The Ferguson Interview Project, a book that Ama Birch self-published in 2015, is a collection of twenty interviews about the events before and after the death of Michael Brown Jr. on August 9, 2014. Collected in Ferguson and St. Louis over a two-week period in May 2015, community leaders, activists, organizers, politicians, faith-based leaders, and law enforcement professionals share their observations, memories and their analyses around the events that not only impacted their own lives and that of their local communities, but reverberated far beyond the city-boundaries of Ferguson. Who of them is a reliable narrator? How can I as a reader judge or form an opinion on the events, based on what – that is the challenge and beauty of plurality. Who has the right story and who has the right to tell it?
In this interview we talk about the oral tradition, accountability, the fear to disappear, justice and self-publishing.
Franziska Lamprecht: I learned a lot from reading these interviews. They stirred a lot of thoughts in me, and also emotions, so I want thank you and in extension I want to thank the people who spoke with you.
You started out your interviews always by asking people to introduce themselves first. I would like to follow your lead and ask you if you could do the same?
Ama Birch: I was born in NYC in the 70’s, grew up in the 80’s here in NYC. I am the child of a poet/librarian and my dad is a painter/professor. I went to a pretty liberal high school here in NYC called Elizabeth Irwin, which is the upper school of the Little Red School house. As a child I used to participate in storytelling competitions…
Yes, I would memorize Grimm’s Fairytales. I really liked “The Golden Goose,” I would memorize it word for word, and then I would get up in front of a large group of people – and this is me in 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade – and I would recite the story. I was always interested in the oral tradition of storytelling, but where the oral tradition and the written tradition of storytelling meet. I studied theater as an undergrad, I did a lot of stage direction, I wrote and organized monologue plays in the tradition of Studs Terkel. He was working out of the oral tradition documenting the lives of common people, like in his very famous piece called Working that documented the lives of working class Americans.
Things I’ve done for money, I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve taught ESL for many years, and I taught a lot of conversation courses in ESL, so I became very good at talking with people who had different levels of English skills. And I also worked in politics for about 5 years. I started off as a volunteer on same sex marriage campaigns and then I became a field organizer on electoral campaigns around the United States. I worked in Alaska, I worked in Virginia, I worked in Florida, I worked here in NY organizing campaigns. I live in Queens, NY, I live in Ridgewood right now. I work in a Trader Joe’s, which is how I met you, but by trade I am a poet. That’s my occupation.
In your interview with Cecilia Nadal you said because your parents were artists they enabled you to waver between different groups of people. Or what’s the word you used? Vacillate?
Yes, you said you could vacillate between the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich. How is this related to growing up with parents who are artists?
My dad is Willie Birch. He is a very well known teacher and he taught a lot of teachers how to teach art in the State of NY. He was really passionate about me observing, not asking questions and learning from observation. I have a way of listening where I am also watching and trying to pick up on social cues as best I can through the course of a conversation.
My mother, Esther Louise, was a librarian, so she just surrounded me with books that she knew I was interested in. If I was interested in birds, she got me ten books on birds. She provided me with all the tools before the digital age to just enter all these worlds and learn all this information.
As far as people go, my mother is the person who took me to church and I grew up in the Baptist church. When she realized that I liked science, she put me in a science camp. She curated my friends and my relationships for most of my life. And even today, she is no longer with us, I still meet people through my mother. She was a real socialite within the arts community and especially in the black arts community, which was largely based in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn in the 70’s and 80’s. Both my parents are part of the black arts tradition that comes out of the 1960’s and the cultural revolution. And they gave me an African name, even though I am not African, I am African American, to help me be a person of the world, a citizen of the world. Those are some of the ways I think my parents shaped me.
What I hear mostly is a big openness towards everything that the world offers.
Yeah, I think it was all about opportunity. My parents, though they did not have a lot of money when I was a kid, tried to offer me as many opportunities as they could. I remember going to my first Buddhist experience. My dad had a neighbor who was Buddhist and she had invited us to come over and chant with her. In high school they took us to a Japanese tea ceremony once and I remember the experience of the matcha and the slurping at the end and how that got reinforced when I got to South Korea, because slurping is a sign of a good food. Slurping is a sign of a satisfaction. These cultural differences…I think my grandmother would have seen slurping as quite rude at the table.
