It’s been two years since since Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri. Caught on camera, the murder sparked weeks of demonstrations and protests, to which police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. It garnered national attention and made Black Lives Matter a household hashtag.
Tara Tee is a Black woman from St. Louis. At the time, she was working as a project manager at a corporate tech job, but she knew she couldn’t sit back and watch.
“We’d be out in the streets until four or five in the morning. Then I would go home and try to sleep for a couple of hours and then get up at eight in time for work,” Tee recalls.
She said she noticed children as young as 10 were joining in on the protests, yelling and asking for answers, and she realized that though they wanted to be involved, the community lacked the resources to educate and organize them. So she and a group of other engaged community members and activists founded Hands Up United, a grassroots organization dedicated to “fulfilling the political void that remains from the historical archives of the Black Power Movement.”
Get the facts delivered to your inbox.
Want our news sent to you every week?
Tee currently serves as the director of the organization, where she puts a lot of her efforts into its Tech Institute, which teaches coding to 16-to-30-year-olds in the Ferguson/Greater St. Louis area. Hands Up United also hosts Freedom Flicks, a free social justice film series; Books and Breakfasts; and the People’s Pantry. After the organization’s efforts to get people voting in local elections, St. Louis elected its first Black circuit attorney. Tee says her day-to-day is always different, sometimes meeting with community leaders, or running the organization’s programs and events, but that her main objective is always to help rebuild her community, which she says has been broken by systemic racism.
Rewire: How did you get involved with activism? And how did Hands Up United get started?
Tara Tee: I don’t necessarily consider myself an activist. I just consider myself a person who understands there are systems working against Black folks in America. I decided to do something about it, which I think most people should do in some way or another.
I went outside once I heard that the police in Ferguson had murdered someone and left his body out in the street for four-and-a-half hours, and all of the horrors that followed, including his mother not being able to approach the body, dogs being called into the neighborhood, dogs being allowed to urinate on his memorial. Just beyond the murder, everything that followed stripped someone’s humanity. It stripped humanity from Mike Brown, from his parents, and from the community.
As a Black woman in St. Louis, there’s no way that I could have not gone out to see, support, talk to, and love on people, and to let the state know that this is not OK. I just felt like it was something I had to do and there were many other people who felt the same way.
The birth of Hands Up United I would say was pretty organic, and it was a situation where it was like building the car while you’re driving it. We were out and doing things and making moves but we were just out because that’s what we felt like we needed to do. It took a while but we realized we needed to create programs to bring political education to the community.
We started thinking about, what does it look like to put something behind the nighttime action and being out in the street? What does it look like to create something that is sustainable, that is going to make a greater impact? Not that being in the street doesn’t make an impact. You and I wouldn’t be talking right now if we had not taken to the streets. You would not know Mike Brown’s name if we had not taken to the street. We have multi-level problems and we need to use every tool that we have to try to dismantle these things that aren’t working for us.
Rewire: What is Hands Up United’s mission?
TT: We’re basically just striving for the liberation of Black and brown people through education, art, advocacy, and agriculture. These are all things that are very important to us because they are all the things that are tied to these systems that are harming our communities.
Everything that we do is going to have a political education component to it, and it’s going to have an art component to it. We’re just trying to build community again. There are systems in place that are attacking our communities. A lot of the things we’re doing is just rebuilding and creating plans to sustain, so that whatever this gap is doesn’t occur again. So that, for example, the next time our neighborhoods are flooded with drugs the same things don’t occur. We ask kids to support Black businesses so that we can have a Black Wall Street, but they’re not teaching that history in school. So you’re asking someone to fathom something that they’ve never seen or heard about. So it’s important for us to create spaces and share knowledge that we have about things that are going on.
Rewire: It’s clear that Hands Up United deals mainly within the community. Are you affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives, and do you think the work that’s being done nationally is helping on the ground?
TT: We support them, obviously, because our missions are similar. We’ve just picked up the fight of our ancestors. These are some of the same things that we’ve been fighting for for many, many years at this point. If you review their platform, anybody that’s for community would be for these things. It’s very similar to the ten-point platform that the Black Panthers had. These are basic rights that people shouldn’t be having to draw attention to, or be asking for. We shouldn’t have to demand basic human rights.
We are aligned with a lot of the initiatives of the Movement for Black Lives. We work with and know a lot of those folks and organizations that do very good work. We’ve worked closely with some of them, and we are in community with them for sure. If any of them call and need anything we’re coming.
But I also don’t like the whole labeling of things because it creates false narratives and problems. As far as the media is concerned, any person who is Black and has ever attended a protest is Black Lives Matter, or if they’re not they’re the Movement for Black Lives. So my stance and the stance of my organization is that we are for and with Black people, so whoever is trying to push the ball forward for Black people, that’s who we’re with.
Rewire: As we approach the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder, what, if anything, would you say has changed?
TT: I would say nationally there’s more awareness regarding situations that are plaguing us, and these situations run the gamut from police brutality, to excessive lead in water, to food deserts, to inferior education systems.
We get the information relatively quickly when something occurs. Before, people affected were like, I don’t know if I should share this. I don’t know if anyone cares. Now people don’t hesitate to share these things, and spread this information.
So awareness, both nationally and locally, is increased. But on the ground, there’s still very much racial profiling, there’s still predatory policing, there’s still ticketing and fines aggressively directed toward poor people. We’re still seeing problems with voter rights. And so when I look at what has honestly changed—not much.
Rewire: How do you think the media is doing covering what’s happened in Ferguson, and with other instances of police brutality against Black people?
TT: On a national level, I feel like it’s, for the most part, just propaganda. And then on the local level, for the most part, journalism here isn’t even journalism. There’s no investigative reporting. And so many of the stories start or end with “according to police,” or “the police said,” and it’s just like, well are you just sitting in the newsroom waiting for the police to fax over the story that you should print?
Ida B. Wells said the people committing the murders are the ones writing the reports. So it’s important to understand that the majority of the news that we are getting from the mainstream is generally not the real news.
We need nationwide media literacy. Why do [outlets] always put up a mugshot of the victim and not the cop or vigilante that shot them? It’s just not good reporting that is happening. There are some people who are doing really good work, but on the mass scale there’s just not good reporting happening.
Editor’s note: The above conversation is a lightly edited transcript of an interview between Rewire and Tara Tee ahead of the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing. Hear more from Tee via SoundCloud here.