguson want to be their own leaders and have little use for elders, clergy or politicians who will not stand on the front line with them as they battle police brutality and racial oppression. Dr. West put his words into action, demonstrating love and acceptance of the young people’s disapproval. He showed up later that night as police in riot gear blocked a street and sidewalk as hundreds of protesters tried to march to St. Louis University. As protesters entered the campus, Dr. West was arm in arm with the young people who are determined to finish what their parents and grandparents generation left undone in terms of ending racial oppression once and for all.
Here’s how the turn of events played out on Twitter: