The protests in Ferguson last night
"Crisis is the leading edge where change is possible," Lisa Fithian, an itinerant protest organizer, once told me. Nowhere does that seem more true right now than in Ferguson, Missouri, where ongoing protests have drawn attention to a deep national vein of racial animus. It's not surprising, then, that national figures have begun parachuting into town: the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, actress Keke Palmer, Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey—and the list goes on. The threat of "outside agitators" is a meme that has accompanied protests dating back to the civil rights era and beyond. But in Ferguson, there are indeed complaints from local organizers that some outsiders are making the situation worse.
On Monday, when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed an order to bring in the National Guard, he cited "violent and criminal acts of an organized and growing number of individuals, many from outside the community and state." On Tuesday, US Sen. Claire McCaskill said on MSNBC that the protesters "have now been invaded…by a group of instigators, some coming from other states, that want a confrontation with the olice." An officer told the Washington Post that visitors to Ferguson are engaging in "looting tourism."
Arrest statistics appear to bear them out, up to a point. Of the 78 people arrested Monday night, police told reporters, 68 percent were from the St. Louis metro area, but 18—or 23 percent—had come from out of state, some from as far away as New York and California.
So who are these outsiders, and what do they want? I went looking for every nonlocal organization claiming to have members protesting in Ferguson, from fringe to mainstream. Here are some I found:
Revolutionary Communist Party: The group has issued a statement urging "defiance and rebellion" in Ferguson. Members of the Revolution Club Chicago, an affiliate of the RCP, showed up at the Ferguson protests on Wednesday night and were quickly accused of causing trouble.
The website TNC assembled photographs from Wednesday night of people wearing Revolutionary Communist Party T-shirts in a crowd that was apparently making Molotov cocktails. Justin Glawe of the Daily Beast reports that RCP members helped gin up resistance to Saturday night's curfew. In a series of tweets Monday night and Tuesday morning, St. Louis Alderman Antonio French accused RCP members of trying to incite a riot and provoke a fight with police. Here's a Vine, taken by Ryan Reilly, of French decking one of them:
The RCP was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1975 as a fringe offshoot of better-known radical groups such as Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers. It still operates bookstores in Berkeley, Chicago, and New York. Its cofounder and leader, Bob Avakian, an unreconstructed Maoist, now lives in France, according to his Wikipedia page. In 2008, a Boston Globe reporter chronicled the group's bizarre response to his attempts to interview Avakian.
When I asked about its involvement in Ferguson, the group referred me to its website.
The RCP has worked hard in recent years to piggyback on outrage against brutality directed at African American communities. In the wake of last year's shooting of Trayvon Martin, the RCP helped organize rallies in Oakland, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, where its members solicited donations and handed out copies of The Revolutionary Worker. "It's how they recruit," Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin, a former SDS organizer, told SF Weekly at the time. "Their thinking must be that by creating these events, and branding themselves with the name of a martyr, they've got an obvious ticket into the collective consciousness."
Anarchist cells: The exact number of anarchists in Ferguson is unknown, but they have been a distinct presence during the nightly protests. United in their dislike of large corporations and law enforcement, anarchists tend to operate in small, autonomous cells that often pursue widely different forms of resistance. Many anarchist protesters embrace nonviolence, though the movement's black bloc wing embraces a "diversity of tactics" that can include vandalism and aggressive confrontation with police.
On Monday I chatted on Twitter with Xtina "Doc" Lloyd, a 49-year-old anarchist who said she was keeping watch on a rooftop in Ferguson. On Friday Lloyd had traveled to the city with 11 anarchist supporters of Bleach Detroit, a group that conducts neighborhood crime patrols, shovels snow off driveways, and hands out food and sleeping bags to the homeless. The name refers to the group's goal "to clean up and take back our city," she told me. "We do what the cops cannot."
Lloyd told me that she identifies with the black bloc. She has retweeted Ferguson tweets like this one:
But Lloyd insisted that her group has remained nonviolent during the Ferguson protests. "We do no harm, cause no damage, and make our presence known by numbers, not violence," she said. Her group has mostly played a support role, instructing protesters on how to make gas masks, administering milk eye wash to people who've been tear gassed, and field dressing people's wounds. On Saturday night, while treating a man who had fallen and cut his leg on a shard of glass, Lloyd was shot in the back with a rubber bullet. But it didn't hurt too much; she was wearing a bulletproof vest. "This is not my first rodeo," she told me.
