6 young, black activists leading today’s equality movement


On Aug. 9, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, black youth in Ferguson, Missouri. Within 48 hours, this small, previously unknown town was catapulted into the spotlight as national media documented the aftermath of the incident, which included protests, around-the-clock tweets, and calls for changes in police practices around the country.

The equality movement reignited by Brown’s death has been intentional, organized, diverse and, for the most part, peaceful. Some protesters left their jobs or stopped their schooling to make their way to Missouri and join in. Since last August, they have organized dozens of protests — facing militarized police and arrests in the process — founded new organizations, and even met with President Barack Obama. Here, a closer look at six young, black activists who are leading today’s equality movement. 

1. Johnetta Elzie

Johnette Elzie
Photo: The St. Louis American

This 25-year-old St. Louis resident is a leading voice in the equality movement, both on social media and on the ground in Ferguson. Johnetta Elzie first became active in cleanup and supply provision efforts, giving food and water to protestors in the evenings. She then became the point person for those who came from out of town to help.

Elzie is a curator of the Ferguson protestor newsletter We, The Protesters, which she created with DeRay Mckesson to share current events and planned action for concerned citizens. She is also very active on Twitter, where she tweets as @nettaaaaaaaa, sharing what she sees in Ferguson with more than 37,000 followers.

2. DeRay Mckesson

Photo: Sid Hastings for The Washington Post
Photo: Sid Hastings for The Washington Post

When the riots erupted in Ferguson in August, DeRay Mckesson was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, working as a human resources director for public schools. Since then, he has spent his weekends and vacations in Ferguson, flying back and forth, participating in protests and developing his newsletter, We, The Protesters.

Mckesson, 29, creates and curates the newsletter featuring tweets, articles and photographs. He has published almost every day since Michael Brown’s death and his readership is more than 8,000. Like Elzie, Mckesson has been active on Twitter, where he writes as @deray, tweeting passionate messages to his 65,000 followers about the equality movement.

3 & 4. Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton

Photos: St. Louis Public Radio
Photos: St. Louis Public Radio

Before the death of Michael Brown, Brittany Ferell was a 25-year-old single mom and nursing student nearing graduation. Since the shooting, she’s dropped out of school and dedicated herself to the equality movement.

Twenty-year-old Alexis Templeton has been on the front lines of the protests since she arrived in Ferguson five days after Brown was shot. Templeton has been arrested twice during the protests.

The two women are co-founders of a group called Millennial Activists United, building a women-led grassroots collective. They want to rebuild their community, educate other young people about racism and create a sustainable movement. They are also plaintiffs in a federal court case against law enforcement agencies over their heavy-handed response to demonstrations.

In December 2014, Ferrell and Templeton got married, months after meeting while demonstrating in Missouri.

5. Antonio French

Credit: Sid Hastings, AP
Photo: Sid Hastings, AP

A former journalist, Antonio French is usually tweeting or vining. As @AntonioFrench on Twitter, he’s attracted 121,000 followers and has developed a reputation as a calming figure between demonstrators and police. French had a part in making Twitter the go-to place to see what was happening in Ferguson. He has posted a continuous stream of photos and videos of protestors’ confrontations with police, interactions between groups of protests and anecdotes from protestors. In July 2014 alone, his Twitter handle was mentioned over 582,000 times.

French is a Democratic alderman in St. Louis who represents Ward 21, located just a few miles from Ferguson. In August 2014, French was arrested for unlawful assembly but was released after 24 hours without bond. Since then, he’s become a trusted commentator for national and international media covering events in Ferguson.

6. Phillip Agnew

Credit: Dream Defenders
Credit: Dream Defenders

Phillip Agnew has been a national voice on civil rights since leading the Dream Defenders on a month-long sit-in protest last summer at the Florida Capitol building. Agnew co-founded the Dream Defenders in 2012, a self-described “organization directed by black and brown youth, who confront systematic inequality.”

He has appeared on national television multiple times, and he and a dozen activists sat, ate and slept in the lobby outside Gov. Rick Scott’s office, calling on Scott to repeal the state’s Stand Your Ground law. Agnew was also part of a group of activists who met with President Obama in December 2014 to discuss police practices in the St. Louis region and across the country.

Last November, Missouri announced that the grand jury would not indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting and killing of Michael Brown. Then, a New York grand jury decided not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo after he used a banned chokehold method on an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, which led to Garner’s death. Activists collaborating with these leaders won’t be slowing down anytime soon.