It’s hard to believe it's been two years since the killing of an 18-year-old unarmed black teen named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Brown's death sparked protests in Ferguson and around the world. Black Lives Matter, which started as a hashtag after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's killer in 2013, grew into a mass movement that calls for the killing of unarmed black people to cease.
This movement has introduced us to many players, including the hashtag creators and activists Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, along with activists DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie.
In the 730 days that have gone by, we've seen more killings across America, but also some small changes, like increased usage of body cameras on police officers, as well as superstars like Beyoncé (who is usually silent) speaking out in song and dance and making the declaration: Stop killing us.
Here's where a few of those major players of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter are now.
The world met Mike Brown's mother, then known as Lesley McSpadden, after he’d been shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. She became a member of a club no one wants to be in—that of mothers in mourning who’ve lost a child to police brutality.
McSpadden has changed the spelling of her first name to Lezley and is now an author. Her book, Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil: The Life, Legacy, and Love of My Son Michael Brown, details who her son was as a human being. She has become a global symbol of police violence against black people, but she's also a vehicle and a voice for the movement.
We've seen her with other "mothers of the movement" at the Democratic National Convention last month and in Beyoncé's visual album, Lemonade, alongside other mothers like Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin), Wanda Johnson (Oscar Grant) and Gwen Carr (Eric Garner), who continue to celebrate their sons’ lives, but also call awareness to the violence against black lives.
DeRay Mckesson was first an organizer in Baltimore City when he was a teenager, and most notably, he was the chairman of Youth As Resources, Baltimore’s youth-led grant-making organization. After he graduated, he started his career working for Teach for America and spent two years working in a New York City elementary school. He then went back to Baltimore to work in the Office of Human Capital for the city's public school system.
When he heard the news of Michael Brown's death on Aug. 9, 2014, he decided to drive to Ferguson from his home then in Minneapolis on Aug. 16, 2014. After spending his weekends and vacation time in St. Louis, Mckesson decided to stay after quitting his job.
In April 2015, Mckesson and fellow activists Johnetta Elzie, Samuel Sinyangwe and Brittany Packnett launched "Mapping Police Violence," which collected data on people killed by police during 2014. These people became the unofficial faces of the movement, often making headlines, facing arrests and scrutiny.
In August 2015, the same group launched Campaign Zero, a 10-point policy plan for police reform. Key points included the decriminalization of trespassing, marijuana possession, loitering, public disturbance and consuming alcohol in public.
DeRay Mckesson’s activism propelled him further into politics, including a bid to become Baltimore’s mayor, making him the first prominent post-Ferguson activist to seek public office.
Most recently, Mckesson was arrested in Baton Rouge, La., during a protest around Alton Sterling. While the charges have been dropped against him and the other 100 protesters, Mckesson has filed a class-action lawsuit against Baton Rouge over the arrests.
In the suit, Mckesson and two other arrested protesters accuse city and police officials of violating their civil rights and using excessive force in making arrests during protests. The struggle and fight obviously continue, and Mckesson has proved to be a tireless member of the movement.
As a resident of St. Louis, Johnetta Elzie became an extremely active leader after Mike Brown's death.
She teamed up with fellow activists DeRay Mckesson and Samuel Sinyangwe to create "Mapping Police Violence," which collected data on people killed by police during 2014. She's been named a new civil rights leader, and she uses her social media to create a stronger voice in this fight.
Elzie has since been featured on various publications' lists for being a leader of this new movement as well as the cover of Essence magazine for her protest work. She was also an honoree of The Root 100. Elzie is one of the leaders in the activist group We the Protesters and co-edits the Ferguson protest newsletter This Is the Movement with fellow activist DeRay Mckesson.
Sometimes referred to as “Netta," Elzie continues to use her growing social media platform as a place for women, for blackness and for maintaining her place in the world—a valuable voice who realizes that the moment she helped ignite is bigger than herself.
While Patrisse Cullors’, Opal Tometi’s and Alicia Garza's names may not be household names, they are very important. These three women created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag shortly after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Garza works as the special projects director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Cullors is the director of Dignity and Power Now, an organization focused on helping incarcerated people. And Tometi is the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an organization focused on black and Latino immigrant rights. Obviously these three powerhouse activists banded together to make something larger than they thought possible. Social media proved to be a driver of their passion.
Now, Black Lives Matter is more than a hashtag. It's a movement that has mobilized people all over the world to stand in solidarity against the killings of black people by police. The three co-founders were honored at Black Girls Rock! this year as community change agents. These women stood beside superstars like Rihanna and Gladys Knight as they accepted the stunning award for their work all over the world.
I would describe this moment for the movement as a real paradigm shift. It is an indicator of what is to come. But it also, I think, points to the agency that we have, collectively, to change our conditions. I think if we demonstrate a collective commitment and a collective practice to changing not just how police and policing happens in this country, but certainly to changing the conditions that black communities are living and existing in, then we have a real shot for living in a world that is more just, more equitable—in a world where black lives actually do matter.
Unless you were really into politics on a local level, James Knowles was not a name you knew. When Mike Brown died and Ferguson was put under a microscope, the city's mayor, James Knowles, downplayed the obvious racial disparities in the controversial town. It was reported that Knowles said that the violent clashes between protesters and police officers since Brown’s death Aug. 9, 2014, had involved a small minority of Ferguson’s black community.
“There’s 22,000 residents in our community. This has affected about a half-mile strip of street in our community,” he said of the demonstrations. “The rest of the African Americans in our community are going about their daily lives, going to our businesses, walking their dog, going to our neighborhood watch meetings.”
Considering that more than 90 percent of the Ferguson police force was white—even though blacks make up 63 percent of the city’s population and, according to official Ferguson police statistics, 86 percent of all stops and 92 percent of all searches in 2013 were of black people—it was tough to co-sign Knowles' opinion on his city.
James Knowles said, "You'd never guess there was any tension," on the second anniversary of Mike Brown's death during an appearance on Fox2News.
He also mentioned that there were new police officers, a new police chief and a new city manager and that there had been two elections since Brown's death, which brought in new council members.
Knowles also still stood by his belief that there's no racial divide in Ferguson, so there's that.