Anyone surprised by the white supremacism that rampaged through Charlottesville last month needs to wise up. The scourge of racism has never gone away – and it’s up to white people to stamp it out.

By Black Rights Matter activist Brittany Ferrell

MY activism didn’t start in Ferguson. In August of 2014, I was going into my senior year of nursing school at the University of Missouri, St Louis, and president of the Black Student Nurses Association. My activism looked very different then: I was trying to create community awareness of what people were putting in their bodies, and of the health disparities that existed in our city. Then black teenager Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson , St Louis. He’d been shot by a white police officer, which a grand jury and the Justice Department found lawful, though Brown was unarmed.

I couldn’t just stand back and watch what was happening. I had to get involved in some sort of way.

I started out by helping to make food for the people who were protesting, day in, day out, in Ferguson – along with several others I’d be in a kitchen, putting together sack lunches, then we’d put all the lunches into giant clear trash bags, travel to Ferguson and pass out lunch and water to hundreds and hundreds of people. Eventually it shifted; from going there to feed people, I began spending my days and nights out on the streets. As the protest began to evolve – from holding peaceful vigils to really pushing back against the police, who then started using military tactics and tear gas, the protestors began building relationships with each other. I met some other queer-identifying women, all of us beginning to feel like there wasn’t a place for us within this protest – by September we had got together and created Millennial Activists United (MAU).

We began organising acts of civil disobedience throughout the city in October. After our first action had an impact, we were able to mobilise hundreds of people to join us and we kept doing it, because our actions were leading to a great conversation.

People kept asking us questions – why do you have to protest this way? Why do you have to disrupt people who are having lunch? Why do you have to disrupt traffic? We would say, well, in this city, not only are black people being shot and killed by the police, at an unacceptable rate, but that violence is often overlooked by the people who are brunching in wealthy areas of the city, or the people who get to bypass the communities their white flight contributed to the downfall of. The more we could disrupt, the more we were able to continue this conversation and keep the momentum of the local movement going.

We organised those types of actions for a year. In August 2015, to commemorate a year since Michael Brown’s death, we staged a big shutdown on the interstate highway, and that’s when all the leaders of MAU were arrested, and it suppressed our activity in the local movement. I was charged with a Class D felony for trying to protect the protesters who took to the highway that day: an older white woman tried to use her SUV to force her way through the line of protesters and I struck her vehicle once with my foot to try and stop her. The police arrested me two days later, charging me with a felony - severely affecting the involvement I could have. It was a typical act of state repression.

However, that movement that came out of Ferguson has not stopped. Ferguson was the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter global movement, so what we did helped to wake up people all over the world. Here in St Louis, the local movement is still very active. The type of resistance that was built up during Ferguson still exists, largely because our conditions here are still the same.

A new mayor recently took office here in St Louis, and she’s working with the Governor’s office to put more police officers on the streets. It’s their “tough on crime” initiative. What that means for black folks and people of colour in St Louis is more officers in our community, not building bridges with community members, but over-policing us, which will lead to more violence, and yet more criminalisation of black and brown people.

In order to keep things the same, they’ve got to delegitimise dissenting voices, so they’re criminalising activists and organisers, detaining them, or throwing them in jail. The media also plays a huge role in silencing us – protesters are continually portrayed as being without direction, without goals, acting out of anger, unreasonable.

However, now we’re in the era of Trump, I’ve begun to notice that the same things

that black and brown people have been vocal about for so long – the same types of state violence and the same types of unfair legislation being passed – are now beginning to impact poor white folks, and non-black people of colour. It’s interesting to hear that people suddenly want to talk more about resistance, that they are just now beginning to feel called to protest because things are beginning to directly affect them. It’s going to be interesting to see how the state responds to that, to a collective of human beings of all colours who are ready to rise up against these oppressive forces.

Our documentary Whose Streets? came out in the States the same weekend as the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville [against the city’s plan to remove the statue of Confederate Army General Robert E Lee].

That was a very hard week. Screening a film that tells the story of people who were involved and directly impacted by the Ferguson uprising, that tells the story of what happened in Ferguson, what happened in St Louis; a film that really encourages audiences to think about the power structures and the white supremacist hegemony that ultimately contributed to Michael Brown’s death, that led to the uprising and the police response ... then to watch those same forces gathering, just a day later, in an American city, with so much hatred and so much bigotry, and see how the police response to that was so passive – it was infuriating. Even the way the media portrayed what happened in Charlottesville felt passive.

