It has been almost two weeks of unrest since the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, “clashes between the police and protesters have become a nightly ritual,” The New York Times reports. In response, many spiritual leaders around the country have taken note, standing in solidarity with protesters and descending upon the state to offer spiritual guidance and help quell the violence.
Yet some have been on the scene from the beginning. One is Rabbi Susan Talve, who leads the progressive Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, just 20 minutes away from suburban Ferguson. Moment spoke with Talve, who has been campaigning for progressive causes including gun control and race issues for many years, and is working with the Jewish community to address the race and class tensions that have flared up in Ferguson. Here’s what she had to say.–Rachel E. Gross
How would you characterize the situation in Ferguson right now?
Things are quieting down on the street, but they’re ramping up in the community, because the people who have been engaged are fired up—number one, to see justice for Michael Brown and his family, and number two, to re-energize and reform the civil rights movement as a human rights movement that is focused on jobs, access to education and healthcare. We need to deal with the racism that allows for discriminating practices like racial profiling that have torn apart our community because it’s broken down trust, especially between people of color and the police.
How have you and your congregation been involved?
I’ve been there since the very first vigil last Sunday. And it’s not just me, it’s my whole congregation. The leadership in the Jewish community really is trying to be part of the solution by engaging itself. We’re taking the opportunity to be part of the struggle. I really feel a deep connection and a love for the African-American clergy that I have come to know for the decades I’ve been in St. Louis. If they’re on the front lines, I’m on the front lines with them.
This is personal for us. Not just because we have kids of color in the neighborhood who have grown up there. It’s been a tough situation for the people living in Ferguson. So we’ve tried to help there. We have a Jewish camp owner who is a member of the community who has figured out a way to take up to 100 children to a camp outside St. Louis for the weekend, after one of the Ferguson school districts closed down school.
We are working on long-range projects through the Jewish community that will use this energy to make sure that Michael Brown did not die in vain; that the festering sore that his death has opened up will not be allowed to be hidden; there won’t be any band-aids put on it. We’re going to let it see the light of day and we’re going to heal it before we allow it to be covered up again.
I promise you there will be long-term responses to the wake-up call that Ferguson has given us in St. Louis, and I hope it’s a wake-up call for the whole country.
What do you see as the most pressing issue in Ferguson right now?
The main issue right now is to get justice for Michael Brown’s family and to regain trust in the legal system. We cannot allow for the divide between our elected officials and the people. We have to regain trust by working together and by listening to the people on the street, and that’s the job of the clergy. The engagement of our young people is a good thing.
I was out on the street one night before the violence started. It was a Thursday night before that terrible Friday night when the looting began. And I’m telling you that Thursday night, there were young black men directing traffic, protecting people of all colors, all genders, all races. They were protecting us. They were doing the job of the police and I never felt so safe in St. Louis as I did that night with those young people in control.
Unfortunately, a small number of agitators and people with self-interested agendas took over. It was hijacked. But that young, energized group of young black leaders—if we empower them, if we support them and listen to them most importantly, we will see finally the changes that we have been praying for and talking about for generations now.
Is there anything most people don’t know about Ferguson, but should?
Ferguson is not the urban core. Ferguson is a nice quiet suburb. Ferguson is where people move to get away from the problems of the city.
What does it mean that violence ignited here, instead of somewhere more urban?
That it’s everywhere. You can’t escape it. The racial divide, the geographic divide, all of the divides have been crossed.
Why should Jews care about Ferguson?
If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. If it’s not our issue to care for the unempowered, the people without a voice, the people who are most vulnerable, then we’re not paying attention to Torah. That’s why we’re in the city. We created the Central Reform Congregation 30 years ago to be in the city of St. Louis because we felt there needed to be a Jewish presence where racism is most pronounced.