For more on anarchist involvement in Ferguson, including disdain for "peace policing" by fellow activists, check out this interview from Free Radical Radio:
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: Perhaps no national organization has been more deeply involved in Ferguson
than the NAACP. Shortly after Brown's shooting, Adolphous Pruitt, the president of the NAACP St. Louis branch, helped his family find a lawyer. On Monday, August 11, NAACP president Cornell William Brooks urged the Ferguson community to "act collectively and calmly until we secure justice for the family of Michael Brown." The next day, Brooks led a town hall in Ferguson where more than 300 people voiced their concerns. NAACP officials later spoke with Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson to oppose the heavy-handedness of the police response. On Sunday, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund joined other civil rights groups in petitioning Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to rescind the curfew in Ferguson. According to the NAACP, two national staff members who live in the St. Louis area have been on the ground in Ferguson throughout.
Nation of Islam: Nation of Islam members have been in Ferguson to, the group says, help with crowd control. Here's a Vine posted on Sunday of a Nation member urging protesters to "fall back":
On Monday night, Nation of Islam representative Akbar Muhammad urged protesters to leave the area by midnight. "We don't want a repeat of what happened last night," he told reporters.
Founded in Detroit in 1930, the Nation of Islam is best known for its association with Malcolm X, who eventually left it. Today it's estimated to have 20,000 to 50,000 core members.
New Black Panthers & Black Lawyers For Justice: Malik Zulu Shabazz is the president of Black Lawyers for Justice and former national chairman of the New Black Panther Party. The Washington Post's Emily Wax-Thibodeaux and Deneen L. Brown write that "he has been patrolling West Florissant Avenue each night, trying to keep the peace. On Friday night, he used a megaphone, telling young people to go home." Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson has acknowledged getting aid from Shabazz, telling reporters that it was "absolutely correct" that he helped control the demonstrations.
Dave Weigel points out that this is quite a departure for Shabazz, whose group is best known for "showing up at civil rights rallies (or Philadelphia polling booths) in black military garb, and becoming a distraction for everybody." Shabazz has previously been quoted telling Howard University students that "the Jews" killed Nat Turner and controlled the media and the Fed. The Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the US Commission on Civil Rights consider the New Black Panthers a hate group. Former members of the original Black Panthers have rejected the NBPP, which was founded in Dallas in 1989, and distanced themselves from its statements.
A preacher for a prominent African American church in the Ferguson area, who asked not to be identified, told me that Shabazz and his acolytes don't have as much sway over the protesters as he claims. Nor does she think that he's a true peacekeeper. "He's an instigator," she said. In this video, he calls for the death of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown:
Anonymous: The hacktivist group got involved in the protests after learning about the shooting on Twitter from local rapper Tef Poe. Anonymous hasn't done much true hacking in Ferguson, although it did gum up the inboxes of police and lawmakers with an email bomb and sporadically take down the city website. For a while last week, the group seemed poised to steal the limelight and embarrass authorities by releasing the name of the officer who'd shot Michael Brown, but then it fingered the wrong guy. Since then it has mostly limited itself to what it does best: getting the rest of the internet to pay attention. Yesterday, Anonymous called for a "Day of Rage" on Thursday, a week after a similar appeal helped draw thousands of people to Ferguson solidarity protests in other cities:
Tibetan monks: On Sunday, a group of exiled Tibetan monks arrived in the parking lot of the QT gas station in Ferguson to bring a message of peace, according to St. Louis Alderman Antonio French.
Jewish Voice for Peace: On Monday, Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, was arrested for "failure to disperse" while protesting Nixon's decision to bring the Missouri National Guard to Ferguson. She's a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a national group that advocates for equality for Palestinians and Israelis. "I am deeply, deeply troubled by what is going on in Ferguson," Epstein told Newsweek after her release. "It's a matter of injustice, and it's not only in Ferguson…The power structure looks at anyone who's different as the other, as less worthy, and so you treat the other as someone who is less human and who needs to be controlled and who is not trusted."