Learning to stand firm ahead of the Ferguson grand jury decision

Most of us in St. Louis worry about how the community will respond to the grand jury's decision on the indictment of Officer Darren Wilson*. Some of the members of Ferguson's Don't Shoot Coalition have begun offering lessons in nonviolent direct action to the community. Staff from the Organization for Black Struggle, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, Veterans for Peace, and Jobs with Justice in particular have provided training in marching and keeping vigil.

This past weekend, three-hour sessions were opened to the public. Friday night, 200 people showed up for a training session on nonviolent direct action. I was at the session at noon Saturday with 120 people, two-thirds white, equal number of men and women, mostly younger, about half who said the events of Ferguson took them totally by surprise and they never would have imagined they would be considering risking arrest.

The organizers assumed we were committed to nonviolence; they didn't offer any sort of theoretical presentation. They did say, "De-escalate the violence; don't de-escalate the action." They described some of the efforts to establish rules of engagement with law enforcement, like establishment of some safe spaces, the right to stand instead of moving, and advance notification of when the grand jury decision would be announced. And they said, "Don't rely on law enforcement. We're here because of law enforcement," and "Militant non-violent action comes from a place of deep abiding love, committed to changing the system."

But most of the three hours were practical. What to bring? Water, the law collective phone number, Maalox to protect from tear gas, a bandana, a buddy. You don't want to be arrested and nobody knows you are gone. Identification? Bail money? Depends on whether you plan to refuse to cooperate or to hold out for bail solidarity.

We practiced a hassle line, asking the person across from us to stop kicking their dog, then refusing to let them cross our line into the sit-in action. We sat in, locking arms to see how difficult it is to disrupt and arrest a solid block of protesters -- only we were urged to see ourselves as protectors, not protesters.

Then Lisa, who was teaching this segment, asked if someone would volunteer to arrest her. The volunteer approached, and she ran away, surprising us all. She said, "This is a choice, and it is a risky choice." The second time, she let the volunteer arrest her, and she kept talking, saying to him that the handcuffs were too tight and she was cooperating, saying to us all, "Keep talking. Make a human connection." The third time she asked the volunteer to arrest her, she dropped to the floor, limp as a dishrag. Again, she said, there are consequences to this choice. Think it out ahead of time, she said again and again. Come prepared.

Someone from the law collective had us practice these sentences: "I do not consent to any search." "Am I free to go?" "I want to see a lawyer." "I do not want to answer any questions." As I say, it was a very practical training for people who are considering, for the first time, refusing a police order, staying in place and being arrested.

But where will the place be? What will the action look like? What kind of occupation will convey people's growing commitment to resist an unjust system? Nobody's figured that out yet.

It's at this point that I remember Ephesians 6: 13-15. "Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace." Wherever they stand, people are learning to stand firm.

*An earlier version of this blog post misspelled Wilson's name.

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