A group of protesters stormed St. Louis police headquarters on New Year’s Eve, shouting and pushing their way inside, only to be met by a line of aggressive police and pepper spray.
Their plan for a sit-in inside the lobby was one of the boldest actions they’ve taken in five months of protesting, and the act suggested that in 2015 the movement won’t be going away.
The marches, the sit-ins and other demonstrations in the 150 days following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, are the same kinds of actions protesters are planning for the new year.
It’s a playbook that has puzzled many in the St. Louis area who aren’t sure what the protesters are asking for, how long demonstrations will continue, or even who is leading the charge.
That’s because while the protesters are drawing on civil rights movements of the past, they are also drafting their own blueprints.
They’ve engaged in conventional civil disobedience, such as rallies and highway shutdowns. And yet, tools such as Twitter have allowed protest organizers to mobilize quickly with no need of a single leader or a centralized message.
They’ve clashed with establishment civil rights leaders, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton at a recent march in Washington.
Their perspective shows a difference in tactics and generations. While the protesters are of all ages, most are millennials. Many are women.
“We’re the lost generation,” said Kayla Reed, 24, who grew up in north St. Louis County. “It was very necessary that we didn’t allow someone who’d done this before to come into this space. Michael Brown was my age bracket.”
The movement has remained a decentralized one. Leaders step up and step back. Some virtually disappear.
Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, was one of the most visible faces of the movement at the start. His chronicling of its events in the first few weeks through Twitter found an international audience. But now French is rarely seen or heard from.
“Everyone is replaceable,” said Johnetta Elzie, 25, who organizes meetings and documents protests on social media. “I could go away right now and there could be 100 more who could Vine and Instagram the same way I do.”
As the new year begins, the Ferguson movement is at a critical juncture.
Some organizers want to keep the focus strictly on police brutality. Others want to continue to push other issues. Among them are municipal court reform, stronger laws addressing racial profiling and new protocols for how police respond after an officer has fatally shot someone.
Brittany Packnett, 30, a key organizer and member of the state-appointed Ferguson Commission, said the two must happen in concert.
“Disruptive action has to continue to keep people awake about this,” she said. “Systemic action has to continue to ensure that we move forward. One of those things can’t happen without the other.”
The movement that began with Brown’s death on Aug. 9 was not prompted by any single speech or any single organization calling people to the streets. It began in the moments after the shooting when hundreds of people gathered outside the Canfield Green apartments, at the scene where Brown was shot.
In the days that followed, strangers came together holding signs and chanted in marches along West Florissant Avenue and at demonstrations in front of the Ferguson police station.
They eventually formed a loose family.
At the most formal level are the organized groups. Some, such as the Organization for Black Struggle, had existed before the Brown shooting. Others have cropped up since.
Millennial Activists United organizes rallies. Operation Help or Hush works almost entirely on building the infrastructure of support needed for protests to continue, raising money to feed people and put them up in hotels.
On a less formal level are the organizers, who act essentially as free agents, filling whatever role they are drawn to.
Some choose to work behind the scenes. Others are far more visible, using social media to build as large an audience as possible.
No one is more public with the message than DeRay Mckesson, 29, who has become one of the most visible figures in Ferguson-related demonstrations.
His prolific use of Twitter sends hundreds of images, videos and thoughts concerning the Ferguson movement and police-involved shootings around the world daily to more than 60,000 followers.
He blasts the media and individual reporters with whom he disagrees. He challenges establishment leaders who disagree with protesters’ methods.
Before Ferguson, Mckesson directed his energy solely to addressing education inequities. A former math teacher, he continues to work as the senior director of human resources for Minneapolis Public Schools.
Brown’s death drew Mckesson to St. Louis. He arrived on Aug. 16 to join the protests. He has come to believe that educating black children means nothing if they die in the streets. It’s why he’s fighting for better policing.
Mckesson spends most weekends and vacation time in St. Louis to continue the push. He said he doesn’t see an end in sight to the struggle.
“What are the fights you won’t walk away from?” Mckesson said. “This is mine.”
In contrast, Charles Wade, another out-of-town organizer, sees less value in street demonstrations. The fight, he said, needs to move away from protests and more toward structural reforms of public policy.
Based in Austin, Texas, Wade, 32, is a former fashion stylist turned consultant. Since the protests started in August, he’s been living in St. Louis hotels and working in a behind-the-scenes role through Operation Help or Hush, an organization he founded with two partners.
Operation Help or Hush is not yet a nonprofit, but it’s the vehicle through which Wade and his partners have raised an estimated $50,000 since mid-August, by seeking donations on Twitter.
The group spent the money to set up secretive safe houses for protesters thought to be targeted by police. They handed out gasoline cards and bought people groceries. They paid for hotel rooms for out-of-town protesters and fed hundreds of demonstrators each week.
‘TO THE HALLS OF POWER’
Wade’s group is in the process of renting four apartments meant to sustain a core group of activists he estimates will be working in the region on a number of different issues.
Wade now thinks the movement should go in a different direction.
“We are pushing the five-month mark, and people are now looking for tangibles,” he said. “We need something to check off on a list. Having the attention of the world doesn’t mean anything if you don’t do something with it.”
Justin Hansford, a St. Louis University law professor who has been active in the movement, said now that protesters have gotten the public’s attention, they have a real opportunity in the coming legislative session to get meaningful reforms.
Ferguson will be a dominant theme during the Missouri legislative session that begins Wednesday. Based on prefiled bills, lawmakers plan to debate a range of issues spotlighted by the movement, from limiting when police may use deadly force to reducing the amount municipalities could collect in traffic fines.
Meanwhile, the governor created the 16-member Ferguson Commission to address the social and economic conditions highlighted by the protests.
“I’m of the opinion that nobody takes these things seriously until it affects their bottom line. We can march all we want, but the whole point of the movement is to bring accountability,” Hansford said. “So the push you’re going to see from us is from the streets to the halls of power.”
But whether protesters can effectively make that transition is unclear. The movement has some support in the Legislature, but there is also a growing disconnect between the protesters on the street and elected officials who represent them.
The rift was made clear late last month when a white Berkeley police officer shot and killed Antonio Martin, 18, who was black. Police said the teen pointed a gun at the officer.
With doubts over the police’s story growing online, protesters took to the streets once again. Meanwhile, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, who protested after Brown’s death, backed police this time around and stated that the shooting was justified.
To outsiders, the movement can seem loud and leaderless.
That point of view was highlighted last week when Oprah Winfrey called for leadership to emerge and articulate clear demands for change.
Protesters pointed to that as an example of how the older generation doesn’t understand what they’re trying to do.
“Everyone wants this to be the Civil Rights Movement, to go by the book, what Martin Luther King did, what Malcolm X did,” said Elzie, a protest organizer. “We do not have a manual.”
The only prediction she would make about the movement is that protests will continue.
On New Year’s Eve, about 50 people gathered on the sidewalk outside the Old Courthouse downtown to begin their march to police headquarters,
Protester Rasheen Aldridge, another Ferguson Commission member, spoke into a megaphone.