It’s more than just equating Black Lives Matter and the Ferguson uprising with riots and looting and danger, which the media did. It’s this component of blackness that people just can’t and don’t want to understand. They don’t want to understand how white supremacy still works to oppress people of colour, they don’t want to understand why black rage is valid, and why burning empty buildings are incomparable to dead black bodies. They don’t want to understand any of that, because the value of black people in America is only as good as our labour, and other than that, there is no respect for black folks.

There is no respect for our existence, which is why we continue to fight. White folks were able to march around an American city with burning torches, using the Nazi salute, were able to kill someone with their vehicle – all of this happened, and the type of outrage that occurred in response to that was minimal in comparison with that provoked by buildings burning in Ferguson.

Charlottesville was an in-your-face, disgusting display of white supremacy. I don’t know what else white people need to make them realise that ‘oh wait, maybe black people know what they’re talking about, and this is actually a problem’.

And to think that it was over a statue, a statue that represents hatred, that represents slavery; a statue with very painful implications for a huge demographic in this country. To think that these people want to keep those statues in place to honour their racist, hateful and oppressive history; are willing to riot, willing to kill. It is the American way. That is America.

Charlottesville happened and there were outpourings – white people, ostensibly liberal, so surprised that this is the America that they love; that this is the America that they have not come to know because of their own level of comfort and what it will mean to look in that mirror. But this is the America that has always been for black and brown people. This is the America that black people have been fighting for generations. This is not news to us.

Recently, the transgender model Munroe Bergdorf was publicly fired by L’Oréal after someone shared a Facebook post she’d written in response to Charlottesville. In that post, she said: “I don’t have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more. Yes ALL white people. Because most of y’all don’t even realise or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour.”

You don’t have to have a very thorough historical understanding to realise that her words were taken out of context because white people refuse to accept that their ancestry, and they themselves, have contributed to and sustained white supremacy and the oppression of groups of colour. They refuse to accept this because it makes them uncomfortable. Munroe Bergdorf has a very well-developed knowledge of the black experience, in America and abroad. White supremacy is global and anti-blackness is global; it’s not something that doesn’t exist in the world of, say, make-up, or sports. It absolutely does. It permeates every aspect of society. Firing her was an historically typical move, a way that white-owned and operated companies have long silenced black folks and people of colour who speak out about racial injustice, but I really think L’Oréal did themselves a disservice – they didn’t properly consider the times.

We’re suddenly in a very tough but good place, where we’re able to openly talk about racism and white supremacy in a way that picks up where the first civil rights movement left off.

There are differences between then and now: we can use social media to make our reach so much more extensive; trans folks and women now have platforms and are recognised for our work, and finally, this time round it’s a lot more in-your-face and abrasive. We don’t have the time for poetic conversations about race these days. This movement is now made up of people who have literally been fighting for their lives, and for so long.

We have a conversation a lot here in the States, about how undoing racism is really the task of white folks. White people have sustained it for so long; white people need to wake up and dismantle it. It is not our job as black people to undo the catastrophe that is white supremacy. And in order for white people to do that, they must, absolutely, learn to find comfort in being uncomfortable. They have to look in that mirror and really acknowledge the ways in which they have benefited from, perpetuated and sustained oppressive systems, and then they have to do the work with themselves, with their families, with their friends, with their acquaintances and within their institutions to undo these systems.

You can pat yourself on the back all day long and say you’re not racist, you can talk about all the black friends you have, all of that. But there’s blatant racism, then there’s also subtle racism and passive racism. Ultimately, if you are not having those conversations, challenging these systems and taking action to undo them, you are a participant in racism and oppression. Being uncomfortable is a part of the work, and there’s a lot of work to be done, all over the world.

The 10th Take One Action festival runs from September 13-24 in Edinburgh and Glasgow, 17-19 November in Aberdeen and 24-26 November in Inverness. Whose Streets? premieres at Take One Action on Friday, September 22 at CCA, Glasgow and Filmhouse, Edinburgh on Saturday, September 23. Brittany Ferrell will take part in a Q&A after both screenings.