Protests don’t just happen as spontaneous moments.
They are planned and executed by an array of people — college students and politicians, lawyers and social workers, medical professionals and blue-collar workers — spurred by outrage, activism or a sense of injustice.
Protesters who emerged as leaders six years ago after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer have in some cases carried their commitment in new directions of influence, including freshman state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge and Cori Bush, the Democratic nominee in the 1st Congressional District after Tuesday’s primary election.
Aldridge and Bush have remained active in protests, including those sparked this summer by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed while restrained by a Minneapolis police officer, as well as by the release of a video that showed a Florissant police detective hitting a man with his vehicle.
But they are not the only leaders of the movement.
At the center of the demonstrations are a mix of groups — ExpectUs, RespectUs, Tent Mission STL, Occupy City Hall STL, Protest THAT, Action St. Louis and ClosetheWorkhouse — whose opinions vary on the best way to seek justice.
And on the anniversary of Brown’s death, Aug. 9, 2014, protest leaders say underlying inequities and a lack of broad reform measures make the St. Louis area ripe for social unrest.
Meet a few of the leaders who carry the culture of protest in the St. Louis region.
The Rev. Darryl Gray, 66, is a founder of the protest group ExpectUs. He is one of several Democratic leaders in the organization who doubles as both an activist and a politician. Others include Aldridge and Bush, who toppled longtime U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
Among other calls for justice, ExpectUs has advocated for reparations for Black people and an end to police brutality. Gray said current protests are more of a “movement than a moment.”
Born in Boston and having grown up in both South Carolina and Canada, Gray moved to St. Louis after Ferguson’s uprisings. He emphasizes that when an organization like ExpectUs is grassroots, it’s bound to have more buy-in from its members.
“If you own it, then you’re going to go the extra mile for it,” Gray said.
Gray attended a newly integrated high school in South Carolina, where he got a taste of standing up for what he believed in — and the repercussions that often follow.
During a school pep rally, Gray said a man came riding into the gym on a horse waving a Confederate flag. He walked out, and hundreds of students followed him. He was suspended from school, he said, for inciting a disturbance.
“I didn’t know they were behind me. I didn’t look back,” he said.
Gray went on to join the U.S. Army, where he was honorably discharged. He then campaigned for presidential candidate the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Florida, worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, preached in both Canada and Atlanta, served as head of Atlanta’s NAACP, and briefly served as a state senator from Kansas City.
Now, he said, he’s ready to make St. Louis his final destination.
With a history of frequently moving, proving himself in new cities has been the norm for Gray.
“I think I’ve gotten beat up enough in the streets. I’ve shown up more than some people who’ve been here all their lives — that’s got to count for something,” Gray said.
On July 6, a day after protesters say they were beaten while being arrested for protesting at Florissant’s police department, Gray asked officers in riot gear behind the gate of the police department to go back inside the police department as a “sign of good faith.” A white shirt officer agreed and instructed riot police to go inside, but a regular, uniformed group of police then came out another door.
Gray and other ExpectUs leaders told everyone to go home. Some in the crowd strongly opposed leaving though, and the two factions argued with one another.
“That was our mistake — the timing. For us to disperse while police were standing there could be perceived as a sign of weakness,” Gray said. “RespectUs felt disrespected at that moment, and they had reason to. Our timing was off. That was our mistake. We owned it.”
The self-proclaimed radical
One of the protesters who stayed behind that night was Tauren Taylor, a 25-year-old University City resident.
A self-proclaimed radical, Taylor said he stayed because protesters were supposed to go out on their own terms. Taylor said protesters had to advocate for every inch of real estate on which to protest, including the parking lot across the street from the police station.
“Why keep letting them hand us stuff when our job is to take things? We’re supposed to be forcing them to give us things they don’t want to give us,” Taylor said. “They don’t want to give us freedom. They don’t want to stop killing us, they don’t want to stop beating us.”
Taylor has been arrested at several protests in the past year. He was also one of the protest leaders after Terry Tillman, 23, was killed last year by police near the St. Louis Galleria Mall in Richmond Heights.
Taylor remains vocal on the front line, but he says he will not join a protest group.
“To be held under a name, you’re held under their standards. ExpectUs, for instance, I love people in ExpectUS. I will ride for ExpectUs, but I don’t think now is the time for us to try to ask for reparations.”
Taylor moved to Missouri from California when he was a teenager. He said his family dealt with poverty, and he was bullied frequently for having a lisp and being studious.
One of his first “successful protests,” he said, was getting a neglectful teacher fired by collecting petition names.
“Once I found out what the chain of the command was, I went up that ladder,” he said.
Eventually, he said, he was kicked out of Vashon High School for fighting.
Taylor earned a diploma from the Fresh Start Academy program at 17, and briefly studied animal science and genetic engineering at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park.
