The Moment of Silence Heard Around the World

On August 9, 2014, a young Black man went into a Ferguson, MO store with his friend. A few minutes later, they both left the store. A few minutes after that, the young man lay dying on the street, having been shot multiple times by a white police officer. The series of events that took place between 11:45am and 12:05pm has been retold by witnesses and the officer, each account differing from the others. What we do know with absolute certainty is that Michael Brown, Jr., an 18-year-old unarmed young Black man was shot and killed by 28-year-old white police officer, Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO.

Brown’s death would add fuel to a fire that had been sparked two-and-a-half years earlier with the death of Travon Martin, a Florida teen who was killed by a racist neighborhood vigilante. The newest iteration of the fight for Black civil rights in the United States, “Black Lives Matter”, would serve as a rallying cry, educational tool, and motivational tactic to inspire people to become more involved in fighting against police brutality and raise awareness about anti-Black extrajudicial killings. Rumblings were felt across the United States and the rest of the world, and the election of the first Black president of the U.S. a few years earlier sparked hope that change would finally come for people who had suffered under racist tyranny for centuries. 

It was the perfect time to galvanize, and social media platforms proved to be invaluable in helping spread the message and organizing protest actions. In New York City, the summer of 2012 saw protests organized against “Stop-And-Frisk”, the racist NYPD practice that targeted Black and Brown people minding their own business simply because they “fit the description” of someone probably also minding their own business. When Martin’s killer was found not guilty of his death, a heavy blow was dealt to the collective morale of Black communities across the country. Then, in July of 2014, an unarmed Eric Garner was killed by a white police officer, Daniel Panteleo, who used an illegal chokehold on him as Garner cried out “I can’t breathe!” Garner, who had asthma, was particularly vulnerable and died as a result of the brutality. Protesters took to the streets, exasperated at the senseless death of an unarmed man who was hurting no one at all. When a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, yet another violent blow was dealt to our communities. But we pushed on, with more organizing, more protests, and more demands.

When Brown was killed, enough was absolutely enough. Centuries of succumbing to racist police violence was absolutely enough. Sitting idly by as police continued to terrorize our people was decidedly over. Protests erupted in Ferguson, led primarily by younger people local to the area, and shows of support popped up around the country, ushering a collective determination to fight back. Most had no formal training in community organizing, but they had rage, and within that rage, they carried power, and with that power, they hoped to bring about the kind of change necessary to end police brutality.

There was an eerily unsettling feeling about everything going on, from conversations to pop up protests. The atmosphere across online communities was a mix of hopelessness, exasperation, and feverish anger. People were on the verge of erupting in revolt, the likes that could get many of them incarcerated, injured, or killed. The climate on social media platforms had been transitioning from shits-and-giggles to activism and education for a couple of years, and more people were connecting and building activist networks to address the civil and human rights violations that kept surfacing. From street harassment and sexual assault, to the sociopolitical turmoil of a country divided after the election of a Black man into the highest office, people were becoming more vocal about societal wrongs and injustices and digital communities offered supportive spaces to connect with others who were equally fed up. 

Something major was brewing and I could sense it. It was thickly stifling and I grew increasingly concerned with what would happen if the rage boiled over without clear direction or focus. The organizer in me wanted to do something, anything. I observed a conversation on my timeline, planning a meet up in Manhattan on the Sunday evening after Brown was killed. While it was well-intended, the organizer in me pushed back and pointed out how it didn’t make sense to have it at that time and in that place. 

Then, the idea hit me: 

Why not organize something bigger, that could be better attended if people were given time to prepare? I don’t know why I came to that conclusion, and looking back on it, it felt almost supernatural. I’m not sure I even remember typing the words, but they came out in a stream of tweets.  I was thinking about James Brown and the concert he did after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, how it helped give people release, how it calmed them down and doused some of their rage. I wanted to do something like that, because I was sincerely concerned that if we didn't channel this brewing energy, something explosive would happen and it wouldn't be good for those on the side of freedom.

I did remember to quickly develop a hashtag, because I'd become familiar with how important they were for organizing actions and starting conversations.

And so it began.

I've told this story a number of times over the last five years, pretty much to anyone who would listen or who asked. In my book, Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets, I write about the National Moment of Silence and the ways in which it changed the lives of so many people. At first, I reached out to several organizations for help and to spread awareness. As people began to respond, I realized this could grow into something bigger than I had capacity to manage (as I was completing coursework for my MSW at the same time)

None of them responded.

Then I tweeted Dream Defenders, and they responded. We exchanged messages and they connected me to Freedom Side, organizers who were working in this space and were good at direct action protocol and information dissemination. They would prove to be invaluable to us at the time. I continued to encourage people to take ownership of this event, to decentralize the movement and return power to people across the land. Too often throughout history, we have relied upon charismatic leaders to hold our hands and walk us to freedom one baby step at a time, and for the most part, those leaders have been cisgender, heterosexual men. I wanted to encourage a deviation from that formula and take advantage of the new technology we had available to use as a powerful tool.

People who had never done any organizing took leadership roles in their cities and became more active in local organizations after the event. On the first day, there were at least 20 cities signed up to host vigils. People who were unaware of how bad things had gotten were now fully immersed in the responsive actions. People who were unfamiliar with local organizers were able to network and build at these events, eventually starting new projects. I estimated that 80% of the vigil leaders were new to organizing, which was amazing. The gatherings inspired the work of many who, to this today, continue to be champions of change.

