My Freedom Ride Started in Ferguson. I Didn't Expect Where it Would End.

A group of people hold signs that say "hands up don't shoot"

A protest in solidarity with Ferguson activists in August. Photo by Light Brigading via Creative Commons.

On the two month anniversary of the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, social justice activists are planning a national weekend of resistance to call attention to police use of excessive force around the country. 

Growing up as a black kid in a near-completely white Virginia suburb, I was never taught that racism had real life implications. At school, the most relevant mentions of race usually involved Token from South Park, the beloved character from a wholesome family show most of us watched and enjoyed.

That all changed when I entered adulthood and began my life in the whitest city in America: Portland, Oregon. Racism isn’t always talked about here, even though everything that we do is influenced by decades of exclusion laws, redlining, segregation, forced displacement, and racial profiling.

I learned about Ferguson from Facebook. Scrolling through news feed on August 9th, my stomach sank as activist friends posted news about Mike Brown, an unarmed 19-year-old who was shot and killed within seconds of an interaction with a police officer.

But then I noticed something different. Not only were grassroots activists talking about Ferguson, but so were elected officials, community leaders, and everyday folks who aren’t usually engaged in politics. My frustration over the injustice in Ferguson was hit by a wave of intrigue. I was intrigued to understand the secret recipe that transforms a local tragedy into a national media frenzy, when in reality, a black person in America is shot and killed every 28 hours by a police officer, security guard, or vigilante.

Mike Brown is a lot like Trayvon Martin: a young man, a kid in some eyes, who died with so much potential left in life. It feels easier to appeal to most Americans when you can evoke a sense of purity in the victim, but it only addresses part of a larger, systemic issue.

I’m grateful that the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag took social media by storm after Ferguson. It demanded attention to the victims of racial profiling who weren’t considered the “good kids.” It ignited conversations about how you’re less likely to survive and thrive if you’re born black in this country, whether because of employment disparities, education outcomes, gang violence, or mass incarceration. Black. Lives. Matter. All of them.

Then, the hashtag initiated a national call to action, inviting supporters to physically come to Ferguson and join the movement. I felt compelled to jump onto the Portland ride to Ferguson and be a part of this call, to be a part of this critical moment in Civil Rights history.

On Labor Day weekend, I arrived in a big red van with 19 other Portlanders of color in Ferguson. My first Freedom Ride brought over 600 organizers from across the country: New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, etc. We were outside agitators, like Harriet Tubman, who shared an identity of historic oppression with the community and carried a dream of a nation built on equality.

My friends back home fretted about whether I would return from Ferguson in one piece. Tensions were high during the demonstrations, but there was a tepid passivity between the activists and the police. It might have been due to the overwhelming presence of national organizers, as we have seen that violent altercations involving the police continue to this day.

Over 5,000 people mobilized in the streets that Saturday, including local residents who had been protesting for three consecutive weeks. What shocked me the most was that walking down any random sidewalk in Ferguson, different groups of children would see me and stick their little arms in the air, saying “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” That’s what they—children five to 15 years old—learned from Ferguson. They learned that because they are young and black in America, their basic right to life is not a guarantee.

a black child sits on a curb, surrounded by protest signs

A child takes a break during an anti-police brutality protest in Milwaukee. Photo by Light Brigading.

I witnessed so much pain, so much frustration within that community. Mike Brown was not an isolated incident—the residents of Ferguson have endured generations of neglect, disinvestment, and violence. They needed to be heard.

I could feel that Ferguson was struck like a lightning rod, forever changed. There were new leaders and new movements that sprang up to rally justice for Mike Brown. From my short time there, I was unequivocally convinced that in the years to come, Ferguson would not have the same Mayor, City Council, or Police Force.

But you won’t see those changes now. Sometimes, most of the time, justice isn’t as swift as it needs to be. I returned from Ferguson in disappointment, doubtful about whether my Freedom Ride accomplished much of anything. I was leaving with so much work left undone, and with little I could do because I didn’t have any relationship with the families in Missouri.

But I have my own community in Portland, I have perspective that the rest of the world doesn’t see by watching Portlandia. I remember coming here in October 2009 and just a few months later, sitting in the middle of a troubled audience at North Portland’s Maranatha Church. National leaders flooded the City after the fatal police shooting of Aaron Campbell, a young, unarmed black male.

The US Department of Justice began a civil rights investigation of the Portland Police in 2011 due to allegations of excessive use of force, specifically on individuals experiencing mental illness. Six weeks ago, the City of Portland ultimately forged a settlement with the Department of Justice, which led to added oversight and accountability measures for the police force.

Then on September 14th, a month after Mike Brown’s death, a video went viral on Facebook. Another young, black male, 16 years old, was recorded being repeatedly beaten and tazed by Portland Police officers. It ignited a firestorm of outcry in the community, the Mayor and Police Chief attended a restorative listening session with the students at Roosevelt High in attempt to salvage the weakening veil of trust between the community and officers who swore to protect and serve.

Who knows when the next Ferguson will make headlines and captivate our hearts, but my Freedom Ride taught me that if you want to build a national movement, you must organize in your own community. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Although I was raised to see a post-racial society, my experiences have made it glaringly apparent that Ferguson is not the only town in America that has a lot of work to do.

Related Reading: Remembering the Black Women Killed By Police.

Cameron Whitten is the Board President at Know Your City, an economics student at Portland State University, and a community advocate in Portland. Follow him on Twitter @CameronWhitten.

by cameron whitten
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