I was in St. Louis over the weekend for the “Ferguson October” event, and after the march and the subsequent rally, I was looking for a place to eat. That’s when some guy rushed up to me and handed me a booklet that I immediately regretted taking. The 75-page publication had all the trappings of a religious tract, complete with a To/From label on the cover.
But it wasn’t until Tuesday, when I was cleaning out my backpack and preparing to throw the thing away, that I realized it wasn’t a plea to accept Christ. First of all, it had a title that seemed to link it directly to Ferguson: “The ‘Stop the Killing’ Initiative Project Presents: The Way to Happiness: A Common Sense Guide to Better Living.”
Secondly, it wasn’t even Christian. Far from it. The text—a list of principles such as “Do not be promiscuous” and “Do not steal”—was authored by none other than L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.
It didn’t take me long to figure out the story behind this, because St. Louis Public Radio did a great report on it last week. Evidently I wasn’t the only journalist who had a WTF moment after being handed “The Way to Happiness” at a protest against racism.
So, the story goes, the “Stop the Killing” initiative is a pet project of the Nation of Islam launched three years before Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer on August 9. In fact, far from squaring with the message of Ferguson October, “Stop the Killing” is an imperative directed at the community, not at a racist criminal justice system. It puts the burden of change on the residents of poor neighborhoods, not the economic system that put them there or the police that often terrorize them in their own streets.
Kevin Bryant, the campaign’s marketing director, told St. Louis Public Radio that sales of their merchandise sky-rocketted when Brown’s murder mobilized the community:
It was just dumb luck. …Using the symbol of the hand with the heart, it just stopped you and grabbed your attention. Now it applies to the hands-up thing and that’s just cosmic coincidence.
The depoliticized and non-denominational message of “Stop the Killing” attracted the attention of the Church of Scientology. Was this dumb luck, too? My instinct was that the churches of Tom Cruise and Malcom X would have been unlikely allies in a movement against violence, but my instinct was wrong. Louis Farrakhan, I found out, has been trying to merge the two churches since 2010, urging his followers to become certified “auditors” through Scientologist training.
It might seem like just another whacky 6-degrees-of-separation story, but it’s not. There are real, political stakes in the relationship between the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology. The fact is that the Nation of Islam has asserted itself as one of the most conservatives voices in the movement that developed in Ferguson. Far from what one would expect from the church that gave Malcolm his X, the Nation has been consistently calling for “peaceful” protest in Ferguson, which often means helping law enforcement stifle the energy of demonstrations with curfews and other restrictions.
It’s a message that isn’t jibing with the young protesters who don’t want to see their movement dead-end in some kind of innocuous, friendly debate between the white establishment and the city’s thousands of disenfranchised black residents.
There are two ideologies clashing in Ferguson. You could feel it on Saturday. Representatives of established activist groups—many of them religious—stood on stage and talked about the importance of staying peaceful, of solving the problem by loving your neighbor, etc., etc. It’s the liberal ideology of talking it out like gentlemen, coming to an understanding with your oppressor.
But there was a second ideology represented, and the tension was palpable. Especially when one of the speakers kept trying to get the whole crowd to repeat after him “Peaceful protest!” as if he was admonishing us for having sinful thoughts. But part of the crowd wouldn’t repeat it, and looked around at each other like Who’s this guy?
This other group that refused the speaker’s repeat-after-me is the group that made Ferguson happen. Its the network of neighbors that transformed “Ferguson” from the name of a suburb into into the name of a historical event. As unfortunate as property damage and violence is, there would be no #Ferguson without the riots. Sometimes you have to occupy, break a few rules, take the streets. Challenge power, don’t appeal to it’s nice side. It’s the gut feeling that one more MLK-Day march isn’t going to get the racist infrastructure of America to listen.
That’s not a message that the Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology are interested in. The churches’ collaborative pamphlet “The Way to Happiness” is so introverted as to be apolitical. One thing that St. Louis Public Radio got wrong was it’s claim that the pamphlet’s “content is rather non-controversial, comprising 21 generally accepted principles such as ‘be temperate’.” In the context of Ferguson, where yet another black teenager was killed by a white cop in the week leading up to the latest march, to call for personal responsibility is incredibly controversial. Finally, the system has been identified as the culprit in the tragedy of racism—not rap music, not baggy pants, not a culture of poverty. And to flip it all back on black people, to make it their responsibility to improve their way out of racism, is antagonistic to the principles of the movement.
So I ended up trashing the pamphlet after all.