In his book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, DeRay McKesson reflects on #NMOS14:

It is important to note that, to this day, the resentment I feel towards the ways in which this event has been all but completely erased from the narrative around the Ferguson protests and Mike Brown's death isn't about being self-congratulatory or feeling personally slighted. I committed my life and my career to this work, and this was but another event I wanted to work on as part of my calling and purpose. There were SO many people involved, people who answered the call to step up and take it upon themselves to organize and be a force in their own communities, and they matter. Whenever I was interviewed about it, I was asked what organization I was with. I'd always respond, "I'm with the American people". I learned quickly that if you don't have institutional affiliation, people don't take you seriously. I didn't care. I wanted to empower every day American citizens to exercise their first amendment right to free speech and to peacefully gather in protest. 

Even now, I beam with pride at the people who stepped up in cities all over the country and world. Ultimately, we had 42 states accounted for a five countries. At least official count, we have 119 vigils, but on the day of the event, more and more popped up. I received so many beautiful images and videos of people from all over, people from different walks of life, gathered together in one accord to protest the United States' sanctioning of police brutality against Black and Brown people. Some of the organizers remain my friends and comrades to this day, and I'm glad this event brought us together.

The event was covered in media all around the world. We documented the coverage because we didn't want anyone to forget what happened when people came together in peace for a just cause. As far as anti-police brutality demonstrations in the U.S., #NMOS14 remains the largest in modern time. We estimate over 100,000 people participated around the world, but we won't ever know for sure because of how many last minute events were being held. This matters, because all of the people who organized and attended, who shared the information and sent their love and support, monies and supplies to local organizers matter.

Of course, there was pushback, attempts at derailment, and utter nonsense circulating around the event. Some people were sharing the wrong date intentionally. Anonymous attempted to co-opt the event with a "Day Of Rage" and circulated our vigil locations amongst their networks. Long-time troll and Black woman-hater Tariq Nasheed told people he inspired me to create #NMOS14. It goes on and on. Part of why I didn't want this to be so heavily focused on me is because I knew people would respond in polarizing ways with my name being attached and I wanted to minimize the blowback. I'd just launched a campaign against street harassment, and those who worked with me on that faced all kinds of trolling and harassment just because we called for Black and Latinx women to be free of street harassment and included in larger coverage of the issue. Being an "out" feminist comes with heavy baggage, and I didn't want this event being dismissed because it was coming from me.

Despite their best efforts, however, detractors were unable to dissuade people from joining each other and honoring victims of police brutality.

From the five-person gathering on a Las Vegas highway to the 3,000+ plus in cities like Chicago, New York, and St. Louis, people showed up and showed out, and I couldn't have been more proud of everyone involved. Over the years, I've had so many people say something like "NMOS changed my life, thank you." I have never sought gratitude, but merely recognition for the work that goes into this sort of thing and the acknowledgement that the majority of the local organizers were Black women, who are perpetually erased from these kinds of narratives. I want homage to be paid to those who did this as a labor of love and never received a single red cent for their contributions. 

From everyone who helped with graphic design, to creating event pages, to joining conference calls, to creating mailing lists, to digging in their pockets to buy extra materials for signs, food and water, and the red sashes we wore on our arms...thank you. You are all deeply embedded in my heart and I will never forget what you did for this movement. And to the organizations and celebrities who eventually came on board and joined local vigils, thank you too for believing in what people could do, even without institutional backing. 

It's been five years and we have so much more work to do. The police continue to kill unarmed Black and Brown people with impunity. And since Donald Trump has been elected president, every day white Americans have felt incredibly comfortable killing Black people on the street and calling police on them, knowing that police are prone to shooting first and asking questions later. So many names hashtagged, so many hearts ripped out, so many futures destroyed, so much agony and pain permeating communities, all because racism continues to be weaponized by way of our corrupt system of policing and incarcerating.

As we reflect upon the last five years, I encourage you to assess your own life and how you have contributed to liberation work or how you have been complicit in America's racist tyranny. Silence is complicity. We have no choice but to resist and oppose the fascism sweeping the nation. If we sit idly by, we are complicit in the banality of evil and we are no better than those who remained silent and willfully ignorant when history's most famous despots and fascist tyrants killed millions upon millions of people.

The work isn't done. Let's keep up the good fight!

View more photos from NMOS14 vigils here.

In solidarity,

FJ


*I pitched this article idea to three publications, and each of them turned it down, which was a not-so-subtle reminder of how much this event has escaped our collective consciousness or doesn't seem to matter to folks. As I wrote this piece, I felt a mix of sadness and joy. Sadness because it simply doesn't make any sense that people seem to have forgotten this actually happened or they have wilfully erased it from their retelling of events out of whatever personal issues they have with me. Joy because whenever I revisit the articles and photos, I feel my heart swell with pride and encouragement, knowing there are people, many significantly younger than I am, who are willing to take up the banner and keep the fight going. So, I'm making it public (and free) on my Patreon and if you want to support me and my work, subscribe for as little as $1 or make a one time donation to PayPal.me/FemJones, venmo.com/FemJones, or cash.me/$FemJones*


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