“The houses were smaller and less expensive, but the street was just as real and normal as the streets we drive past every day. The only difference was that an 18-year-old was shot six times and died right in the middle of it,” said junior Josh Fort about standing at Michael Brown’s memorial in Ferguson, MO this past weekend.
Fort was one of eight Wheaton students who spent October 10-12 in the St. Louis suburb with people of differing nationalities, races, socioeconomic statuses, genders, sexual orientations and generations. Estimates say that approximately 5,000 people attended the Weekend of Resistance in Ferguson, using civil disobedience to protest what they perceive as the systemic racism that pervades the United States.
Wheaton College has a history of combatting racism, from serving as a stop on the Underground Railroad to possibly educating the first African-American college graduate in the state of Illinois in 1866. At the root of the protests in Ferguson is a concept that Wheaton has espoused for a long time.
During their weekend, juniors Alicia and Andrea Artis, Kyle Johnston, Maurice Bokanga, Annikka Bouwsma, Sammy Mallow, Josh Fort and first year master’s student Jay Fort attended organized marches, events, meetings, church services and the memorial in the street where Brown was shot on August 9.
“It was extremely emotional and heavy for the African Americans in my group,” said Mallow of standing at the memorial. “I just learned how this little street in this suburb was a symbol of all the oppression and all the racism they faced in history: it culminated for them here in this little street.” For many, the shooting in Ferguson carries the same weight, becoming a symbol of how a people group feels ostracized by majority culture.
In explaining what prompted her to attend this weekend, Artis said, “I feel very strongly that the systems in America are set up to put black people at disadvantage, and it dehumanizes and criminalizes them. As an American, I believe this is wrong. As a black American, I cannot stand by while my people are being murdered and there is no justice. As a Christian, Jesus says that those who hunger and thirst for justice will be blessed. I believe that justice breeds peace.”
“For these people, the Civil Rights (movement) is in no way over,” said Mallow of his takeaway from the weekend. “I think of what if I was to be born (during the movement). No one can do everything, but I’m not sure if I would have cared that much. Would I have done anything?” he added. For Mallow, the temptation is to read the news and reflect on how unfortunate injustice is, but not identify with those who suffer.
Mallow stated that the weekend showed him “to not look back and think that justice is in the past.” He explained that the reality he saw is that injustice continues.
Artis echoed this sentiment of acknowledging the presence of systemic racism.
“I feel like people don’t see the importance of Ferguson and St. Louis or see Michael Brown. They see these things as isolated incidences. And they’re not.”
Artis, who conceived the idea of attending the event, emphasized the importance of the conversations going on in Ferguson.
“To have the conversation of ‘does systemic racism exist’ over and over is frustrating, especially when you go down to St. Louis and they are talking about how to change things.” Artis expressed that the people in Ferguson experience the reality of systemic racism, making the next step addressing rather than simply acknowledging the problem.
“It would make things easier for a lot of people if those at Wheaton stopped ignoring facts because they make them uncomfortable,” Artis said. “The people down there have spent their lives being affected by these systemic issues.”
“In my experience, many members of our society think of racism as an idea that existed during the eras of slavery and Jim Crow in United States history. It’s easy to think that the period of widespread individual prejudice and racist systems is over, but that simply isn’t the case. The lives of black and brown-skinned people matter, and people need to understand that on a deeper level,” said Fort, agreeing that an acknowledgement of injustice should occur.
Fort says that if he could pass on anything to the Wheaton community about his experience of the weekend, he would say, “Listen. Please, open your ears and listen when someone tries to tell you about the systemic issues that are destroying the lives of minorities across the US.”
“Things aren’t going to change until unaffected people care,” Artis added. “It’s not enough that only people who are affected care.”
This care was evidenced by the presence of thousands of people in Ferguson over the weekend, but on the Wheaton College campus, this indignation is something Artis says she would find meaningful to see increased.