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Ahead of Ferguson decision, an education in nonviolence

The Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou of the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain spoke to participants during a nonviolent civil disobedience training session Sunday in St. Louis, Mo.Michael Thomas for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

FERGUSON, Mo. — Some wait in prayer, while others wait with anxious anticipation for a grand jury decision that could set the course of history here. And then there are those who have already plunged into protest.

The Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou of the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain spent Sunday teaching about a dozen people nonviolent civil disobedience as the St. Louis area — and the nation — held its collective breath, awaiting word on the fate of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teen in August.

Michael Brown’s death exposed the fraught race relations in this Midwestern suburb, which erupted into nearly constant protests, some of them violent. There were marches in New York and Oakland, and on the Boston Common. And more acts of civil unrest are expected once the grand jury reaches a decision, which could come any day.

But for now, people wait.


“We’ve been waiting and working,” said Sekou, 43, who went to high school in the area and started his ministry at the same church where Brown’s funeral was held. “For over 100 days, folks have been in the streets, have been in meetings. There have been some form of demonstration, action, of various kinds. People are always at the police station in Ferguson. And so, we’ve been waiting and working.”

In August, one of the enduring images of Ferguson was of police and protesters clashing. This time around, Sekou and others from the Don’t Shoot Coalition are educating protesters about their rights and teaching them how to respond in moments of confrontation. Among their bits of practical advice: how to wash tear gas from your eyes, and the wisdom of writing on your arm the phone number of a legal adviser.

The Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou with participants. Michael Thomas for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

“Nonviolence takes rage and places it in a container and directs it at a target,” Sekou told the group. “That target is never individuals. This is about a rotten system.”


His students split into two groups, with one side taking the role of protesters, the other police.

The group playing the police advanced on the protesters, who locked arms and held their ground as Sekou ordered them to “go limp” as they were forcibly removed.

“A quick question,” asked Yasmine Qaddoumi, an 18-year-old from New York. “Are we supposed to let go? We don’t unless they are hurting us, right?”

“That’s right,” Sekou said.

In the days following Brown’s death, hundreds of men and women turned several blocks of West Florissant Avenue here into a protest zone, releasing decades of pent-up frustration at a judicial and economic system that those who live here say does not respect black residents.

Those residents make up about 70 percent of the population in the small city in northern St. Louis County. Brown’s death tore open the scars of old injustices and served as a moment of awakening.

“This is just bigger than Mike Brown,” said Tommy Bradley, 24, manager of Prime Time barbershop, which sits in the heart of what was the protest zone. Plywood now covers the windows along with a huge sign expressing support for Brown’s family.

The plywood, Bradley said, is there for insurance purposes. In fact, most of the businesses along West Florissant Avenue are hidden behind plywood with word the “open” spray-painted on the covered doors and windows. Many have huge black and white pictures of hands covering the plywood, a visual representation of the slogan that has come to define this movement: “Hands up, don’t shoot.”


Brenda Beal sat behind the counter at St. Louis Cordless, which was damaged in the summer’s unrest but was not covered in plywood Sunday.

“It sends a negative message. It’s like you are locked up all over again. Streets were blocked off last time. Now, you have the neighborhood all boarded up. It’s ridiculous,” said Beal, 53.

“It’s frustrating. Why are you all expecting the worst? Why aren’t you all expecting something positive?”

Beal said Ferguson’s future is in the hands of a higher power.

“God’s going to have to move his mighty hand in this situation,” said Beal.

If Wilson is not indicted, Bradley said, “there are definitely going to be more riots.” But he’s equally concerned about what happens if the grand jury determines there is probable cause to charge Wilson in Brown’s death.

“I’ve seen Super Bowls and World Series where they have tore up their own city if they win,” he said Sunday, sitting in his own barber’s chair. Usually closed Sundays, Bradley said he opened the shop in anticipation of the announcement, planning to protest with those marching.

Instead, he and several other of the shop’s nine barbers watched the news, waiting on a bulletin that never came.

At the time of Brown’s death, Sekou was a scholar in residence at Stanford University in California, he said. A friend sent him a text message telling him about the chaos in Ferguson’s streets.


The message said, “They killed a kid in your town.” The next one said, “Now, your town’s on fire. You need to get down here.”

Sekou has been in Ferguson most of the time since then, leaving to return to Boston occasionally.

“It was like getting on a plane and flying back in time. It was 1965 Watts,” he said en route to Sunday’s training.

Sekou said his first instinct was to protect the young people he saw out marching in the street. He said he realized as he stood between police and protesters that he was meant to join those fighting against an unjust system.

“I knew a lot of the kids. I had taught some of their parents when I lived and worked here. I buried many of their older brothers as a pastor,” he said. “It became abundantly clear that my role was to stand with them, to protest with them.”

So he is passing along what he knows about nonviolent civil disobedience to those who live in the area and those who come to protest in solidarity.

First Baptist in Boston has actively supported his efforts in Ferguson, said Sekou, who has been one of the ministers at the church for about two years. The congregation has raised bail money for those arrested, including Sekou.

The church’s music minister, Colin Cushman, who was with Sekou Sunday, is helping to train protesters who traveled from Denver, New York, and Boston. And the senior pastor traveled to the heartland for marches.


“This is part of the social justice history of this congregation,” Sekou said. “It’s what we preach.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.