To your book…where were you living in 2014?
I was a nomad for a decade. Some people call it homeless, but I was a real transcendentalist. I was in Alaska. I was working for the Alaskan Democratic Party and Senator Tom Begich’s reelection campaign, which he unfortunately lost to Senator Dan Sullivan. I was living in Anchorage and I began to hear about what was going on in St. Louis while I was working on this campaign – but it wasn’t relevant to the campaign. But it was relevant to me in what was happening.
Also in 2014 I spent a little time in Chicago. I worked for President Obama as a Digital Organizing Fellow with Organizing for Action. And it was that experience that gave me a lot of the skills that I used for the social media campaign to raise money for the book. 2014. It feels so long ago.
Then I went to L.A. – I was everywhere in 2014, I was nowhere in 2014. Then I spent a little time in L.A. and a friend of mine invited me to come to Ferguson, St. Louis. In 2014, right after it happened, Mike Meredith said: Come to St. Louis.
When did it occur to you that this was a big event and did you have a plan of what you would do, when you went there?
When I was in Alaska, the news coming out of social media was so intense. The Black Lives Matter conversation and that hashtag had become of such great prominence. I had just done all this digital organizing training, so I had never seen anything like that on the Internet, I had never seen a movement develop out of something like that.
Mike Meredith, who is in the book, said maybe you write an article, maybe you get picked up by Teen Vogue or something like that right, which would be interesting. But when I started thinking about it, I said, I really need to walk away with something from this project, I need to walk away with something. And when I started thinking about the interviews I was like, wouldn’t it be interesting to just publish the interviews? Wouldn’t the interviews on their own be enough? In this age where everything is digital and everybody is so used to watching documentaries on TV and through video – wouldn’t that be interesting to have this codex experience, where you could take the journey with me.
A big mentor for the project is the photographer Dawoud Bey, who also happens to be my godfather. Dawoud has had several projects, but probably his most famous one is the Birmingham project, where he photographed people at the 16th street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, the church where the four girls died in the bombing and two boys also were killed during that event. I had been influenced a lot by this idea of a project and this idea of the documentation of black culture and black history. When I saw the interviews together after I transcribed them, I knew that they were a book. I recognized that the book could take on different forms, but I felt like this would be a really good starting place for conversations.
When I was reading the interviews it didn’t seem like you did much editing, right?
I think the word that describes that is …verbatim…
What comes first to my mind in this project when I think of the word verbatim, is that court trials are being transcribed verbatim. In the court trial of Mike Brown’s killing, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson had the opportunity to present his version of the incident to the world verbatim, whereas Mike Brown did not have this opportunity. Is there any connection between you presenting people’s reactions, thoughts and observations on this case in this way to the world?
I think you are making a really excellent analogy to the job of a court stenographer and in some ways that was a goal of mine. I wanted to tell these people’s stories just the way they told them to me, because so much media, so much of our news is sound bites. One of the ways I got these people to trust me to be the person who carries their stories to other people was that I told them I would not edit them. I told them I would let them say whatever they say. One person was a little disappointed because she didn’t like something about her interview. But it’s not that I did anything to it. It’s just that was what she said and that’s what happened. It did not make her happy. I felt bad about that, but I felt that what she said was very relevant to her experience and important to telling Mike Brown’s story, since Mike Brown can’t tell his story.
I think it’s interesting that you mention that someone was not happy reading their speaking. They are two different modes, speaking and writing. Your interviews are a sort of hybrid. What I liked about the interviews, and what also confused me and what makes this project so very complex is that some people, not everyone, but some people, including me, speak in order to search for the right words and for the right way to say things. In some of the interviews I could feel how people were testing…
Here… right in the beginning, on page 3 – your interview with Sandy Sansevere. You ask about her immediate response about the killing of Mike Brown. She tells you that she did not really hear about it on August 9th because she was helping her son and grandson move out. And then she says: “It wasn’t till the next day that I am getting or seeing things on the news about everybody being down there— and then the riots started.”
And then, Ama, you say: “There were peaceful protests before the riots.”
