Leaving the pulpit for the streets of Ferguson

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou calls on over 300 clergy and faith leaders to kneel and pray in the parking lot of the Ferguson (Mo.) Police Station as part of the Ferguson October Clergy March last year.

Photo by Heather Wilson

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou calls on over 300 clergy and faith leaders to kneel and pray in the parking lot of the Ferguson (Mo.) Police Station as part of the Ferguson October Clergy March last year.

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou first preached to congregations in the pews, but then he was called to serve the congregation in the streets.

Six days after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, Sekou, 43, join the emerging youth protest movement in Ferguson, MO. This decision led him to resign as a pastor of the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plains, MA. Working as a Freeman Fellow of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and with Ferguson Action and the Deep Abiding Love Project, Sekou has helped train about 1,500 protesters in civil disobedience, not only in Ferguson, but also in Boston and New York.

“Ferguson must be situated in a global struggle,” Sekou said. “It’s youth protesting in Tahrir Square in Egypt. It is youth resisting in Palestine. It’s young folks in the suburbs of Paris protesting against police brutality. It’s a global resistance.”

Sekou was a 2014 Scholar-in-Residence at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

The Chicago Reporter asked Sekou to share his insights on the Ferguson movement, its challenges and where it is headed.

What is your perspective on where things stand with the Ferguson movement?

We have already won. They don’t bring tanks and tear gas out when they’re winning. …This nation has a choice. Do black lives matter? That’s the question before us.

Where do you see the movement headed?

In Ferguson, there are people’s assemblies, there’s continued disruption. People are going to continue to stay in the street because it creates a political space for social movements. Social movements are the political thermostats. They set the political climate. And elections and legislation are the thermometers. The policy that will emerge will depend on how much heat we can turn up in the streets, so the disruption becomes important. The disruption will continue along with the folks who are going to be doing policy negotiation at every level—federal, state as well as local.

Did the police shootings in New York set back the movement at all?

No. There was an attempt to use them as a mask to distract from the reality of police brutality exercised on black bodies without impunity throughout this country. Those shootings, the killings of those officers, had nothing to do with our movement. … We grieve with the families of those officers, and we ask the nation to grieve with Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Renisha McBride and others’ families as well.

What are some of the difficulties you witnessed, or faced, while protesting in Ferguson?

First and foremost, the high levels of police oppression, the high level of militarization and the media attack on the lives of these young people, while the community was trying to resist and grieve at the same time. … [We were] being shot while we peacefully protested. I was arrested praying. Young people were arrested and beaten by the police.

Secondly, religious leaders were slow to come along in understanding and accepting these young folks and their leadership. Tef Poe—a great rapper—talks about how this ain’t your mama’s civil rights movement. This ain’t your daddy’s civil rights movement. It’s not going to be black people marching in suits and cuff links. It’s going to be rageful. It’s going to be angry. It has tattoos. It’s queer. It’s primarily women-led. It’s unreligious. This movement is a youth movement. This is the demographic of young, dispossessed millennials who refuse to bow down.

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou oversees a march from a local church to the Ferguson, MO, Police Department during Ferguson October Weekend of Resistance.

Photo by Heather Wilson

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou oversees a march on Oct. 13, 2014 from a local church to the Ferguson, MO, Police Department during Ferguson October Weekend of Resistance.

How has your position as a pastor affected your activism?

Is it a pastor’s responsibility to be in a pulpit or was it to be in the streets? So recently I’ve had to make a choice. So I made a choice to be in the streets. And there’s a congregation of resistance, a union of protest, of which I’m privileged to partake in.

Why are you in particular protesting on the streets?

It’s always been a few people willing to risk life and then seize public imagination and bend public policy to their will, right? It’s always been a few. We just don’t know who those few are, so that means everyone is called. Everyone is called to the street. Everyone is called to be angry and broken-hearted by what is happening here and around the country. … For me, I can’t sleep at night if I don’t. I am not being fully human if I don’t answer this call, but it’s the same call to us all.

What do you think are the lessons of Ferguson?

The first lesson is that you never know where the leadership is coming from so keep your eyes open. Black lives matter, and we’ll say it until they believe it, because we do. And I think the third one is, we often talk about youth as this abstract thing…  I’m talking about young people who are putting their lives on the line for the entire nation. That’s the kind of young people I want to follow. Those are the kinds of young people we should be following.

And my last one is, you should never wear church shoes while running from tear gas.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

  • ACL_JR

    First, and foremost, Michael Brown’s shooting is a poor place to start.
    I will not deny that reform is probably needed in the nations police departments, but Brown was NOT murdered. He did NOT have his hands up. Overwhelming evidence and a thorough investigation not seen since the Kennedy Assassination, has absolved the officer involved of any state and federal criminal violations.
    As for Rev. Sekou, he is one in a long line of activists who strive to achieve the social, political, and FINANCIAL success that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have achieved.