Message From The Ferguson Grassroots, 5 Years After Michael Brown’s Death
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
When Darren Wilson, a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, fatally shot Black 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. on August 9, 2014, he couldn’t have predicted that his actions would spark a major uprising. After all, it’s difficult to pinpoint why one racialized police killing leads to sustained protest, militarized police response, national news coverage, institutional change and a fundamental shift in the political narrative while another eventually fades into the background.
What we do know is that in the early days of the uprising, there was a core of traumatized local people using social media to show the world what was happening in their neighborhood, minute by minute. In real time they documented how authorities left a popular young man’s bleeding corpse on Canfield Drive for four hours. They broadcast how a police officer allowed their dog to urinate on the makeshift memorial that Brown’s mother and neighbors created and how a police vehicle later crushed the marker. Their video and photos of the grisly scene reached millions of people around the world via posts on Twitter.
We also know that riot police assembled to quell the looting and burning of businesses and vehicles on the night of August 10 continued to use the same tools, such as tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, on peaceful protesters. The militarized response that many Americans believed was reserved for foreign warfare drew the attention of major national news media. As reporters descended on this small, poor St. Louis suburb, it was clear that the slaying of Mike Brown was going to be a turning point in the national discourse on policing, race and the continuing crises facing Black America.
The uprising, which some local activists dubbed the Mike Brown Rebellion, contributed to the growth of the national Movement for Black Lives. It drove journalists to examine how suburbs like Ferguson were funding their operations by over-policing and disproportionately fining poor Black people. The Obama-era Department of Justice investigated the case and issued a consent decree to reform police practices and police worn body cameras became the rage.
Perhaps more importantly, the Ferguson Movement had major impact where it started. To make sense of the movement, we talked to key activists and organizers from the Ferguson frontlines. Here they reflect on the early days of the movement, lessons learned and where they are five years later.*
Ashley Yates, 34, local organizer and co-founder of Millennial Activists United
We were facing an occupation right from the start. We formed our own community units to make sure that folks were eating, safe on the ground and getting what they needed. By September, we were getting word that people from all over [the country] wanted to support the work we were doing. So, our core group of four people agreed that we needed to organize something more cohesive and that it needed to be centered on local people.
Someone suggested naming our group “Millennial Activists United.” I actually hate the word “millennial,” so I was kind of against it. But then we looked at the acronym, which was- M-A-U. Somebody did a little political education in the moment about the Mau Mau movement and folks really vibed with that. It fit the attitude that people needed to have to stand up against the police brutality that we were seeing.
A lot of us suffered serious personal repercussions. My personal life was completely in upheaval as the days and months wore on. I quit my job and ultimately left Ferguson. Living in a hyper-segregated city, doing racial liberation work made my home a place of a lot of trauma. I would fly out for an event or to do some media and then I would come back home to streets that had this extra layer on top of them. Rather than everyday places, they became the sites where the police beat on someone or arrested them. I felt like I was in constant danger. They turned my hometown into one big trigger.
We achieved a lot, but there’s still so much to go. We got the momentum on our side to where we got a circuit attorney that is decarceral and who is really doing everything she can to hold the cops accountable. We were able to eventually oust Bob McCulloch, the 20-year district attorney of St. Louis County. We got the police chief out of there. The circuit clerk, who was writing all the warrants and was found to be sending racist emails, was fired. In Ferguson, there was one Black council member when Mike Brown was murdered. This past election, we were able to elect a local organizer, a Black mother named Fran Griffin who has gone from being literally hog-tied in Ferguson to a becoming a Ferguson councilwoman. The city will never be the same for better or for worse. I choose to look at the better.
T-Dubb-O, 29, hip hop artist and co-founder of HandsUpUnited, a direct-service community group with chapters in 38 cities
My involvement in [the Ferguson] moment was a gift and a curse. During Ferguson, I sacrificed a lot. People like me will never be able to get a regular job. There is constant police harassment, so we have to move very differently now. Even in music, people are hesitant to do business with me because of my involvement with [this] Black power movement.
But, before August 9, 2014, I was a hip-hop artist with a couple of deals on the table. I was battle rapping and making money underground. I had always wanted to battle against oppression in our city, but I honestly didn’t know what to do.
When we went out to protest in Ferguson, I saw how it was gangsta’ single moms, drug dealers and abusers, students and children. We also saw these national organizations flying into our city and giving local people talking points on what to say about their experiences. Out of that moment we created HandsUpUnited. A couple of us already knew each other before—like [the late] Darren Seals and me. We all cliqued up that August and launched the first Books and Breakfast program in the fall.
