When Antonio French noticed social media activity bubbling up about Michael Brown’s shooting death last weekend, the St. Louis alderman got in his car and drove to Ferguson.
What he said he saw was striking: Police from neighboring municipalities had formed a “human shield” around the scene. Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, was screaming and crying over not knowing what happened to her 18-year-old son. And Brown’s body was still in the street after being shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer.
So French did what he’s been doing for years: He started taking pictures and filming video. It’s a decision that has had spiraling repercussions: Since Saturday, French’s Twitter follower count has exploded. He’s been profiled in Buzzfeed and interviewed by media outlets from around the world. And this morning after he was released from police custody after a hectic night of protesting, local news stations broke away to cover his press conference.
Besides becoming a primary source on what’s become an international story, French has emerged as one of the more visible political figures bringing attention to Brown’s death. And while his presence hasn’t been universally applauded, it may illustrate how young protesters connect better with youthful elected officials like French than with the older political and religious leaders who directly represent north St. Louis County.
“Boys need men,” said French on Wednesday morning before he was arrested. “And those young people out there needed leadership. And they needed adults out there not only to lead them, but to help protect them from armed people who don’t love them like we do.”
French’s role as the digital eyes and ears to the Ferguson crisis shouldn’t be too surprising. French’s PubDef.net was one of Missouri’s first political news sites to use video extensively to capture the state's and city’s political scene. (It may even have inspired this reporter to pick up a digital camera and start filming.)
“When I was doing PubDef, it was so time consuming,” French said. “You’d have to shoot these videos and use digital tapes. Then I would come back and process the video and edit the video. Man, if I had Twitter and Vine back then, I’d be dangerous.”
Much has been written about how French’s use of social media brought widespread attention to the unrest. He now has over 53,000 followers on Twitter, an unheard of number for a member of the Board of Aldermen. Mainstream media outlets have used his videos and images – and his Tweets have been re-Tweeted by luminaries such as MC Hammer. It may be why so many people used social media to express outrage about his arrest.
But quite a few people – especially on Twitter – have wondered why a St. Louis alderman would concern himself with a situation in north St. Louis County. For French, the reason is fairly simple: “The black population in Ferguson who’s most upset about this don’t have representation." That's a reference to how most of Ferguson’s elected leadership is white.
“If you’re looking for an elected official to represent the people of Ferguson in this time, they don’t have it,” French said.
French also said there’s a divide between the protestors and older African-American officials. He pointed to how St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley was booed when he arrived in Ferguson last week. He said that “a lot of what you’re seeing now – this kind of distance-taking – is based upon some experiences of when they did show up.”
“I completely agree with you that this has to be a north county-led effort,” French said. “But what I would say is that it has to be led by the young people of Ferguson and north county. Our role is to support them on a very fast and short timetable and train them and nurture them into leaders. And I will tell you, there’s some men on night one who were intense, angry – whom I had to hold back physically from police and who were involved in the looting and rioting. And 48 hours later, they were leading the nonviolent protests.”
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat who represents Ferguson in the Missouri Senate, echoed French’s sentiments. She related an anecdote about how members of the clergy told young people angry about Brown’s death to get out of the street – which she said missed the point.
She said young people were so frustrated and mad, that “they were literally willing to lose their lives and confront the police officers and basically get shot from the police officers because they were so angry.”
“I am of the belief that everyone exhibits their frustration in different ways,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “You can’t force kids to do what you do because you feel it’s right. They have to do what they feel is right. And they felt it was right to stand up with their hands up in the air and chant. And I wanted to support them in that.”
Out of turn?
Still, some have questioned whether it’s appropriate for St. Louis elected officials to get involved in a St. Louis County issue. Besides French, officials like state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed have taken a reasonably prominent role in speaking out after Brown's death.
St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, said she didn’t see any north St. Louis County political leaders around Rev. Al Sharpton during his press conference earlier this week. (Erby's district included Ferguson.)
“A lot of the elected officials and I, who represent that area and St. Louis County, are a little bit offended by the fact that everybody we see before the cameras and that the news people are interviewing nationally – they’re not us,” said Erby. “So the people that are speaking up have nothing to do with it. What can they say about Ferguson?”
“This is a discussion that all of us have had,” she added. “We don’t understand what’s going on.”
John Gaskin of the St. Louis County branch of the NAACP said some politicians on the scene in Ferguson haven’t been there when his organization “had questions about police brutality.” Now, though, he said, some elected officials “are suddenly on the scene and are out here wanting to have a voice because there’s cameras.”
“I don’t want to discourage them from wanting to help. I don’t want to discourage them from wanting to be of assistance at all. That’s not what I want to do,” Gaskin said. “But what is interesting is that all of sudden, you’ve got St. Louis city leaders that have been out here and not within their own districts. I challenge them to look at the challenges within their own neighborhoods. Let them look at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Let them talk to Chief (Sam) Dotson about what he’s doing to deal with police brutality.”
“Because I promise you, they have their own fair share of problems as well,” he added.
Neither Erby nor Gaskin mentioned French by name. In fact, Gaskin went out of his way to praise French, adding that “if the media had not existed, I believe Maria and Antonio would still be out here – because that’s just who they are.” Others on social media, though, have questioned whether French’s role is appropriate, given that the shooting happened in St. Louis County.
Not all north St. Louis County political figures see French's involvement negatively. Chappelle-Nadal credited French with alerting her about Brown’s death. He said French has been “amazing” during the past few tumultuous days.
State Rep. Sharon Pace, D-St. Louis County, represents part of Ferguson in the Missouri House. She said she “welcomed” other elected officials getting involved.
“The residents and the people that live in the district really need to give the full view of what’s going on because they’re the only ones that know what’s happening,” Pace said. “I also think that input from other areas is important. We all need to work together. It’s about the family. It’s about the child that’s been killed. And we need to work together and get a resolution for that.”
For his part, French said, “At any time Hazel Erby or any north county leader wants to take charge and lead this situation, they can and they should.”
“But in absence of their leadership, people like myself and Sen. Nasheed – we love our people no matter where they live,” French said. “And they help and they need representation. We’re going to be there.”
French – who has relatives in north St. Louis County – said the outcry over Brown’s death transcends traditional jurisdictional borders. He said the episode has a broader lesson for the region.
“What I want people to understand is things have been bad for a long time,” French said. “Most of St. Louis, definitely through our media, has been able to ignore it. The group of people that have been ignored for so long – the conditions they live in, the circumstances that they encounter especially with police – are angry about it. And I think this Michael Brown killing just brought this all to a head.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads about Missouri politics.