It has been a year since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by then-Ferguson, Mo., Police Officer Darren Wilson. The teenager’s death on Aug. 9, 2014, sparked an uprising that helped put #BlackLivesMatter—which was created after the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin—into the national spotlight.
As the movement that sought justice for Brown began to grow, numerous activists, pastors and politicians emerged as leaders by speaking their minds, challenging the political establishment and sharing their experiences.
Some risked careers, while others were teargassed or hit with rubber and wooden bullets, but all of them sacrificed something. And they are still working day and night to create a world in which black lives are valued and treated with respect.
Here are 10 people who were on the front lines in Ferguson a year ago. They all talked to The Root about how everything changed after Brown was killed, and what they see in the future for the movement.
1. Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, 40.
Maria Chappelle-Nadal has been a Missouri state senator since 2010, and Ferguson is one of the districts she serves.
The day Brown died, she showed up at the scene to be present for the community. A couple of days later, she was with 150 citizens protesting at a peaceful demonstration when police responded by throwing tear gas canisters.
Chappelle-Nadal has been one of the most vocal elected officials, criticizing Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon for his absence in the community on cable networks such as CNN and MSNBC, during protests and on Twitter.
This past legislative session, she attempted to pass several bills to improve the racial and economic climate for residents.
“I’m looking for second-chance opportunities for people who were gang members and now dream of living past 21 years old. They all thought that they were going to die, and they were all ready to give up,” she told The Root.
“I want young people, people who are in this movement, to be able to dream and have the skill sets that they need to continue to dream, and produce for themselves, for their family, for the community, for the nation,” she said.
2. Kareem Jackson, aka Tef Poe, 28; rapper, activist and director of Hands Up United.
Rapper and activist Kareem Jackson, also known as Tef Poe, wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama last year and released several albums, including War Machine III this past July, highlighting racism and police brutality characteristic of the region.
“I bring the perspective of the black male to the discussion. I don’t water down my anger, I don’t water down my frustration,” Jackson told The Root, adding, “I have a huge problem with injustice.”
He went to the Ferguson Police Department the day after Brown was killed, and a connection quickly formed between Jackson and other protesters. They started hitting the streets together, looking out for one another and offering one another rides to actions. Their teamwork led to the creation of Hands Up United, where Jackson is director.
The organization is currently running three programs in the community: the Roy Clay Sr. Web development and entrepreneurship workshop, focused on teaching children how to code; Books and Breakfast, where a complimentary breakfast and books are provided to attendees once a month; and the War Against Hunger initiative, which utilizes events to collect canned goods and nonperishable foods.
“We still need to challenge everything. We don’t have the option not to do this; we wake up into this,” he said.
3. Montague Simmons, 41; chairman and director of the Organization for Black Struggle.
The day of Brown’s shooting, Montague Simmons went to the Ferguson Police Department with other Organization for Black Struggle members to support those in the field and to help organize their efforts.
He said that the way Brown’s body lay on the ground for four hours, with pictures circulating on social media, compelled the community to respond and resist in a way like never before.
Although the police responded, often with violence, “St. Louis kept coming. People kept going and wouldn’t stop,” he told The Root. “The resistance would not give in, and that really changed the nature of what this moment was and what was possible.”
A couple of months later, OBS joined forces with a few organizations to host Ferguson October, a weekend of resistance that included training sessions, workshops and a rally involving thousands of peaceful demonstrators from around the country.
“My hope is that race remains a conversation at the center and forefront, and that we use this moment to continue to stimulate a dialogue with the affected people [and show them] that there is a way to resist, that we don’t just have to sit back and be afraid, but that resistance is absolutely essential and critical for transformation,” he said.
4. Larry Fellows III, 29; community organizer, a Young Leaders fellow at Amnesty International and co-founder of Millennial Activists United.
Community organizer and Amnesty International Young Leaders fellow Larry Fellows III went to Canfield Green Apartments the day Michael Brown was shot, and when he arrived, Brown’s body was still lying on the ground.
“Even though it was a beautiful day—80 degrees—there was an air of darkness. People were distraught, and we really didn’t know what the next steps were,” he told The Root.
A meeting at a local church led citizens to create a plan to hold police accountable, which led to more meetings and protests, where Fellows was teargassed. From those early days of protests, he co-founded Millennial Activists United.
“I’m really hoping that people realize that it means different things to be active in this movement, and I hope more people get involved,” he said. “This is survival for a lot of us. People’s kids, people’s family members, are being murdered in the streets, and it’s important that we start taking action and push these systems to be more accountable, because it affects everyone.”
5. Ashley “BrownBlaze” Yates, 30; cultural architect, activist and co-founder of Millennial Activists United.
Ashley Yates is a co-founder of Millennial Activists United and is currently working as a full-time activist with #Black Lives Matter. The St. Louis native, who now resides in Oakland, Calif., is known for her frank descriptions of what it’s like to be black in America and for sharp critiques of racism, police brutality and oppression.
“What motivates me is the deep inherent truth that black lives matter and the painful reality that the world we exist in currently refutes this truth through systematic oppression via numerous systems, practices and procedures,” she told The Root. “Until the world we live in is more closely aligned with that truth, I cannot stop fighting for that change.”
