Young people are still protesting in Ferguson almost three months after the death of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. Their perseverance is impressive; they press on after the national media have left and after people have stopped flocking to St. Louis to support them. But how likely is it that they will accomplish the goals of their protest, even after all their efforts?
The community’s solidarity and determination in its response to the shooting reveals two things. First, it confirms that the ability of social media to galvanize revolutions is not limited to distant places like Iran. Second, these young people and the adults who support them were just discovering the power they potentially had at their fingertips. When Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old black man, was shot down in the middle of the day by a white police officer, Torrey Russell, another young black man, announced on social media that he was going to the police station to demand some answers. He was astonished to find himself heading a large crowd of youth. The next day, Rev. Traci Blackmon, a United Church of Christ minister, took to social media to declare her intention of joining the young people’s protest. She too was greeted by an unexpected crowd of supporters at the police station. Kareem Jackson, a St. Louis rapper, stepped up when women and children were assaulted with tear gas canisters and defended them by tossing back the canisters. This young man talked down gang leaders and other youth who were ready to arm themselves and take on the police who publicly referred to black people as “coon” and “nigguh.”
Though social media brought the protesters together, it is the underlying problems in the community that have fueled their staying power. Ferguson is Birmingham, Alabama, circa 1963. Only three officers out of a police force of fifty-three are black, though 67 percent of Ferguson’s residents are. Fines and court fees for traffic violations and other infractions of the law were the second largest source of income for the city in 2013. This creates an incentive for police to ticket drivers for every offense, no matter how minor, and this practice is highly racialized: 93 percent of arrests, 86 percent of traffic stops, and 92 percent of vehicle searches in Ferguson involved blacks, even though a smaller fraction of blacks stopped were carrying illegal substances compared to whites. There are very few black elected officials, due in part to blacks’ withdrawal from the electoral system. Roughly 30 percent of blacks in St. Louis City and St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located, live below the poverty level, compared to a poverty rate of 8 percent among whites.