A participant in a Millenial Activists United protest on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Photo by Aaron Banks.
“There is no institutional mode of resisting a racial or homophobic attack, there is no place to turn. One can only resist.” Angela Davis
Amid national discussions of police brutality and systemic racism, Black women have been the loudest and most consistent voices demanding change.
In the summer of 2011, three Black queer women started the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death and the injustice that set his murderer, George Zimmerman, free. In a similar spirit, last summer three women from Ferguson founded Millennial Activists United (MAU), a social justice group that offers a new outlook on the young contemporary Black civil rights movement.
As Black women consistently face injustice, we’ve produced a steadfast capacity for resistance. Ferguson residents Alexis Templeton, Brittany Ferrell, and Ashley Yates founded MAU in August and took to the streets of Ferguson immediately, quitting their jobs and leaving their lives behind as they pursued justice. From Ruth Ellis to Lorraine Hansberry, Black, queer voices have been crucial to our historic understanding of Black resistance, yet are often hidden or underutilized. For the changemakers of MAU, their queer identities have been a major component of their activism: Ferrell and Templeton were married in December of 2014, just four months after they’d begun organizing.
As a collective, MAU has organized over a dozen intergenerational actions with between 30 to 100 participants. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they occupied an upscale brunch restaurant in St. Louis—#BlackBrunchSTL was a modern take on a sit-in and was meant to make white brunch-goers feel a bit uncomfortable. Most recently, the group organized #BlackChurch, where the group stood outside several churches with signs like “Jesus questioned the status quo” and “Jesus was revolutionary.” In February, members of MAU delivered the State of the Movement Address at the Creating Change conference in Denver, Colorado, where they used the moment to invite all Black trans activists to join them onstage, honoring their lives in solidarity.
Ashley Yates left the group over the winter, but I recently spoke with Ferrell and Templeton about their thoughts on continuing the movement, how they express and receive love, and the climate of Ferguson today.
An MAU march to #BlackBrunch on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Photo by Aaron Banks.
ERICA CARDWELL: I saw your press release which said you’re centering MAU’s work around love and support. This statement of love was critical for our community; thank you. Meanwhile, MAU was arrested at an action for Facing Racism. Could you tell me more about that?
BRITTANY FERRELL: Well, there is this really big RV show that comes to St. Louis. It attracts thousands of white folks from around the Midwest, many of [whom] probably think all is well in America. We decided to deliver the message that Black Lives Matter to their world of oblivion. We purchased tickets for all who were involved in the action and we went in and silently protested. Since the protest was held at the RV show, which was titled “RV Travel and Vacation Show,” we decided to frame our action around The Green Book, which was a guide for Negro travelers back in the day. We made a lot of people uncomfortable with our presence—we had Black Lives Matter and other words written on our faces. Regardless to us purchasing tickets, they kicked us out and those of us refusing to leave were arrested.
How many of you were there?
FERRELL: About 25 action participants showed up. Three of us were arrested.
How did you feeling during the silent protest?
FERRELL: During the protest, there was a feeling of anxiety. There always is, though. We never really know what to expect, but we know what we are doing is right.
What do your days look like, almost eight months after Mike Brown’s murder?
ALEXIS TEMPLETON: The days have actually gotten a little more manageable now that it’s winter, so this is the time to get at the table and organize, organize, organize. People aren’t out in the streets like they were from August-November. I had time to enroll back in school, get back into work, and spend a lot of much needed time away from people. This is a great time for an activist/introvert. But we still talk to people. We have spoken with a lot of white churches, where the clergy there wants to get their congregation involved. We speak with kids a lot, too. I am speaking at my old high school’s Black History Month program next week to talk about my activist work. We also spoke at the Creating Change Conference that took place in Denver, but that conference also allowed us, as a queer organization, to take a minute to sit back, listen, and gain perspective on inclusivity.
FERRELL: My days are usually pretty crammed. Since I’m back in school—[I’m studying] nursing at University of Missouri St. Louis—I spend a lot of time in class, studying, or on the hospital floors clocking clinical hours. I also have a 7-year-old daughter and she is in first grade. Organization is key, because sometimes I have speaking engagements to go to, or actions to plan, or just general work around MAU that needs to be done. Getting off-balance even a little bit can throw off my whole schedule. Since it’s cold out, that gives us time to plan and organize so that we can be prepared when the community is ready to take to the streets.
You both are very busy young Black women. Do you have time to reflect on how your lives were before Mike Brown was murdered? Your passion and perspectives have been permanently altered. In addition to organizing, what are some other things that have changed about your lives?
TEMPLETON: I have not reflected on how my life used to be at all through this entire process. I just don’t understand how I was ever doing anything but standing with and for my people before August 9th. Although, sometimes I do wish I had just an ounce of the free-time I had back then. Plus, I have grown so much. My perspectives on things, people, and life in general have changed so much and absolutely for the better. So I try my hardest not to look back—I just focus on pushing forward, pushing toward freedom. I’m also 21, so I’m just now stepping into adult life, and paying bills every month is just something that’s extremely new to me.