She went to Canfield the night of Brown’s shooting, after a day full of social media posts showing images of Brown’s body, as well as police in riot gear harassing the community. She went to Ferguson every day to organize, protest and resist.
“This movement has gained so much momentum and power in the last year. Our intentions are to keep growing that power and turn it into real capital for change towards an end to structural racism,” she said. “It’s an enormous task, but the state of emergency we as black people exist in demands we tackle it head on.”
6. Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, 26; field organizer.
Before Aug. 9 of last year, Johnetta Elzie used Twitter to keep up with current news and tweet about life. This changed when she saw tweets about Brown’s shooting and asked what was going on. She went to Canfield to pay her respects, where she saw Brown’s blood still on the ground.
She told The Root, “For me it was a call to action; his blood was the call to action.” Elzie participated in the first of many protests the next day at the Ferguson Police Department and became a voice for protesters, using Twitter to share photos, videos and accounts of what was happening.
In collaboration with DeRay McKesson, she started curating and publishing a daily newsletter titled This Is the Movement, chronicling the statistics, events and details of the movement.
“I feel like it’s our duty to resist, honestly, and we have been resisting since the beginning of America, and I don’t know if it’s in our veins to ever stop,” she said. “As long as I’m living, I’m going to be walking in my purpose, which is telling the truth and sharing my space for others to do the same.”
7. DeRay McKesson, 30; educator and activist.
A week after Brown’s death, McKesson, an educator and school administrator, used Twitter to document his road trip from Minneapolis to St. Louis. He simply wanted to find out for himself what was going on.
When he arrived in Ferguson, he used social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Vine to share what he experienced. He explained in detail what tear gas felt like, shared photos and videos of community and police interactions, and encouraged others to think about the consequences of failing to fight.
After making weekly trips from Minneapolis to St. Louis, he quit his job and moved to St. Louis earlier this year, although he is currently working as an activist in Baltimore. He believes that going forward, the movement will emphasize policy proposals in addition to one of the most modern ways to effect change: digital organizing.
“Ferguson was a catalyst for people that set up a model of resistance that we had not seen before. It mobilized people all over the country to resist and stand up against a state government killing people,” he told The Root. “In the next phase of the movement, we will see people really focused on solutions to ending state violence and having deeper conversations about how we get there.”
8. The Rev. Renita Lamkin, 44; pastor at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Rev. Renita Lamkin of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Charles, Mo., saw an image on Facebook of Brown’s body lying in the middle of the street and instantly imagined her son in his place. The next day she attended a prayer vigil at Canfield, and a few days later she decided to protest again, and did so on a regular basis.
Lamkin was teargassed and pepper-sprayed, along with other protesters. Almost two weeks after Brown’s death, on the same night Alderman Antonio French was arrested, she was hit with a rubber bullet.
She told The Root, “I did not know that militarized policing was a thing. I did not know that tanks could show up in your neighborhood.” Photos of her bloody and bruised, and details about what happened, caught the attention of media outlets, protesters and religious organizations.
“I think that the movement is going to keep moving, and the direction of the movement is to oppose police brutality, the overaggression of police; hold police accountable and demand political accountability,” she said. “I believe that we’re in a space where politicians will no longer get a free pass, and we’re no longer going to just give them our votes because they’re Democrat, they’re black or whatever. They’re going to have to earn that vote.”
9. Antonio French, 37; alderman of the 21st Ward, and founder of North Campus and #HealSTL.
Another outspoken elected official during the Ferguson uprising was Antonio French, alderman of the 21st Ward and founder of the North Campus initiative and #HealSTL.
French was at home browsing Twitter when he noticed a tweet from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, with a headline that referred to a “mob” reacting to Brown’s killing. When he saw this, he read the story and replied to the tweet, saying, “‘Mob’? You could have just used the word ‘community.’” He then got in his car and drove to Canfield.
“If you want to know the truth, you need to go out there and see it for yourself,” he told The Root.
When French arrived at the apartment complex, Brown’s body was still on the ground, with police officers lined up opposite the community. French used Twitter and Vine frequently to provide vivid updates. He was arrested during the protests, but it didn’t stop him.
“We are committed to doing the hard, tedious, boring work of transformation—voter registration, voter education, policy drafting, elected official accountability—the bureaucratic work necessary for change in the long run,” he said. “It’s all about empowerment, shifting the power dynamic and turning potential power from a majority-African-American population into real power.”
10. Brittany Packnett, 30; executive director of Teach for America: St. Louis, and a member of the Ferguson Commission and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Brittany Packnett serves the St. Louis community through various roles—professionally as executive director of Teach for America: St. Louis, and personally as an activist and as a member of the Ferguson Commission and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Packnett became a protester at the Ferguson Police Department the day after Brown was killed, and she realized that it was the youths’ time to step up and be leaders.
“I believe in the innate brilliance of every child. But children cannot learn if they aren’t valued, aren’t free and aren’t alive,” she told The Root. “Protecting them and our communities isn’t a choice; it is a responsibility.”
She will continue to empower young people and develop culturally responsive educators who transform students into leaders. Packnett added that black people and other people of color must work together to create a society in which black communities are no longer oppressed and brutalized.
“It will require us to be unapologetic and uncompromising. Winning will require community and truth,” she said. “We must maintain constant pressure from the ground and [at] the top to ensure the policy and cultural shifts necessary to dismantle systematic racism.”