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Frontline activism boosts Antonio French's profile

Frontline activism boosts Antonio French's profile


FERGUSON • Just after dark Wednesday night, Antonio French posted a video to the Internet.

The St. Louis alderman was inside his car, at the protests here. White light filled the windshield. A line of police stood outside the door. “Happening now in #Ferguson,” he wrote on Twitter.

French’s followers on the social media site — about 30,000 then subscribed to his feed — applauded the post. “this is awesome,” wrote one. “they gonna find you bro.”

It was French’s 220th posting of the day, and one of hundreds from him this week.

Then his feed went silent. For 15 hours.

Finally, just after noon on Thursday, he posted again: “After a night in the #Ferguson jail, I’m free. Thank you for all the support.”

And, overnight, his Twitter followers doubled, to more than 60,000.

There have been few more visible figures during this week of protests and riots — on the streets of Ferguson, on 24-hour news channels, on social media and on the pages of the Washington Post and New York Times. His photographs, 10-second video clips and live-news-style text updates have shown residents in the streets, tear gas canisters flying and line after line of police moving in.

In one sense, his messages have been straightforward news briefs, such as this tweet from Wednesday evening: “Snipers rifles aimed at unarmed American citizens right now in St. Louis, MO.” But in another sense, each has lifted French’s own public image, from city politician and passionate advocate for north St. Louis, to a national voice against the militarization of police.

“I don’t think there’s any political agenda moving him,” said state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis. “Antonio, he’s a different kind of guy.”

French, 36, started in politics early. His grandmother, who raised him and sent him to Catholic high school, was Democratic committeewoman in his north city ward, the 21st, at a time when party committees ran politics.

French ran for school board when he was 25, and lost. He ran a politically active newspaper, the Public Defender, and then a blog, Pub Def, which railed against state control of the local school board, among other issues.

In 2008, he ran for committeeman, and won, then for city alderman, and won again. He was re-elected in 2013 with more than 80 percent of the vote.

He’s had some black eyes — most notably a couple of run-ins with the state ethics commission for campaign finance violations.

But they haven’t stopped him from building a reputation in City Hall as a fearless gadfly of the establishment, especially four-term Mayor Francis Slay.

His arrest especially, said Nasheed, is a political stepping stone.

“Antonio, now he has a badge of honor,” she said. “He’s a true activist.”

French said he drove up West Florissant Avenue on Saturday afternoon puzzled by the story he was reading on social media then — that a mob had gathered following the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

What he found was a community mourning. And a line of police officers.

“It was just a crazy scene,” he said. “I just started taking pictures. And I’ve been there ever since.”

He calls his tweets “advocacy journalism.” Wednesday night, just before his arrest, he directed a post picturing an armored police truck and officers in riot gear at St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. “Please de-escalate now,” he begged Dooley.

Thursday morning, when he got out of jail — still uncertain why he was ever held — he discussed his arrest with typical calm: “People are being tear gassed and snipers are pointing rifles at them when they’re peacefully assembling.”

After the interview ended, the tape kept rolling. “Could this go into a run for mayor in the future?” one reporter asked.

French hesitated, stammered, then chuckled. “I just want to get through the week.

“The place I think needs a new mayor,” he continued, “is Ferguson.”

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