Christian rapper Thi'sl, a St. Louis, Missouri, native, knows firsthand about the racial tensions that have plagued his city for decades. It is that same dark cloud of racial unrest that overshadows the recent police killing of an 18-year-old black man in nearby Ferguson. Calling for justice while trumpeting a peaceful response, Thi'sl also says it is time for the church to step up and face the fact that U.S. Christianity has its own festering racial wounds that have long needed healing.
After the fatal shooting of an unarmed Michael Brown by a police officer on Saturday, Aug. 9, Ferguson's African-American community immediately erupted in furor over what many viewed as another callous killing of an unarmed black man by law enforcement. While police officials say Brown physically assaulted the officer, identified as Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the force, eyewitnesses claim the 18-year-old had his hands in the air when he was shot several times. Officials also revealed on Friday, that Brown allegedly was involved in a theft at a nearby convenience store, just minutes before the deadly encounter with Wilson.
In addition to daily vigils and protests — briefly disrupted by looting and an ensuing militarized police response, some frustrated citizens have launched petitions calling for federal reform of police tactics, staged protests in cities across the nation, and voiced their sadness and confusion over the case online. Thi'sl also organized a town hall-styled event at a local church to provide Ferguson youth the space to air their grievances.
Thi'sl, born Travis Tyler, shared his perspective on the tumult and tension in Ferguson with The Christian Post on Wednesday, Aug. 13 via Skype. The edited transcript of his interview is below, followed by a CP Newsroom video.
CP: Describe Ferguson. What kind of city is it?
Thi'sl: Ferguson is...when you live in St. Louis, we consider everything St. Louis. In our brains, it's not too often that we differentiate Ferguson or Dellwood or any of those county municipalities. In St. Louis, especially for the urban black community, but even for some Caucasians, the county areas like Ferguson and Dellwood are always been known to have stricter police. Those are the areas when you go in, if you don't have your seat belt on, you put on your seat belt, you start driving slow, all of that. You make sure everything is legit, which should be the case anyway, but those are the areas that you go to, you make sure everything is OK because the law is usually a little stricter.
In Ferguson in general, it's one of those places like most cities and inner cities now with gentrification and people separation. You've got one part of Ferguson on the west side has a farmer's market, nice little set-ups downtown, nice little things going on. But when you cross over to the other side of Ferguson, it's a whole 'nother story. That's the part where [there is] more Section 8, low income, like families at apartment complexes and things of that nature. It usually tends to be the area on that side that gets more police patrolling.
CP: Ferguson at one point in its history, was 99 percent white. Currently, it is predominantly black (67 percent). But the government is led overwhelmingly by white residents, as has been widely reported.
Thi'sl: I found [it] fascinating when I just learned that myself because when you go to the part of Dellwood that is on the side where the African Americans live, that is the bulk of people out there. But we all know that the government officials, even the chief of police, is voted in. So traditionally, especially young African Americans, we're not known to vote. So when it's time to go vote, the people voting are gonna vote people into office.
People that know me and know about me, I'm a Christian, I believe in Jesus, I live my life based on the Bible. I believe that there's no Greek nor Jew, bond nor free, male or female, we're all one in Christ Jesus. But also at the end of the day, we have to understand that this is a human being situation and everyone involved is not Christian. When you have those kind of situations [where] police are overworked, some of them feel like they're underpaid, and crime is overdone in areas like that, you're gonna have this kind of tension. When you have a predominantly-white police force — when I say predominantly, I think there are only like three African-American police officers on staff (out of 53) … When you have this kind of situation and that kind of demographic with the police and the people, it only heightens the racial tension.
CP: When we're seeing these images, especially to outsiders, the scenes look a little frightening. What does it look like to you when you're out?
Thi'sl: The night before the riot started ... I have to commend the police officers, because on Sunday night, they stood there, they took verbal abuse. They took all kinds of stuff, you know. But they held the line, they didn't move, and they didn't let their emotion get the best out of them and jump and do nothing. When the rioting first started and the looting of stores, the police actually stood there and watched it. They saw the people going, kicking windows in, but they couldn't move. For whatever reason they couldn't move, they didn't move. So they stood there and watched a lot of it when it started. But I commend them that night, because that was the wildest night and when it first started, they just stood their ground and didn't get all riled up.
Yesterday (Tuesday, Aug. 12) was a different story. I think now that people are getting excited — I don't know any Ferguson police and I haven't talked to any of them out there. I can only imagine you being up all these hours, and you're frustrated and you're tired, you're emotions going. It starts to become personal because the person yelling in your face isn't saying something about people in general; he's talking directly to you. He's calling you a coward, he's calling whatever name that he can call you. So it starts to become personal.
I kinda saw a different thing in some of the police that were out there. They were faster, this time they responded faster … They had the machine guns out and they had the [plastic] handcuffs. At one point, I even saw one officer, when a lady was talking, smirk and laugh at her. Of course it made her even madder. … So those little things were enticing the people on ...
But you also got to think about St. Louis people. You're dealing with a group of young people that aren't afraid. You're dealing with a group of people that aren't afraid of anything because the environment we grew up in, guns are not abnormal. This isn't the first they've been in front of a gun. They've been in front of guns hundreds of times. They've been shot at hundreds of times. Or they've been shot or people they know have been killed. The threat of violence doesn't [discourage] them. They've been bred their whole life to die for something they feel is much less than this cause. So now that they feel they have a cause that's really valid they're not afraid when the police show up with guns and jump out with force. It actually entices them more. And this time, I don't think the police considered that.
CP: What about the peaceful protests and people gathering for prayer? Aren't churches and ministers getting involved?
Thi'sl: I'm gonna be honest...I haven't seen a lot of churches or ministers gathering out in the streets for prayer. Just being honest. Yesterday (Aug. 12), I was going around to the vigil that they had [where] Al Sharpton was at, so Mike Brown, Sr., the father of Mike Brown, Jr., the young man that got killed, his dad is a friend of mine. I grew up with him my whole life. … So we were going over to the vigil to support him, but I was going through at the same time to drop off waters that we had bought to give to the peaceful protesters. I want people to know that when I'm out there, I'm supporting the peaceful protesters. I'm supporting the people that are talking loud but not being violent, that are following the rules. …
I was going out and giving waters out to different peaceful peoples at different spots, and those peaceful protesters have been black and white people. … We made it to one spot, so by the time we made it there [at the vigil] the police swooped up and they formed a line and so we kinda got stuck there. When we got stuck there, I just felt my job was to keep peace. But in the process of doing it, I found myself and Alderman Antonio French, we were one of two or three people that were actually trying to keep the people out the street, keep them calm, telling them if (they're) gonna protest do it the right way. At one point I tweeted and I said man, this is before I connect with Antonio French at the other end of the line, "I'm out here by myself. Where is everybody at?"
So the people that you see on the protest lines consistently, especially in the West Florissant, it's not church leaders, it's not ministers and it's not people out there praying. When I've seen the church ministers and the church leaders and community leaders, they're always inside of a building, talking inside of a building, and the kids are outside of the building. Even … when Al Sharpton came, we marched probably 1,000 people off of West Florissant (Avenue) and to the church where Al Sharpton was at so the violence wouldn't escalate with the police. When we marched them around, we took them all into the church. They knew they were outside, but nobody came out to talk to them. The people that came out to talk to them, they weren't the Christian leaders and they weren't people that were trying to encourage them to something positive. …
That's one of the reasons that I wanted to see, and want to see more Christian leaders out there, but for whatever reasons that they're not showing up and they're not out there, I don't know. When the looting and the rioting started, I was out there the whole time. But there was nothing I could do. Once you stop one person, the rest of them are going through.
CP: For you, as a black man in America who looks at the world through your Christian identity, what's your message for those observing and involved in the Ferguson case?
Thi'sl: As a black man that looks [at] the world through my Christian identity, I still have to be honest with myself and say that racism is still a real problem for us, even inside of Christianity, on the African-American side and on the white side. I would say, especially for the Christians, we need to be more willing to have open dialogue and talk about this stuff amongst each other. We just keep brushing it under the rug and acting like it don't exist.
I was out of town at a church, at a church, I was at a church out of town and a woman locked her keys in her car and she came to me and said, "Hey, my keys are locked in the car. I know you know how to get them out of there." So this is in the church. We need to talk about this stuff, we need to address it inside of the church. We also need to be praying that inside of the church that there would be leaders who would be raised up who would be accessible in these situations.
You don't have to be on the frontline marching, you don't have to be out taking pictures. I'm not out there doing none of that. I'm behind the scenes and I'm talking to people. I'm keeping them peaceful and trying to keep them out of trouble. I just keep ending up being on the frontline of it in pictures and everything, but that's not where I'm at when I'm out there.
I would say pray that in this situation peace prevails, that love prevails, that people would see the love of Jesus through the people that are out there actively serving. I also want to say let justice be served. … It's a sensitive situation, but right now it's not the time for the church to be arguing amongst each other about what's right and how white people feel privileged or black people feeling like they're being always the victim. I've seen those kinds of arguments online.
Now is the time to say we need to be praying for peace, we need to be an example of what racial peace looks like. But before we can do that as a church, we need to really sit back and have dialogue amongst ourselves and deal with the silent racism that exists inside of the church.