FERRELL: I was very busy before the murder of Mike Brown, but it seems after his murder, nothing I did and nothing I worked so hard for mattered anymore. I literally dropped everything and lost both of my jobs to stand in the street with my people. Professors I once worked with no longer associated themselves with me. I haven’t heard from ANY of my family, aside from my mother and my little brother, since August. I am very sensitive to most things now. At times it can be annoying because I cannot enjoy anything without pointing out the oppressive pieces that exist in whatever indulgence I’m taking part in. I also notice that I am raising my daughter in a very different way than I did before. I try to be less hard on [myself for not] being a perfect mother, and focus more on just raising a loved, nurtured, brilliant Black little girl into being unapologetically herself.
TEMPLETON: I lost a lot of “friends” after August, too. I had no idea the people who I once surrounded myself with were so closed-minded. So, my daughter and Alexis [are] pretty much all I have. I would say losing friends and family members had less to do with forming MAU and more to do with the work in general. It [isn’t] respectable enough and we no longer fit into the status quo.
It seems that you both lean on each other a great deal. Standing out or pushing against systems that folks accept and perpetuate does cause people to turn away from you. And it does make sense that doing this work could affirm your queerness and also create an internal safety to express your identity. Is some of that true for you?
FERRELL: I would say so. I think that doing this work, it’s like, what do you really have to lose? You’ve given up everything doing this kind of work, in this kind of society. There is no way in hell I’m not going to love myself and whomever else I choose in the process. That is liberation.
TEMPLETON: Yes, we do lean on each other a great deal. That’s the most beautiful part of this struggle: having that person.
I am really glad you have one another. What do you think about some of the different responses to your marriage from the community?
FERRELL: Some people were absolutely horrid. We had folks saying things like “they are so beautiful, why wouldn’t a man want them” to “this homosexuality is hijacking the movement and destroying the Black family,” and with that coming from Black people, it really hurt me, because we are out here risking it ALL for Black life. But many folks were very happy for us, sent encouraging words and wished us well. We heard things about how it was so inspiring to see love come out of a time of so much hatred.
TEMPLETON: My thoughts about the various responses (negative responses, more so) from people in the community about our marriage: Fuck ‘em … I can’t tell you how annoying it is for people to say we did that for media attention. We had NO idea any media was going to show up. I felt violated for weeks after that news story hit the Internet. I couldn’t believe it. But it’s conflicting because there are folks who found bravery, happiness, and love within themselves from that story.
I think it’s a good philosophy. I find, for Black women, resistance is affirming, especially for queer folks. Our identities destroy binary; we manage to live on the fringes. It’s a daily dance amidst oppression. So being Black and female and queer is tough. Resistance is liberation from everything holding us back.
TEMPLETON: YES! Yes it is! For Brittany and I to step away from heterosexual relationships where gender roles were a “must” into a relationship with one another where we are just ourselves, it’s liberating. And it’s revolutionary because it’s something that is a rarity in our society, within relationships at all.
I am really really happy for you two and so glad that you were able to experience the clarity of falling in love with each other and yourselves.
FERRELL: Thank you for that.
Right now, there are a variety of Black female identities in mainstream media—from Viola Davis on How to Get Away with Murder to Taraji P. Henson on Empire—representations that demonstrate more of our complexity and fortitude. And Black women are being hailed at the forefront of Ferguson, standing for Black men. But coverage of Black women “on the front lines” rarely points out that many of these women are queer. This seems to be an “exception” to the accelerated presence of Black women in pop culture. What are your thoughts on the contemporary image of Black women?
FERRELL: The contemporary image of Black women are either the non-African American acceptable Black woman; the acceptable, respectable, Black woman; or the physically appealing, Eurocentric Black woman. Yes, that’s a fight we’ve been having internally as well. Folks think our sexualities should just disappear. “Don’t mention it. Why is you being queer important?” We [maybe] can get away with [being] accepted as Black women, but not the queer part. We all matter. And if we are going to fight for Black life, we’re going to fight for all of it. Not just the heteronormative.
Tell me about the #YearofResistance—spearheaded by Black Lives Matter and Trans Women of Color Collective—that challenges the community “to take risks as we confront the many ways that Black lives are diminished and taken from us” and the action steps it addresses for reforming policing of communities of color.
FERRELL: Government resolutions exist to push towards and advocate for demilitarization of local law enforcement, to demand that the powers that be acknowledge and respect our existence or expect resistance, to build a comprehensive review of systematic abuses by local law enforcement, and to implement a civilian oversight board with subpoena power in cities across the nation.
What does safety look like in Ferguson right now?
FERRELL: Ferguson is a very traumatic place right now. It doesn’t feel safe at all. There is no trust between the Black folks and the Ferguson Police Department, who are still responsible for policing the municipality. Safety would look like a police force that is reflective of the community, and less traffic stops and more actual community engagement.
What are your dreams for MAU?
FERRELL: I dream of MAU really giving a sense of purpose to young folks. Really empowering Black women, Black queer folks, and Black youth, inspiring and moving communities into action. I really want to see us help bridge the gap that separates heteronormative Black life and other Black life in our own community while unrelentingly fighting for Black life outside of our communities.
Erica Cardwell is a black queer essayist, cultural critic, and 2015 LAMBDA Fellow. Erica tweets @EricaCardwell.