He acknowledged some may see his protest methods as extreme, but he said his methods also help people understand someone is sticking up for them.
Taylor said he’s not sure about a future career path, but he’s working odd jobs, including selling homemade goods at Soulard Market. In the meantime, he said, he will continue to protest injustices wherever they spring up in the St. Louis area.
Taylor was one of several protesters to take exception with comments in mid-July by Jimmie Edwards, the top law enforcement official in St. Louis. Edwards, at an anti-crime demonstration outside City Hall, said many protesters weren’t from the city, and he condemned violence that erupted at some of the protests.
“I feel like violence happens everywhere, even in nature,” said Taylor. “We’re all human, we all make mistakes. There’s no way to control every single person that’s out there. I’ve seen police hurt people and each other. You can’t condone it on one end and condemn it on the other.”
The perceived lack of government response when doorbell security footage showed former Florissant Detective Joshua Smith running over a fleeing suspect in early June led to the formation of another protest group, RespectUs, said one of the founders, Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels.
Daniels, 59, said she and a group of other front-line Ferguson protesters went to the police station for answers about what had happened, but there were barricades around the police department.
“When they didn’t answer us and treat us with the human respect as people who live in this town, you’ve got to stand up and fight back,” said Daniels. “Even the (city) council, anyone who spoke against their idea of democracy, they didn’t feel the need to respect them. That’s why we are RespectUs.”
Daniels said RespectUs has four core demands: fire, charge, arrest and convict Smith. Thus far, three of those four have happened — Smith has not yet had his day in court.
Daniels has lived in Florissant since 2012. She grew up in New York City and previously lived in Chicago and San Diego. Since Ferguson’s uprisings, she’s worked as a cook and founded PotBangerz, a nonprofit dedicated to providing food and clothing to families in need. The organization is now renovating a home in Pine Lawn for cis, queer and trans women in need and plans to open the home later this year.
An elder of the protest group, Daniels said she offers advice to protesters and watches from the back, cane and chair in tow. Still, she said, she doesn’t always approve of the protest methods that unfold.
“There’s no such thing as peaceful protest. That’s an oxymoron. If there was peace, we wouldn’t need to protest,” Daniels said. “I don’t support tearing up stuff. We had that happen during Ferguson. If we’re gonna burn it down, then do it the right way, and that’s not in the literal sense. Burn down the system. Defund the police.”
The likely congresswoman
Daniels stood behind Cori Bush, 44, as hundreds of protesters returned July 3 to Portland Place in St. Louis’ West End. The private street had recently made national news, as Mark and Patricia McCloskey waved guns at protesters in an effort to, as they said, defend their home. The couple has since been charged with unlawful use of a weapon.
“There was nothing to defend, and that’s what angers me so bad,” Bush said.
In addition to rising as a leader of ExpectUs, Bush gained national notoriety in Tuesday’s election. In a district that has historically voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, Bush will likely become the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress.
Bush said she learned about politics, protest tactics and demonstrations from her father, Earl Bush, who worked as a politician in north St. Louis County.
She attended high school at Cardinal Ritter College Prep and said she had no intention of starting a life in politics. She graduated from Harris-Stowe State University and Lutheran School of Nursing, then entered the fields of nursing and ministry.
Between Bush’s unsuccessful runs for Senate and the House of Representatives in 2016 and 2018, respectively, St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley went on trial for shooting a Black man, Anthony Lamar Smith, in 2011. Stockley was charged with first-degree murder, and prosecutors claimed he planted a gun on Smith. When Stockley was found not guilty by a judge in 2017, protests erupted again, and Bush emerged as a leader of ExpectUs.
During those demonstrations, Bush said, the group began to change how it disseminated information.
“With Ferguson, you didn’t have to call and ask around to see what time a protest was going on. You could just show up. It was 24/7. With Stockley, we had to have a way to get the information out,” said Bush, highlighting the organization’s use of social media.
Now, both she and Gray agree the group’s protests are more refined, pointing out the local history lessons they provide before the marching and chanting begin.
“ExpectUs doesn’t do violent things, but what we’re not going to do is turn our backs on people that do, as far as their form of protest,” Bush said, referencing the violence that occasionally breaks out at protests, including an early June demonstration that included gunfire and widespread looting as the night wore on.
“If I have a sandwich today for breakfast, lunch and dinner … I’m not going to loot a sandwich,” Bush said. “If they fix the problems, they won’t have to worry about that.”
Bush said she’s aware she could get blamed for the violence that occurs during protests, but she stands by her decision to continually show up and call for change.
“I know it every single time, and I make that choice to show up,” she said. “When we stop showing up, when we stop pushing, that’s how they win, so I’ll take that chance.”
This story has been updated to correct the year of the shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith.