Women rise to prominent roles in Ferguson protest
Brittany Packnett. Johnetta Elzie. Patricia Bynes. Pastor Traci Blackmon. Alexis Templeton. The list goes on.
The movement that began in Ferguson last summer has been led by dozens of women; local residents who became activists overnight, state legislators and community leaders who facilitated discussions and protests.
Others, like newly elected school board member Kristine Hendrix of University City, went from being a protester to getting elected to office in the latest round of municipal elections.
It was these women that a group of international feminist leaders traveled to St. Louis to meet.
“Women are the backbone of this movement. I’m not surprised. The movement here has been such an inspiration and such a spark,” said Margaret Prescod, an activist with Global Women’s Strike, an international women's rights group.
“It was very important for us to learn from them as women how they have navigated this movement here,” Prescod said in an interview.
Prescod is one of four members of the Global Women’s Strike who visited the St. Louis region this week for what she calls an “information exchange.” At a breakfast meeting Tuesday at Mokabe’s Coffeehouse, 3606 Arsenal St., the group met with local organizers to share stories of the past nine months.
“This was a pain. And a pain that goes back the 400 years that people of color have been in this country,” said local activist Antona Brent Smith, who organized the meeting. “Women act. Women can see the big picture. But women can also feel and see the hurt.”
Brent Smith is a wife and mother from Kirkwood who goes by “Mama Tay” at protests. She said she felt compelled to be a part of the movement in Ferguson after seeing images in the news of Michael Brown’s mother, who was kept away from the body of her son during a four-hour investigation. When Brent Smith arrived at the protests the next day, she realized just how many female leaders there were.
“Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights Movement was very patriarchal, very traditional, very male-led. The female voices — like Diane Nash, and I’m named for Sister Antona Ebo — those voices and those stories really were not a part of that movement broadly,” Smith said.
Global Women’s Strike coordinators Selma James and Nina Lopez of London sat with Ashley Bernaugh of Florissant and asked about her experiences protesting in Ferguson. Bernaugh, whose son is three years old, said she had moved her interracial family to St. Louis from Kentucky, but they were taken aback when unrest began in August.
“We moved here because I thought it was going to be a big city, I thought it was going to appreciate diversity and appreciate my family,” Bernaugh said. “I wanted my son to grow up with kids that looked like him.”
James, an author who is known for founding the International Wages for Housework Campaign in Britain, said she wanted to visit the St. Louis region because of the energy here. She said the level of civic participation that has been created through the Ferguson protests is unusual and inspiring.
“Most communities don’t have that kind of activity and that kind of hope for change. There is definitely hope for change here. People expect things to change. They demand that things change,” James said.
Lopez said she and her colleagues — James, Prescod and Phoebe Jones — were particularly impressed by the Mother 2 Mother discussions that have been organized by the Ethics Project.
“When people come abroad, they don’t tell you what the women are doing. They tell you about the demonstration, they tell you about the men, the young people. They don’t tell you about the mothers. There were 200 women coming to these meetings, and you know that justice work that women in particular do is just crucial to changing everything,” Lopez said.
“And that’s something we’re taking back,” James said.