the ferguson challenge – to be uncomfortable, with tef poe and tory russell

November 4, 2014

As the movement in Ferguson inches closer to its 100th day, it seems like now, with Darren Wilson still free and the passion and voices of protestors being drowned out by a media blitzkrieg that is not so much pro-Wilson as it is anti-protestors and anti-justice, is an appropriate time to reflect on the beginning and what really got us here.

By Elisa Peebles, AFROPUNK Contributor

A Conversation in Canfield from tovah leibowitz on Vimeo

On the way back from an August trip to Ferguson, I sat in the last row of our passenger van crying for over an hour as I listened to Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 album. There was a lot to be upset about, but in that moment I was specifically gutted by my full acceptance of our nation’s failure to love black youth, value them as human life and listen—really listen—to them. Of course I don’t need to detail the ways in which the larger white supremacist structure has failed to do these things, but smaller communities and neighborhoods have failed too. The good people I met at the Ferguson farmers’ market who loved their home and city and didn’t believe that bad, archaic things like racism existed there failed. The Black community, with its many complicated layers and respectability politics, failed. Our parents, in their attempts to get their ‘40 acres and A Mule’ that really translated into ‘100 yards and Maybe a Dog’ so that we could achieve the other half of the American Dream they couldn’t get, failed: putting us in all white schools, keeping us off the streets and demonizing those Baebae’s kids, then reprimanding us for either listening to too much white music or too much hip-hop. Their revolution fell short and they didn’t do a great job of prepping us to pick up where they left off. Youth sprung up from the tail end of the crack era, who tip-toe through more identities than job applications, who jump through rings of fire to survive in their cities and do right and are then still told to pull their pants up—we failed them. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in the Canfield Apartment complex, I had the honor of interviewing Tef Poe and Tory Russell of HandsUpUnited.Com. If you have been following the movement in Ferguson you have likely seen these two, either at the front lines of protests or the front lines of Twitter, organizing and supporting those in the movement. After a town hall meeting, I asked for 15 minutes of their time and got 40, during which these two seemingly regular guys said the most profound and beautiful things about race in this country I had ever heard. They traced the nuances of our failure with the grace and strength of sages, touching on history, intersectionality, lived experience and modern St. Louis folklore. One of their main points is that out of all things, this movement, if it is to lead to resolution, calls on us to be uncomfortable and face the truth of this nation’s failure, what it means and our roles in it, whether we are complicit by choice or because we cling too tightly to our myths. There are plenty of myths about what it means to be American and from whatever area we’re from. Joan Didion once said “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” which is why it is an incredibly uncomfortable moment to realize the myths you hold as true and use to make sense of the world are wrong. Not only are they wrong, but they depend upon the dehumanization of an entire group of people. As the Grand Jury’s decision is expected to come any day now, a flurry of news articles are being published attacking Brown’s character, suggesting he was indeed a thug attacking Officer Wilson, that he smoked weed and was therefore an animal and that he essentially deserved to be shot. With each article published and each nod in agreement we further demonstrate our collective failure to instead say the other thing: that verdict aside, a young man, a human being, shot six times, killed and left to bleed out in the street in front of his family, friends and neighbors is a tragedy. This is a tragedy with real pain, real trauma and real frustration, and before any “yeah, but” statements and declarations there needs to just be acknowledgement. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to lean on the myths of pot-smoking thugs and an America far better off than the Jim Crow days. In this sense, it is a double tragedy: one of murder and one of ignorance and blindness so deep and so old they hold us hostage to failure while “people think they’re free,” to quote Tory Russell.

It is uncomfortable even as a Black person to realize that it all truly comes down to one simple question, and the way it so easily rolls off of Tory’s tongue during the interview made it all the more uncomfortable, heartbreaking and shattering: Why do you hate me? If you are reading this and you are Black, go outside and look around, then think that no matter what you see, the hood or the suburbs, you are hated and you actually don’t know why. You were born and you inherited hatred without any say, and sometimes people that look like you don’t get jobs because of it, are judged unfairly because of it and die because of it. And no matter how many black bodies enter the streets in protest, they won’t be able to come up with the answer; it is impossible to be resolved by us. That is uncomfortable. Why do you hate me?

The final version of our interview is 16 out of the full 40 minutes. In honor of Tef and Tory asking people to be willing to be uncomfortable, my editor and I decided to do away with pretty post decisions and editing. This video is exactly as it was sitting with these two in Canfield, and we both invite and challenge the audience to sit with them and listen without cuts to b-roll or shots of the interviewer—just Tef, Tory and the reality of their words. A full transcript of the interview can be found here.

*Additional camera credit to Rhyson Hall.