Seventeen-year-old Jalen Thompson and his friends Ryan Staples, Joseph Bartholomew and Ryan Fetsch had barely wrapped up their senior year at Fort Zumwalt West High School when protests against police brutality flared up across the country, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Thompson and his friends wanted to seize the moment and find a way to galvanize their suburban community of O’Fallon, Missouri, which is largely white. They expected maybe a couple of hundred people to show up at their June 1 demonstration; what they got was close to 2,000 people.
On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Thompson joined host Sarah Fenske to talk about how he organized the first protest he’s ever even attended, the pushback he initially faced, and how he’s already caught the attention of national media outlets — including MSNBC and the Today Show.
Monday’s demonstration initially garnered attention after Thompson’s Facebook post with protest details was screenshot and shared on a page that posts about police scanner information.
“Most of the comments were negative and worrying us,” Thompson recalled. “There were a lot that were basically saying, ‘This isn’t our issue; this isn’t something that we should be talking about here,’” Thompson said. “There were other ones that were a little more angry, a little more personal about waiting on the street that we’d be marching down with their guns ready to protect their businesses.
“Which, we made it as clear as we possibly could that the protest was going to be peaceful if there was anything we could do about it.”
Regardless, Thompson knew that the protest couldn’t be called off. So the group worked in coordination with police to help ensure an organized event. The police chief even joined them, linking arms with protesters as they marched.
“We either show up — or we don’t. And I think that would be even worse for us, especially as people that organized it, because there were people that wanted this to happen just as much as we did,” he explained.
Thompson said that the momentum on Monday was the best he’s ever felt, and that he was proud of the community that showed up — adding that he honestly didn’t expect so many people to show up for the Black Lives Matter cause.
“It was so easy to get so many people out there, and that’s baffling to me,” he said. “We were doing this because this is now a bigger issue than it ever has been in this country, like more people are speaking on it … more white people are talking about this and openly supporting this than I’ve ever seen.”
“It kind of backfired, those negative comments, and I’m thankful that they happened because it’s given me way, way more of an outlet and a platform than I ever could have expected,” he added.
He’s now garnered more than 12,000 Twitter followers. Thompson plans to attend Colorado State University to study music education in the fall, but is also considering taking a minor in something that would let him continue using his newfound activist platform.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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