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Ferguson: The Power in Our People

Five black football players entered the combat zone through a haze of smoke and flashing lights, hands raised in a symbol of solidarity that bound them to freedom fighters past and present. In that indelible moment, our athletes proved the power of the movement that took flight one year ago after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

When St. Louis Rams Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens and Tavon Austin echoed the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" protests that had wracked Ferguson, a few miles from their stadium, they did more than channel the sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black-gloved fists skyward at the 1968 Olympics.

They demonstrated that the nation can no longer ignore police violence against African-Americans. That black athletes are no longer content to cash checks while their brothers catch bullets.

And, inadvertently, by echoing the disputed narrative that white police officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed teenager Brown as he tried to surrender, the players showed that the challenges facing this new civil rights movement are more complex than those confronted by Carlos and Smith.

"Things are a lot more troubling now than they were back in the '60s," Carlos says.

Carlos fought unabashed, naked bigotry. Today's movement combats multilayered, shadowy forces such as structural racism, implicit bias, white privilege and mass incarceration -- which many white people don't believe even exist.

Racism is a more slippery foe today, harder to tackle and tougher to defeat.

"We changed the laws in the '60s," says Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania history professor and civil rights activist. "But we didn't realize that changing laws and getting court decisions doesn't mean anything if they're not enforced. It's a question of power."

Black America has always found power in protest.

Ferguson didn't launch the new protest movement. The 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black teen, and the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon's killer, George Zimmerman, birthed this age of hashtag activism, #BlackLivesMatter and social media as messiah.

The killing of Trayvon shook our athletes out of the decades long socially unconscious daze many had occupied since racism donned its disguise, sports salaries exploded and Michael Jordan reportedly noted that Republicans buy sneakers, too. When Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and their Miami Heat teammates tweeted a photo of themselves in hoodies like the one Trayvon was fatally stereotyped in, it cleared the way for other black athletes to rejoin the struggle.

In 2014, Ferguson was the inevitable end of the fuse lit by Trayvon.

"Michael Brown made athletes realize it can happen to them," Carlos says. "They don't see me as a basketball player or football player at that particular moment; they just see me as a black male or black woman. Or a black child walking or riding down the street."

Ferguson catalyzed the movement. It gathered the sorrowful weight of Trayvon and other victims -- Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, John Crawford , Ezell Ford -- and exploded in a perfect, violent storm captured by the simple, deceptively peaceful slogan: "Hands Up, Don't Shoot."

Simple -- and complex.

There is no trustworthy evidence that Mike Brown's hands were up when he was shot dead near his home on Canfield Drive, according to an exhaustive Justice Department investigation overseen by Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general.

According to the first black attorney general, Brown tried to grab Wilson's gun, got shot in the hand, ran, then turned and was killed as he moved back toward Wilson. According to the first black attorney general, a man militant enough to be called President Barack Obama's inner "Luther," the witnesses who said Brown's hands were raised either recanted their statements or were contradicted by physical and forensic evidence.

"There is no credible evidence," the report said, "that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat."

Ferguson had already burned by the time the report came out. "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" had already trended on Twitter and been re-enacted on the floor of the House of Representatives. Mike Brown had already been martyred.

Many black folks refuse to believe Holder's conclusions. Our confidence in the justice system is so anemic, many of us can't even trust the word of a black man who forced reforms on 20 police departments after being appointed the nation's top cop by the first black president.

Finding a path to trust is another challenge for this new civil rights movement. The weight of history will prevail until new history is lived.

As a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for 20 years and chair for 11, Berry, the historian and activist, saw a sickening number of skewed or false Justice Department reports. Holder may have been in charge of the Ferguson report, she says, but Holder still had to rely on a suspect investigative structure.

"Most people I know believe, and I believe, that, however you look at the situation, Michael Brown didn't have to get killed," Berry says. "That's not the kind of thing you end up getting killed for.

"The point isn't 'Was Michael Brown a thug and did he grab the officer's gun?' The point is, you should have never been in a position where that kind of encounter takes place in the first place."

The city of Ferguson made Brown and Wilson's confrontation inevitable.

That's the inference of a second report Holder released, one that painted a picture of a racist city government funded by targeting citizens -- especially black ones -- for overzealous prosecution and onerous fines that jailed people who couldn't afford to pay.

That's the inference of statistics showing that Normandy High School, from which Brown graduated just days before his death, was among the most segregated in Missouri and ranked dead last in academic performance.

The challenge for our new civil rights movement is to make these inferences feel real.

The challenge is to prove the connection between racist emails sent by Ferguson city employees and the poverty and disenfranchisement of Ferguson's black residents. To connect what happens at Normandy High School to what happened on Canfield Drive.

To prove that America stereotypes, undereducates and mass-incarcerates black people into a box, then shoots when we resist the closing of the lid.

To demonstrate that "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" doesn't mean Mike Brown had his hands up but is "a message worldwide that you can do things peacefully without getting out of line," explained Cook, one of the five Rams who protested in their stadium 11 miles from where Brown was killed.

"The performative aspect of black power is key," says Amy Bass, author of "Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete."

"It doesn't matter what happened in that moment with Michael Brown and the police officer because 'Hands Up, Don't Shoot,' as a symbol, takes on a life of its own to symbolize something much bigger than Michael Brown, just as 'I can't breathe' is much bigger than Eric Garner."

Black America has always found power in performance. John Carlos and Tommie Smith proved it. The five St. Louis Rams sensed it.

Ariyana Smith understood it.

Smith, a reserve forward on the basketball team at Knox College in Illinois, watched chaos unfold in Ferguson after a grand jury declined to charge Wilson with a crime. Her next game was against Fontbonne University -- 12 miles from Ferguson.

As the pregame national anthem played, Smith raised her hands, walked beneath the flag, fell to her knees, then collapsed to the ground. She remained there for 4½ minutes -- one minute for each hour that Brown's body lay on Canfield Drive -- and forced a delay in the start of the game.

When she rose, Smith did not lift her hands in surrender. She thrust a fist skyward, like Carlos and Smith, and walked out of the gym.

"When I stood back up, I didn't want to stand with shoulders slumped, looking defeated," Ariyana Smith recalls. "I wanted to rise with power. I wanted to rise undefeated."