HandsUpUnited gave us something to actually hope for. We made it cool to care about something meaningful. Rather than reacting when somebody is already dead and hash-tagged, our programs stop the variables that create the path for that person to be a hashtag. What keeps me hopeful are my children. I don’t want them growing up dealing with the same shit that I dealt with. So I fight every day for liberation. And, even if we don’t get to the goal that we want to get to in my lifetime, at least we fought the next generation.
Bruce Franks, 34, hip hop artist, former state representative for the 78th District who was elected in a special election in 2016 and reelected in 2018
August 9, 2014 was my son’s first birthday. I was actually blowing up balloons for his birthday party. I looked on social media and I saw that my homie Tef Poe had posted a picture of Mike Brown’s stepfather holding a cardboard sign that said, “Ferguson police just killed my son.”
When Michael Brown was murdered, I went from being a battle rapper to becoming an activist and protester. It was a combination of what I saw out there during the protests and what we were fighting for that made me run for office. We can march all day, shut highways down and do whatever it is that make our voices heard. But we need somebody on the inside who is going to keep the integrity intact and bring tangible results back to the community.
A lot of young folks from Ferguson ran for office. A couple of us won. A couple of us got engaged in other ways—started organizations, worked on campaigns, became campaign managers and field directors. So the result of that moment was a political revolution.
Still, I resigned from office this year. I lost my best friend last year. I lost my godson. I dealt with some heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy depression, even to the point of considering suicide. I needed to take a step back and get myself together because I got five kids and I need to be here for them.
Running for office and being a beacon of hope is fantastic. But what it took me to get here was a young man in the middle of the street that shouldn’t have been there. If I could give all of it up to bring that young man back, I would.
Montague Simmons, 45, former chair of the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) and member of the Movement for Black Lives committee that crated the Vision for Black Lives policy platform
I didn’t realize that the nation and the world was paying attention to Ferguson until the week after [Brown was killed.] Many of us had been together day in and day out. At some point, my job required me to leave town for a few days. I honestly didn’t want to leave because we had stuff in motion. But I’m at this meeting and then I’m seeing Ferguson on CNN. I don’t have cable at home. I didn’t realize how heavily national news had picked us up.
The most poignant moment I can think of was watching all of the coordinated national actions that happened in the wake of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. Watching what was happening in New York, L.A., Chicago and the Bay [Area]was inspiring as were all these people who showed up on the ground in Ferguson. I remember meeting Alicia Garza in the days leading up to Ferguson October. Just knowing that all of it was rooted in personal relationships gave me inspiration.
My hope in this moment is that even as we wrestle with different movement faces folks are beginning to understand what it is to own and be able to build dual democracy. Folks must be moved at the ballot box and then use [their power] to ensure that we control our own space outside our representative government. That’s the only way that we’re actually protect ourselves. But this is going to take time. And it’s hard because in the meantime we’re going to see more bodies drop.
Keith Rose, 29, coordinator of the Legal Observers Program at the St. Louis chapter of The National Lawyers Guild
The [Mike Brown Rebellion] wasn’t my first time being arrested at a protest. I have been a queer rights activist since I was a teenager and in 2011 I joined the Occupy movement in St. Louis. In May of 2012 me and a group of friends were arrested at a protest against police brutality St. Louis police roughed us up pretty bad. Those same cops are still out there roughing up protestors in St. Louis City whenever people go out to protest. Some of them have been promoted.
I do believe that the Ferguson protests have brought some change in the municipal courts that have had tremendous impacts on people’s lives. The fact that fewer people have warrants for their arrest has not only given them peace of mind, but has also taken away some of power from local police departments. Those departments had been running with zero accountability for decades and using poor and Black people as their personal piggy bank to fund government projects and development in White and affluent areas. There is now more oversight and more adherence to the constitutional protections of people’s rights. The violations haven’t stopped, but taxation by citation has diminished.
Another important outcome has been in the area of criminal cases coming out of Ferguson. We had many people’s fines and court costs paid for. We still have to be cautious about claiming victory too early just because fines were paid. Although the National Lawyers Guild recently resolved the last remaining cases from the 2014 protests, some of those cases had lingered on for four or five years. We have to remember that there are long-term consequences to these protests.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it takes if we want to win. And what comes to mind are the many different tools that came together: protests in the streets, organizers in offices, foundations giving grants, strong Black leadership with White people bringing skills they had but staying to the back or side and only stepping up when called upon. All that came together and really made this movement possible. What Ferguson did for me and for many White people is to open our eyes to how society could work differently. I think that’s really important.
Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, 30, co-founder of The Ferguson Protester Newsletter, Campaign Zero co-founder, student at Washington University, St. Louis.
We launched The Ferguson Protester Newsletter within the first few weeks after August 9, 2014. We put it out every day, reporting on the situation on the ground so the national and international community could keep up with what was happening. We kept it going for three or four months—until our platform got big enough to where we could just use our Twitter and Facebook profiles to share the news. This continued the entire time we were out there. By 2016, we launched Campaign Zero.
Before I joined the protests in Ferguson, I was a super regular person working at the USDA. My mother passed away in January 2014, and two weeks later Stephon Averyhart, one of my best friends, was killed by the police in St Louis. He was 28 years old.
I was pretty depressed and my only job was trying to stay alive. In July, I started coming back around. My younger sister was my motivation; she was about to be a freshman in high school and I realized that this little Black girl no longer had her mom. I became committed to trying to be more present for my sister. Shortly after that decision, Michael Brown was killed. I saw standing up for Mike Brown as an opportunity to do something on behalf of Stephon, too.
As I reflect on the fifth anniversary of our protest efforts, three things come to mind:
First, I really do feel like there’s a mental health crisis among Ferguson protesters and a lot of it is not seen. It’s pretty easy to forget about those suffering because most of the folks who were out there protesting aren’t as well-known as those of us who became most nationally celebrated and embraced. I’m watching people from my hometown suffer because they’re fighting an inner battle in their mind. There isn’t a fund or anything like that for people to draw from in order to get the help that they need. But there should be one.
Second, I want to lift up the vision of my mentor, Professor Vernon Mitchell. While we were out protesting, we met him and a few Washington University professors. None of them were trying to be known; they were just there like other people who saw the injustice of it all. They also recognized a lot of talent among the young protesters. The next step in their minds was, “How do we get these folks who are brilliant in the streets to make their next move, so they won’t be overlooked in history?” For them, the difference between the unknown social justice fighters and people like Angela Davis was education. So a few of them got together and in 2016 created a pathway for some of us to be enrolled in Washington University to pursue our undergraduate graduate degrees at no charge. It’s not charity—it’s more like payment for our service. So far, there are five of us in the program and several graduated this year. Now, we are trying to identify more structured funding to keep the program going.
And finally, one of the most difficult things I grapple with is the sense of survivor’s guilt I feel around what happened to Josh Williams, who was arrested and imprisoned for arson. Missouri wanted to make an example out of one of us, and he was one of the youngest. He got eight years in prison and I just hate the idea of him growing up in jail. I hope that the national activist community that rallied around the justice movement for Mike Brown five years ago will put more pressure on correcting the injustice done to him.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, 56, senior pastor of Christ The King United Church in Florissant, Missouri
When I was installed as pastor, my church had only 15 members. One of the ways we grew its membership was instrumental to what got me involved in the Ferguson uprising. It began with us realizing that the church had to become a neighbor again. For instance, we were having problems with gun violence in the city and a lot of young people were dying. Most of the time, they would not have an affiliation with a church. We began to allow people to use our space for funerals for no fee.
In August 2013, a 21-year-old Black woman was gunned down in a drive-by and her grandmother asked if she could they have the funeral at the church. Our church seats 500 people and it was standing room only. There was a young lady at this funeral named Sierra. The girl who died was one of her best friends. It turned out that Sierra lived in Canfield Green Apartments.
On the morning of August 9, 2014, Sierra took her two children out for breakfast. When she came back, she couldn’t get into her complex. The police had blocked it off. Crowds were starting to gather so she parked outside of the complex and walked in with her two children, who were 7 and 4 at the time. When they walked up on the body of Michael Brown in the street they started crying, and screaming, “Who hurt Mike-Mike?” Sierra called me and said she needed me to come to Canfield. That’s how I got involved in the Ferguson protest.
One takeaway for me when I reflect on the state-sanctioned murder of Michael Brown is about showing up in people’s lives. You don’t show up at the frontline of the crisis. You show up in life and life happens. I believe that in that moment God prepared me to step into the gap in the public witness of the church.
It was the young people who led the movement. But it changed me in profound ways. It showed me how off kilter the church had become. There were good things and there were bad things that happened, but the best thing that happened is that the young people woke up not just St. Louis, but they woke up the world.