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Ferguson Protesters, The Activists

Their refusal to let a life be forgotten turned a local shooting into a national movement

By Alex Altman / St. Louis

Ferguson Protesters
Painting by Titus Kaphar for TIME

At the beginning, they just wanted to pay tribute. Neighbors stood on cracked sidewalks behind yellow police tape, watching the dead teen’s body bake for hours in the summer heat. They tried to scrub his blood from the pavement with soap.

It was Johnetta Elzie’s first protest.

She didn’t expect the cops to show up to a candlelight vigil with canine units and riot gear. Crowds filled the streets that night. The next day they did it again. Elzie, 25, had been getting ready to return to college but kept coming back instead. She chanted and marched, dodged plumes of tear gas, took a rubber bullet to her left collarbone. And she tapped out tweets to tell the world what was happening in an obscure township in Middle America. “I was just hoping someone would care,” she says.

An unarmed black man shot dead by a white cop is a tragedy, but a recurring one; the uproar can fizzle as fast as it flares. There was no reason to think Michael Brown’s death on Aug. 9 was destined to be different. But Ferguson was the spark that started a fire. Demonstrators couldn’t win the indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who fired the fatal shots. Yet they built a movement that revived a dormant national conversation about race and justice. “We made the world pay attention,” Elzie says. That was a triumph all its own.

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Events that might once have slipped by unnoticed coalesced into points on a troubling graph. In late November, protesters took to the streets in Cleveland after police killed Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old, within seconds of encountering him with what turned out to be a toy pistol in his hand. Less than two weeks later, protests cascaded across the nation when a New York City grand jury declined to indict the white police officer who choked Eric Garner, leading to the death of the unarmed black father of six suspected of selling loose cigarettes. The street chants and hashtags that started in Ferguson knit these isolated tragedies into an inescapable story line. “This is not a black-and-white issue,” said Garner’s daughter Erica. “This is a national crisis.”

Protest is a performance that can make the unseen visible. In this angry epic, thousands found a role. They clogged freeways in Miami and Chicago, carried coffins across the Brooklyn Bridge, clashed with cops in Berkeley, Calif., flooded streets in London and toted signs around Tokyo. At colleges from Boston to Baton Rouge, students staged “die-ins” to dramatize the social value of black life. Players for the St. Louis Rams took the field with their hands raised in solidarity—a gesture repeated on the floor of Congress.

A black President who so often seems reluctant to talk about race was forced into the fray. Barack Obama brought young Ferguson protest leaders into the Oval Office and announced measures meant to increase police accountability. Republican Senator Rand Paul criticized the disproportionate incarceration rate of African Americans and called for criminal-justice reform. “People need to know,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio after the Garner grand jury decision, “that black lives and brown lives matter as much as white lives.”

This outcry was better focused than Occupy, bigger than the one that followed the Trayvon Martin case. But like the reaction to Martin, it felt raw and real. The expressions of powerlessness that began on a Missouri sidewalk soon seeded the hopes of the powerful. “What happened in Ferguson,” Attorney General Eric Holder tells TIME, “could be one of those seminal moments that transform the nation.”

The Making of an Uprising

Ferguson has a legacy of racial division. In the 1940s and ’50s, it was practically an all-white “sundown town,” where a chain blocked the main street from the adjacent black suburb. Two decades of white flight tipped the balance, and Ferguson is now about 70% black, with both rambling Victorian homes and low-income apartments like the dun-colored buildings that front the curving street where Brown was killed. Longtime white residents were largely oblivious to the tension bubbling beneath the city’s surface. “We’re having trouble understanding what the protesters want,” says former mayor Brian Fletcher. “They say they hate the police now, but I never heard about any racial problems, even from our African-American officials.”

Yet statistics reveal a pattern of racial profiling that incensed residents long before local police killed an unarmed man and greeted his mourners with military-grade weaponry. “What made Ferguson was the police response,” says St. Louis alderman Antonio French, a community leader who helped keep the peace. “Every opportunity in those first 48 hours to be compassionate, they escalated the situation instead.”

The protesters had a role in that too. Some, like Dhoruba Shakur, a 24-year-old jazz drummer in a Black Souljahz hoodie, saw in Brown’s death and the police reaction a justification for lawlessness. “It was kind of beautiful,” he says of the looting. “These people are being failed by the U.S. government.” The ambiguities of the case did little to ease the sense of injustice that fueled the clashes. Brown had stolen cigarillos and started a scuffle with a cop. Reams of grand jury testimony offered no definitive version of what went down in those two or three fateful minutes on Canfield Drive. None of that erased the fact that an unarmed black man had been killed by a white cop.

But to many, it was hard to square the anger with the Molotov cocktails whistling through the night, the small businesses destroyed, the images of torched cop cars. Police perform a service that is difficult and dangerous; now they were being asked to maintain order in a hostile community where any wrong move would instantly inflame. The demonstrations divided the country into warring camps: Did blame rest with the officers pumping tear gas into the streets or the protesters who provoked them?

When the chaos subsided and the television trucks scattered, the work of sustaining the struggle fell to activists like Elzie. They are poets and paralegals, college students and working professionals, some affluent, some unemployed, white as well as black. They launched crowdfunding campaigns, organized council meetings and held a mock trial for St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch at the courthouse where Dred Scott once sued for his freedom. They continue to preach morning and night on Twitter, the revolutionary’s pocket pulpit.

Some of these leaders are from outside St. Louis, like DeRay Mckesson, 29, an educator from Minneapolis. In August, after watching the first wave of protests from afar, he decided to take a week’s vacation and drive nine hours to join in. He knew no one when he arrived. Now he and Elzie run a movement newsletter devoured daily by 11,000 people. “We will not be silent anymore in the face of oppression,” he says. “Silence can so easily look like comfort.”

A handful of the protesters spoke with the President at the White House on Dec. 1. Obama mostly listened. Brittany Packnett, 30, told of the searing sight of Brown’s body in the blood-soaked street. “That image is burned into people’s minds,” she says. “It harkened back to days when lynchings were frequent.” The President pledged $263 million toward police body cameras and better training for officers. He also ordered a review of federal programs that provide military equipment to local law enforcement and created a criminal-justice task force. “What made me concerned,” Obama said after his meeting with the activists, “was the degree to which they feel as if they are not heard.”

A New Civil Rights Movement

The streets of Ferguson are mostly quiet now. The movement has migrated. #Blacklivesmatter has been joined by #icantbreathe—Garner’s final words before he died on that Staten Island street. Protesters chant both while marching through Times Square in New York City and Public Square in Cleveland. These are the sounds, activists say, of a new civil rights movement—a battle to reshape the relationship between the police and the people they are paid to protect. What started in a Missouri suburb may end with change that can be measured in lives saved.

That can happen only after the messy fight to make enemies into allies. The unruly protests have called a nation’s attention to a problem some thought had been solved and others didn’t want to acknowledge at all. But they have also alienated sympathizers. “It’s not my job to convince them,” Elzie says of those who used the looting to discredit the protests. “You’re mad over a building? We’re mad over a body.”

Activists are putting some hope in Washington: the Department of Justice has opened separate civil rights probes into the Ferguson police force and Garner’s death. In Ferguson, voter-registration drives are under way ahead of April’s city council elections.

And the struggle has spread. On Dec. 3, after protesting the Garner grand jury decision at the federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis, Elzie glanced down at her phone. It was lighting up with tweets and texts tracking the night’s arrests, as well as updates from the demonstrations in New York. Like many in Ferguson, she was heading there the next day to join them. —with reporting by Zeke J. Miller / Atlanta

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