ST. LOUIS – After the killing of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, St. Louis saw a rise in the number of social justice activists working around the city. As people took to the streets wanting their voices to be heard and justice be served, the younger crowd on the ground in Ferguson experienced something similar to the civil rights movement.
Five years removed from the Ferguson unrest, area residents who were just coming into adulthood reflect on what it now means to them.
Morgan Bradley, 26, says she remembers being on the ground in Ferguson and not knowing the magnitude of the situation at the time. She went with a group of friends, because they were curious about what was going on. Bradley said that in the initial stages of protest things were peaceful but that from the beginning the police presence was not.
“With the protesters, I felt safe,” she said. “With the police, I felt more unsafe, and I feel like it’s because the police knew that what happened was wrong and they messed up.”
Bradley said the heavily armed presence of Ferguson and St. Louis County police was something she’d never forget. She said the police did not care about protesters at all.
After experiencing being tear-gassed by law enforcement, Bradley saw the protesters come together and help one another out, often grabbing things from the abandoned QuikTrip to make sure people were staying hydrated, had milk for their burning eyes, or whatever else was necessary at the time.
“It was more like, ‘You take care of me and I’ll take care of you,’” she said.
During the unrest, Twitter became a powerful tool to spread the word across the country about what was happening in the area. It was because of the protesters, Bradley said, that the real story of the events got out. She believes the local and national media didn’t get it right with news coverage.
“Not one national media source got to the nitty-gritty of what was happening in St. Louis,” she said.
Because of this, Bradley’s perspective of the function of journalism changed. It inspired her to return to school, where she received a bachelor’s degree in communication.
Five years later, Bradley said, the social and political implications are strong but St. Louis feels more or less the same.
“There’s so many problems here that at their core stem from racism,” she said. Bradley said that political ties and the unwillingness to confront the racism that’s been happening for decades would continue to hinder St. Louis from making a real change.
“I love St. Louis, but I don’t want to raise my kids in St. Louis,” she added.
Muhammad “Mvstermind” Austin, 27, an area hip hop artist, was one of the initial protesters on the scene in Ferguson. His friends and members of his musical group, MME, were on the ground as well.
“Being down there was less protesting to an extent,” he said. “It was more like a gathering spot for the disowned.”
Austin said he felt that his main mission was to be heard but realized that was not the platform for it.
Like Bradley, seeing local law enforcement dressed in military wear and heavily armed was something he never expected to see.
“To see guns aimed at our people, it hit us heavy,” he said.
Austin said he had protested in Ferguson and at some demonstrations in Clayton.
The toll of slowly becoming a social justice activist began to wear on him, Austin said. He had to step back and remove himself from being on the front lines, for fear of losing himself to either getting arrested or losing his mental clarity.
“I didn’t want to accidentally compromise the mission by being a hothead, or doing something stupid,” he said. After seeing numerous hashtags online and knowing that St. Louis had become the catalyst for several social justice movements across the U.S., Austin said he felt the exhaustion of it all.
Five years removed from the events of Ferguson, Austin has channeled much of what he felt into his music. He currently has a partnership with Dr. Scholl’s, where he designed his own shoe.
“That was our whole purpose, as musicians,” he said. “We started to make ‘protest music’ and find ways to translate what we felt into our music.”
Although the unrest and treatment of protesters made national headlines, Austin said that “something beautiful” came out of the experience.
“The murder of Mike Brown was an unfortunate catalyst, but it set the tone for St. Louis to pull skeletons out of the closet,” he said. “For people in St. Louis who were just college students, musicians, mothers, they all became full-time activists, and that’s a beautiful thing.”