And then Sansevere says: “ I wouldn’t call them protests. To me it was like a memorial and praying and just that kind of thing. You know, how people stand with candles?”
And then you say: “Like a vigil?”
And then she says: “Yeah. Like a vigil and stuff like that.”
What’s so recognizable to me about this is the slippage of timelines, the slippage of sources, the slippage of definitions that come with words, when it comes to recollections and memory. For some people, more than others, speaking is a kind of search… not necessarily for the right order of things, but rather for the right to have this memory. That was one part in this book that really touched me. What is the right way to say it and how is that related to having the right to have certain memories?
For me a really profound moment in the interview process was when I started to refer to Mike Brown’s death as a murder. Not just a killing or an unfortunate accident or a police shooting. Once I started calling it a murder it resonated with the death of so many African American men who have been murdered throughout the history of the United States. Unfortunately this is part of our legacy – we’ve been murdering people of color. Some of it has been fast – in case of Mike Brown – and sometimes the process is quite slow, like for people who are poor. Some of them are slowly being killed through economics, through food deserts, through the inability to have adequate health care. These are slow forms of murder. Mike Brown’s death is a short form of murder that happened in a blink of an eye.
This was very prominent in reading the book – as you said, how do you describe it – is it a murder, is it an incident, how do I state my position by using certain words? Some people were really clear about their use of words…
Well, Frieda Wheaton in her interview is incredibly clear with her use of language, but Frieda Wheaton is a lawyer. The politicians are very clear with their use of language, but David Whitt, David Whitt just says what David Whitt really feels and that’s why so many people gravitate towards this interview. It’s informative, but it’s also just really honest. He is very harsh and critical of the Obama administration and Attorney General Holder and he is taking some stances that I think are really relevant in today’s political climate, especially amongst a lot of black male voters, who did not feel like the Obama administration had their back, or was looking out for their best interest. Actually, just the sheer number of African American men who were killed during that eight years period… Since I worked for the president to somehow feel complicit in the death of these black men who were killed by law enforcement in particular. Walter Scott, Eric Garner…
“Evidence of things not seen” by James Baldwin. In the preface to your book you mention that your father gave you this book in your mid-twenties and later in your interview with Cecilia Nadal you say that this was a really important book for you “to understand the ongoing harassment and the continuation of oppression, particularly targeted at African American men of color…” Can you talk a bit more about the book?
It’s been many years since I have read it, but the aspect that really stood out to me is that it is similar to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” in the sense that it is written to shed light on this serial killer who is killing African American children in Atlanta. In my opinion it looked at the sociopathic nature of the murdering people of color. As a New Yorker… in New York there is tons of racism and there has been some studies that more racist propaganda comes out of NYC and the Northeast than anywhere else in the United States, and NY State has a lot of Klan in the Hudson Valley and in other portions of the State, the Ku Klux Klan is active. As a city kid I didn’t really deal…I had so many opportunities and my parents did so much to shield me from these realities and this book…it was just like in my face. I was living in New Orleans at the time and so I was really soaking in the Southern experience and I realized the fear that so many African Americans who grew up in the South were living with. The fear that so many African American children learn at a very young age, to be afraid that someone might come and get them one day and no one will know where to find them. And they will just disappear. Sometimes you are found, like Emmett Till. But imagine a different narrative where Emmett Till is not found. No one ever knows where you went, and you family just wonders if you will ever come home. And you never come home, because you are dead somewhere.
So I think that that book relates to Ferguson Interview Project because it’s about the history of being black in America and living in fear. People in the book try to excavate that fear and present it in a way, that people who read these interviews can understand and perhaps have more empathy for the black American experience.
I want to link “Evidence of Things not Seen” to your interview with David Whitt, who believes not only in the importance of seeing, watching and observing – but also in the power of documentation – and even further – in a constant surveillance of authorities that might be breaking the law.
David Whitt is a photographer and an artist, and yes, he is policing the police. There have been a lot of articles about how the smart phone has really changed the conversation around the police killing people. And that’s black and white people. I think it is about shedding light on things that aren’t readily apparent unless you are there. Most people haven’t had the experience of a cop car driving very slow behind them while they are walking. But a lot of African Americans have, you know. That’s something that can be documented and then shown to people, I think seeing is believing. Video footage, the police cameras, the body cams, the smart phone – cop watch – have really helped shed light on this injustice and have made everyone look for more accountability from law enforcement. What “Cop Watch” and people like David Whitt have done is invaluable.
This interview made me realize that people using their cell phone cameras to document the police didn’t come out of the blue. A lot of hard work went into empowering others to document the police.
In your interview with Brother Bob Williams – you ask him about his definition of “justice,” and eventually come to the conclusion that justice equals accountability.
I want to ask you about this concept of accountability in relation to justice and how it relates to these two verbs or actions “to create an account” and also “to be accounted for.”
Well, a very militant approach to justice would be retaliation. So, when I say justice equals accountability I am taking a moderate stance. What I am saying is that we want law enforcement and elected officials being held responsible for their actions. The idea of “being counted” and having a say and being seen as someone important to the grand scheme of the world – you would want law enforcement to be held responsible. That’s what’s going on right now with Breonna Taylor. They are getting ready to release the grand jury verdict and they already put that area in a state of emergency, because they might already know the outcome. But no matter the outcome, will people feel that justice has been served? Will people feel that the cops who murdered her will be held responsible?
Yes, I think “accountability” is a really important word and it was interesting to me how you linked it to this concept of justice, because justice probably means a lot of different things to a lot of different people in different contexts. Why I want to come back to the idea of “being accountable” and “being accounted for” goes back to that fear that you described earlier with the James Baldwin book. You put a quote into your introduction that said: “Never to be found again: that terror is far more vivid than the fear of death.”
Yes. To disappear… yes, because that means that no one cares. When you are invisible like The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, you leave no footprint, you leave no mark that you were here. But when someone is “accounted for” they are also taken care of. They are protected and they have enough to survive. You can feel safe. And since we lack accountability we lack the feeling of safety, because you don’t know who, or when someone will make you disappear. You can disappear in a variety of ways – you can just not be spoken about, you can not be seen, the media disappears people all the time. We see the same couple of 1000 faces over and over and over again, there is lots of people who we don’t see who are doing wonderful things, but they are not part of the conversation.
Right. This brings me back to one question I had earlier. In 2019 according to the Washington Post, 1,016 people have been shot and killed by the police in the US. That is 2.7 people a day, almost three people a day were killed by the police last year. Most of us know nothing about the circumstances of these deaths, most of us don’t know the names of the victims. Yet, we know some of their names. Mike Brown has become part of our collective memory. How do you think that has happened? What led Michael Brown’s killing to become part of our collective consciousness? What did him take out of the anonymity of the dead who do not leave many traces?
It’s about the environment where Mike Brown was living. Ferguson, that area was a powder keg that was on the verge of exploding for a long time. People were frustrated. You know, St. Louis, when I conducted the interviews, was 47th in the country for upward mobility. So, this is real, systemic, intergenerational poverty that people are trying to get out of, but they lack the resources and the opportunities. Here in New York we are having the conversations now that they were having in Ferguson in 2014 and 2015. Just because a politician looks like you, doesn’t mean that they have your best interest at heart. We are talking about that. We are talking about defunding the police. We have art on boarded up windows, because we are afraid that people are going to smash property, right? These are all things that Ferguson has already gone through. And they are coming out the other end, St. Louis is coming out the other end with electing Cori Bush to congress, I believe. Mike Brown’s mother ran for city council in Ferguson and she did not win. It wasn’t just enough for her to be the mother of Mike Brown. The people wanted something else in terms of representation.
You interviewed so many people with different agendas, observations and recollections – one thing that kept being confusing to me was something about the protests and the role that outside protesters played in Ferguson.
I looked on the website of #BLM:
“In 2014, Mike Brown was murdered by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. It was a guttural response to be with our people, our family — in support of the brave and courageous community of Ferguson and St. Louis as they were being brutalized by law enforcement, criticized by media, tear gassed, and pepper sprayed night after night. Darnell Moore and Patrisse Cullors organized a national ride during Labor Day weekend that year. We called it the Black Life Matters Ride. In 15 days, we developed a plan of action to head to the occupied territory to support our brothers and sisters. Over 600 people gathered. We made two commitments: to support the team on the ground in St. Louis, and to go back home and do the work there. We understood Ferguson was not an aberration, but in fact, a clear point of reference for what was happening to Black communities everywhere.”
In quite a few of your interviews, people perceived the protester that came in from the outside in different ways. What I want to ask in this connection is – what is solidarity? How does it manifest?
That’s difficult, because there are two big conversations happening in my opinion. One is around the role of the individual and one is around how tribalism is destroying us. So what is solidarity?
Solidarity is to find people who are open to the ideas you have and are willing to dialog with the end result of people coming together to find some sort of harmony, to find some sort of unity. Solidarity…jeeez…I mean. This is America…and I don’t even think we have solidarity. We can’t even agree on what color we should paint the White House. It’s everyone for themselves, right?! But I guess, solidarity is a team. In this way the cops are a team. And the people are a different team, but these are two teams that need to work together and not play against each other constantly, but that requires a lot of work. Solidarity requires people building bridges, working across the aisle, turning the other cheek, giving forgiveness. All these things lead to solidarity, but solidarity is not an easy thing to achieve and I don’t know if solidarity is even achievable in a democracy. I think you can have clubs that you belong to and there is solidarity in that, companionship and collaboration, but solidarity? Maybe people who are married have solidarity, but I don’t even think there is solidarity there. (laughs)
You are laughing at me Fran, but I am serious. Solidarity is a really nice idea, but I think it’s pretty hard to achieve in real life, though you can maybe reach consensus.
There is still this question I had earlier that I want to understand. It is linked to solidarity. BLM came to Ferguson (after the Mike Brown shooting). They had “600 people gathering there.” In your book some people called these protesters “paid protesters”. Can you explain the dynamics to me? How did local people react? In your interview with Cecilia Nadal, she said, she was so moved, because a lot of local Ferguson people who had been unemployed and apathetic came out to the streets and suddenly had a cause, day after day they kept protesting and demonstrating and holding vigils. On the other hand you have protesters coming in from the outside – possibly paid, possibly clashing with the police, possibly with the local people.
In their opinion they might be there as an act of solidarity. The Black Lives Matter Movement fostered more solidarity around the issue of police violence for black and brown people, and I guess the protests are manifestations of that. But there is this whole idea that the government infiltrates groups, right now we are talking about Antifa – where do these people come from? They’re are not there in solidarity, they’re actually there to create a problem for people who are protesting and trying to make their point peacefully. So there is that conflict that not everyone at the protest is there for solidarity, not everyone at the protest is there as an ally, some people are at the protest with their own nefarious agenda, and it undermines the work that the peaceful protesters are doing. And the peaceful protesters do need other people to come out and show solidarity because numbers are what counts. You know, when we talk about accountability, we talk about numbers. And the more people who come out, the more numbers we see, the more likely we get the changes we want to see made.
During the George Floyd protests this summer we saw people demanding “abolish the police” or “defund the police.” Where lies the difference in these two ideas? Is this a question of reform versus revolution?
You know the history of law enforcement in the United states goes back to slave patrols. There were hired men who were responsible for making sure that the slaves didn’t run away and stayed in line. Personally, I am progressive, I think that we need to look at how we allocate funds. I don’t think in terms of defunding the police per se, I don’t see abolishing the police as something that will ever happen, but I do think that we need to reallocate money and put more money into social services and things that are really outside of the work of protecting property, which is the police’s primary job –to protect property in all of its forms.
I am currently reading Angela Y. Davis’, Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, which is also a set of interviews. At some point in the conversation, Frank Barat, who was doing these interviews with Angela Davis in 2014 is asking her, and I want to extend this question to you: “Can there be policing and imprisonment in the US without racism?”
No. No. Absolutely not. The whole thing is built on racism, because it goes back to the slave patrol. Slaves were property, so you sacrifice one, to save many. It’s inherently racist, the entire structure of our law enforcement is based on racism, based on racial profiling and targeting certain communities. There is a great documentary on PBS called “Hacking the Mind” about implicit bias. Humans are hard wired to say: this person – yes, this person – no, based on very little information. And the only way we can combat that is by becoming self aware. And being self aware is actually a very difficult thing – you have to learn critical thinking skills, yet unfortunately the United States is very anti-intellectual right now. That’s the class divide between the educated and the people who, for whatever reason, did not develop their minds in the same way. So yes, I don’t think we can restructure it, unless we restructure ourselves.
I think that goes beyond defunding….
No, it has nothing to do with how much money the police have. Do the police need tanks? Like Sergeant Brian Schellman asked in his interview: What do you need? Do you need scud missiles? No, the police don’t need those tools, and in fact more and more crime is done on the Internet and cyber-policing is probably going to be much more important in the future. Crime happens everywhere and the police’s job is to fight crime and that includes white collar crime, that includes any illegal activity. I see creating more funds for social workers, for education as a step into the right direction. I think we need to value teachers more, we need to pay teachers as much as we pay cops. That’s a form of accountability too.
How did you come to self-publish this book? Did you look for a publisher – or what was the process of that?
When I was 25, almost 20 years ago, I self-published my first book. As a poet, as a New Yorker, as a writer I have been incredibly influenced by Walt Whitman and “Leaves of Grass” which started out being self-published. After grad school I self-published a second book. I did not do a lot of work reaching out to publishers, my goal was to get this information into the hands of people as quickly as possible. Economically, self-publishing has a lot of benefits for a small start up business like myself. I just had total control over the product. I have no desire to sculpt it more than I already sculpted it. I just really want people to get the information, find the voices that resonate with them, identify the voices that don’t resonate with you and figure out why! What is it about this person that makes you uncomfortable? That to me seemed more important to me. And getting it into the hands of students seemed really important to me, especially undergrads, where source material can be hard to come by. Especially in our digital age, to be able to read a full-length interview and really get a portrait of someone as a human being, that is rare in journalism. And this book is journalistic, so it’s memoir, it’s biography and it was designed to be as cheap, but also as accessible as possible.
I love that about the book, the plurality of voices in addition to not being guided by anyone. To figure it all out by myself was a beautiful challenge, what are the issues I tend to disagree or agree with and why? I was so happy, for example to hear Cecilia Nadal speaking about her goal of bringing diverse people together in acceptance and understanding, people standing together in solidarity. So yes, it was some work to take all the interviews in and position myself by listening to what people say without being distracted or informed or guided or biased by their appearance, and their body language for example, by their way of pronouncing the words, etc.
Only when I interviewed the African American police officer D. did I ask any of them what their race was, and that is intentional. If you can’t figure it out from what they are saying, then maybe race is not important in this context.
And I am not a reliable narrator for the book and I admit that, because I am on the journey with you. I learned things along the way, and I made mistakes and I am not perfect in the book and that is also something that I kept, and that is intentional. I could have edited my own stuff, but I didn’t edit myself, I let myself have flaws. As a writer I am interested in unreliable narrators, but in life we are constantly dealing with unreliable narrators that consider themselves experts. One of the things I took away from the experience was: I am not an expert. I am not an expert on Mike Brown. I am not an expert on Ferguson. But I am someone who has an experience and I am someone who spent some time with people who are experts on Ferguson and they are experts on Mike Brown, cause they lived it. And real life experience, I think, is the most important part of the book.
Thank you Ama.
Franziska Lamprecht is an artist who started writing as an extension of the long-term process based works, she produces together with her husband Hajoe Moderegger under the name eteam, a two people collaboration who uses video, performance and writing to articulate encounters at the edges of diverging cultural, technical and aesthetical universes. Tripping over earthly planes they trigger transactions between its occupants and establish wireless connections. Their narratives have screened internationally in video- and film festivals, they lectured in universities, presented in art galleries and museums and performed in the desert, on fields, in caves and on mountaintops, in ships, black box theaters and horse-drawn wagons.
They could not have done this without the generous support of Creative Capital and The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Art in General, NYSCA, NYFA, Rhizome, CLUI, Taipei Artist Village, Eyebeam, Smack Mellon, Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, the City College of New York and the Hong Kong Baptist University, among many others. Their novel Grabeland was published with Nightboat Books in February 2020.