Why I’m going to Ferguson

by Sam Neubauer
Climate Justice Coalition
Carleton College

I am conflicted. Not about whether or not I should go to Ferguson, I can feel that it is the place where I should be next weekend. I am conflicted about why I am going. In organizing we are often asked to critically examine what our personal interest is in a struggle. There is a challenging quote from an Aboriginal activist group often attributed to Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together.” My liberation is bound up with Ferguson, even though I am a white upper-class male.

When I was in high school and middle school, I faced a deep disconnect with myself. As a kid who was always a little off, I was pushed into a social role in school that wasn’t true to the person I really was. I identify as asexual, which for me means that I don’t experience sexual pleasure, and I don’t really fit with a traditional notion of masculinity. But I didn’t recognize this at the time and was pushed into performing a social role I didn’t feel. Even more, I didn’t even know that I was disconnected. Over time this took its toll, and I became detached from those around me, the earth, and my emotions. For six years I don’t remember feeling any emotions, except the knowledge that I was a little broken. I don’t think that anyone fits into the “ideal person” that our society projects, and even for someone who was very privileged I faced that real pain. The toll is in some ways not even comparable to the oppression others have faced, yet I know through my experience that whiteness and patriarchy take the humanity of white men too.

So when it comes to fighting white supremacy and broadly all systems of oppression, the stake is personal too. Going to to Ferguson is a powerful statement of solidarity and I believe a critical time in the building of a racial justice movement. The shooting of Mike Brown and the ongoing protests in response are the most visible edge of a serious racial problem, and we have the opportunity to help push this edge to set a new paradigm around racism and police brutality now. Coming together in times like these strengthens connections, and I know will challenge me to see how I can be a better anti-racist organizer. So I see myself and our movements all having an opportunity to grow and become even stronger, in this case centered around fighting police brutality and white supremacy. But the logics and systems used to support one form of oppression are used to support all others; by tackling white supremacy I am fighting patriarchy too.

I could stop here with my personal stake in going to Ferguson, but as a climate justice organizer, I also felt it was important to write about the climate movement’s place in Ferguson. After all that is how I became engaged (check out the climate contingent to Ferguson here). For me, climate justice recognizes the interlocking nature of systems of oppression, and how we have to fighting them all is not only right, but also the most strategic way to take down “our issue”. The fossil fuel industry depends on the logic of domination from unchecked capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy and other oppressive systems in order to make their profit. Much of our coal and oil extraction occurs in Indigenous lands across the United States and the world. Tar sands extraction in Alberta relies heavily on the marginalization of the First Nations in order to be able to extract from their land. Both the refining and burning of fossil fuels are disproportionately placed in low-income communities of color, demonstrating the industry’s reliance on classism and racism. Without these systems of domination they could not spew their poison into communities.

But they aren’t just using these systems either, since the industry reinforces them too. Every year the fossil fuel industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying our congress to continue their extraction and poisoning of black and brown communities. This is used to help them profit off of the destruction of our climate. Police brutality and the prison-industrial complex help to control marginalized populations, and keep them from reclaiming their power. So when I look at the struggle in Ferguson I see something that directly connects to my work as a climate justice organizer. A more detailed article on these intersections can be found here.

Yet writing about this doesn’t feel right to me. My heart is telling me this is not the most true reason for me to be organizing my school to go to Ferguson. The intersections of our work are real, and by going to Ferguson I am indeed fighting for my liberation as well. But is self-interest really the most powerful piece of motivation that I can have? Why should I need to see the struggle in Ferguson as important only when I can fit it into a logic of my own self-interest? I could make an argument here but I feel the best person to do it is bell hooks, from the essay Love as the Practice of Freedom:

Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or the other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination-imperialism, sexism, racism, classism. It has always puzzled me that women and men who spend a lifetime working to resist and oppose one form of domination can be systematically supporting another. I have been puzzled by powerful visionary black male leaders who can speak and act passionately in resistance to racial domination and accept and embrace sexist domination of women, by feminist white women who work daily to eradicate sexism but who have major blind spots when it comes to acknowledging and resisting racism and white supremacist domination of the planet. Critically examining these blind spots, I condude that many of us are motivated to move against domination solely when we feel our self-interest directly threatened. Often, then, the longing is not for a collective transformation of society, an end to politics of dominations, but rather simply for an end to what we feel is hurting us. This is why we desperately need an ethic of love to intervene in our self-centered longing for change. Fundamentally, if we are only committed to an improvement in that politic of domination that we feel leads directly to our individual exploitation or oppression, we not only remain attached to the status quo but act in complicity with it, nurturing and maintaining those very systems of domination. Until we are all able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual and collective quests for freedom and liberation.

So I suppose the reason I feel conflicted about relating Ferguson to my self-interest is because I believe in the power of a “love ethic”. I have strived in my life to reconnect with myself, others and the earth, but that is not as easy as I first thought. In order to connect to others we must choose to love, but opening myself to loving others who are suffering mean that I have in some ways invited their suffering into my life too. So it is painful for me to watch news on Ferguson, but that pain doesn’t stop this from being an incredible time for me to express my love, by taking effective action. I can feel the draw to Ferguson now from my heart.

So yes, I am a white upper-class male who hasn’t been directly affected by systematic police violence. But I love those who have been or who will be in the future. Isn’t a love for all of humanity the most powerful reason we can have to engage in the struggle? I am going back to bell hooks, we need to choose love in our lives. When I say that I feel I need to go to Ferguson, I am saying that today I am choosing to love. It will be powerful, I will stand in solidarity, and together we will take part in the building of a more beautiful movement. I hope that wherever you are during the weekend of resistance, you too will join me in choosing to love.