August 9, 2014 changed my life. That date is burned into our memory as the day Michael Brown was killed. But it’s also the date my son, King, turned 1.
So we're getting ready for his get-together – blowing up balloons, firing up the barbecue – when my social media starts going crazy. I get the picture of a young man lying motionless in the middle of the street.
I didn't know what to do. But something compelled me to go out there. Before I saw that image, I wasn’t an activist. I’m from 4300 Gibson, the South Side of St. Louis, the ‘hood. I had seen 30 or 40 Mike Browns in my life, young men between the ages of 16 and 24 killed by the police. What was so different now?
And then I thought about the image of his body lying in the street. You could have been in Chicago the moment you heard about Mike Brown being killed, right around noon. You could have hopped in your car, got on Highway 55 and drove 85 miles an hour to Ferguson and, when you got there, you would still have seen his body lying on the ground – four and a half hours later.
We were there in Ferguson on August 9, 2014, and this young man's body was in the street for four and a half hours. That's something that would never happen in Clayton, Ladue, the Central West End. So why did it happen here? I don't care how you feel about the situation. That's not OK.
When I first got out there, I saw something that I've never seen before: people from all walks of life, every kind of background, everybody upset, crying, angry – thousands of people gathered in these same streets that we drive up and down each day. But if you saw the news clips, how many people looked at that and thought, “Riot”?
How many of us have been so mad at something where we hit a door or kicked a trash can or hit an object that had nothing to do with why we were mad? So just imagine somebody mad because their community is systematically oppressed.
You walk into a store, and you have to pay to more for bread than someone in a different neighborhood. You have a job where you're not making a livable wage, but you still got a couple kids to take care of. You don’t live paycheck to paycheck, you live paycheck to Friday. You run the chance of getting pulled over, simply for the color of your skin – and that's going to make you mad.
And then you walk outside and you find out that a young man has been killed, right in front of your apartment, and his body has been out here for four and a half hours. So, on August 9, 2014, what happened is that a bottle that had been shook for all these years, someone just abruptly took the top off.
We were out there for 400 days straight, peacefully protesting. A lot of people don't know that because the cameras left. The folks who came to exploit Ferguson, they left. The stars who came to get their pictures and stand in front of the burned-down QuikTrip with their hands up, they left.
But we were still there. The pepper spray, the tear gas, it was still happening. Officers were upset because they were tired, because they had been out there for 12, 14, 16 hours. All of that still happening, 400 days straight.
In those 400 days, I began to think, “You know what? We can protest, we can march, we can be upset. I'm willing to give my life for what I believe in. But, what's next?”
I started talking to people. I began working on police-community relationships. I began to mentor in my community. I started a program to help our youth get jobs. Then, somebody came to me and said, "You should run for office."
Run for office? I had never even voted because I was taught that my vote didn't count. We didn't have representatives or elected officials who showed up in our community and talked to us about the importance of local politics, or how these decisions affect our lives every day. Nobody came to my ‘hood and taught me that.
When I decided to run for state representative, representing the 78th District in St. Louis, I had all of these establishment politicians telling me, "Do not run." They said, “The family that you're running against, they are powerful.” They tried to strike fear in me.
Obviously, these people didn’t know me. I survived the death of my nine-year-old brother, who was used as a human shield during crossfire. I survived 168 funerals before I turned 30. Surely I could survive a political race.
My opponent raised a lot of money. We didn't raise a lot of money. But the thing we did differently? We talked to the people. We talked to the people that the establishment forgot.
On Election Day, when the numbers came in, not only did we win, we won with 76 percent of the vote – 2,234 votes, to be exact. That was more votes than anybody got in our district’s history. I won. The kid from 4300 Gibson, with all these tattoos on my face, the one who raps, who was in the front lines of Ferguson, pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, I won. My community won. The folks who look like me, who come from where I came from — we all won.
In my community, I was taught everything but how to love. I was taught how to survive. I was taught how to fight. I was taught some things that I shouldn't have been taught. But I was never taught how to love. What taught me love was those 400 days in Ferguson. Real conversations with people who, even if they didn't come from where I come from, would stand with me now and fight with me.
And that's what's going to fix what's going on: talking to each other, understanding each other. Don't stand by when you see something being done that's wrong. Get involved, however it is you want to get involved, whether it's politics, whether it's community activism. No matter what it is.
Giving up is not a choice for me, because when I give up on those hard conversations, when I give up on those people from the rural areas or those white folks or the Republicans, when I give up on them, in my mind, I'm giving up on being that person who changes their mind or changes their heart. My grandmother always said, “You might be the only Bible someone ever reads.” So don’t give up on even one chance to change the world around you.
Bruce Franks Jr. (D-St. Louis) represents the 78th District in the Missouri House of Representatives.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American.