When the gunfire stopped on Aug. 3, 2013, Darren Seals had six gunshot wounds. The then-26-year-old, known for running with a rough crowd, had been hit as he stood outside his cousin’s house, waiting for a ride. The first tore through his stomach. Three more hit his hands, which he had thrown up to block his face. As he fell to the ground, two more bullets struck his feet.
It was the second time he’d been shot, according the account Seals would later provide in interviews and social media posts.
The third, and final time, came earlier this week.
St. Louis County Police say the remains of Seals’s lifeless body, which had at least one gunshot wound, were found early Tuesday morning inside his vehicle, which had been set aflame. Police are investigating his death as a homicide.
During the past three years, Seals had become among St. Louis’s most prominent anti-violence advocates and a co-founder of Hands Up United, an activist collective formed after the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
“Every time he talked about getting shot, he would say that moment forever changed his life,” said Mya Aaten-White, a St. Louis-based activist and close friend of Seals’s. “In that moment he made an agreement with himself to give his life to his community.”
Seals decided that once he got out of the hospital after his 2013 shooting he would join the ranks of local anti-gun-violence activists, according to accounts he gave in previous interviews and recollections of those who knew him. Not long later, he added police brutality to his list of causes. He was a “day-one” Ferguson protester — among the first to take to the streets to demand justice after Brown’s death.
“After Mike Brown, we saw it as our responsibility to step up,” said Aaten-White, who first met Seals on Aug. 9, 2014, the day Brown was killed, as they both stood with the crowd that was gathering at the QuikTrip gas station.
In interviews Wednesday, more than a dozen prominent St. Louis-area activists and organizers recalled Seals as an energetic yet polarizing figure within the protest movement. Not in the business of earning goodwill, Seals was scorned by many prominent activists yet beloved by a cadre of local activists who regarded him as a brave truth-teller. This week he is being mourned by both groups.
“He was a frontline solider, a warrior,” said Anthony Shahid, a longtime St. Louis activist, himself known as a sharp-tongued firebrand, who knew Seals well. “I loved that young brother, and I loved how he fearlessly stood up for our people.”
In many ways, Seals was a fitting symbol of the Ferguson protester: a local resident, not a trained activist or organizer, who saw Michael Brown’s dead body and the trauma that his death had inflicted on the community, members of which organically poured into the streets — bringing with them their baggage, their contradictions and their humanity.
“He represented the authenticity of Ferguson: that rawness, that realness, that readiness,” said Alexis Templeton, a Ferguson activist who at times publicly clashed with Seals.
“There is just a relationship that St. Louis folks have with each other where it’s still love,” Templeton said. “He’s a human being, he was out there with me, we both got arrested during those protests, we shared the experience of Ferguson. That makes us blood.”
Seals, 29, was among the first residents to take to the streets of Ferguson after Michael Brown’s shooting, often telling reporters that he had been there within 45 minutes of the fatal shots fired by the police officer, Darren Wilson. And during the two years that would follow, he developed a close relationship with the Brown family — becoming one of the chief points of contact between them and the young activist collectives that propelled a series of disjointed street protests into a national movement. On the night of the grand jury decision, Seals stood with Brown’s mother in front of the Ferguson Police Department building as the news that Wilson would not be charged was announced.
“Caught my first felony at the age of 18 for slamming a cop on his head. Was shot 7 times and had a smile on my face the whole time.” Seals wrote in a November 2014 Facebook post. “I’m a fighter and i been one all my life. I do what I do because I’m fearless I don’t fear jail, death, NOTHING. I ain’t ask for the cameras that’s not why I went out there August 9th hell I would’ve never guessed this would get this big. I went out there because I’m too much of a man to sit back and do nothing while innocent boys are murdered by cops.”
His activism came between 12-hour shifts at a local General Motors plant, and included throwing a Thanksgiving dinner for low-income families and giving out Christmas gifts to underprivileged children. Like many of the young people who protested in Ferguson, Seals was often disgusted with how he saw his city and the protest movement being portrayed in the media and was unafraid to say so. He was a proud mentor to his 14-year-old younger brother and idolized Huey P. Newton and Fred Hampton.
“He gave his heart and soul to the movement,” said Tony Rice, a mainstay at the Ferguson protests. “He gave a lot of his money and time and energy.”
Seals was among the most vocal of the Ferguson protesters who backed a plan to send a message to St. Louis County’s elected leadership — which consists almost exclusively of Democrats — by voting for Republican candidates in the first round of elections following Brown’s death. And he often criticized President Obama, whom he voted for, for not doing enough to reform police departments and rid minority communities of police violence and racial profiling.
“The community lost a leader who put action behind his words, Darren Seals didn’t just talk about what we need to do … He went and did it,” Bassem Masri, a St. Louis activist who livestreamed from dozens of Ferguson protests and was close friends with Seals, said in a message on Wednesday. “His dream was to open a youth center in Ferguson, one where any child can go and learn, play sports and be empowered. That is what Darren Seals was about.”
In recent months, several friends and fellow activists said, Seals had been laying plans for an economic boycott that he hoped would renew the conversation about police killings in St. Louis.
“He fought alongside us all when everything went down,” Ebony Williams, a St. Louis-area activist who was arrested protesting during the Ferguson demonstrations, said in a message on Wednesday morning. “Yeah, he ranted and raved and I agreed and disagreed on certain topics, but respect for him was high because he never cared about what people thought of the stuff he talked about … the best conversations of revolution came from him.”
Seals was deeply skeptical of national organizations that he felt had co-opted the organic energy and power of the Ferguson protests, and he often accused other activists of getting rich while Ferguson was left behind. He publicly clashed with St. Louis natives like Templeton and Johnetta Elzie, prominent figures he insisted had sold out, and he harbored a special contempt for Deray Mckesson, a school administrator who traveled to Ferguson from his home in Minneapolis to join the protests and eventually became among the nation’s most prominent activists. Seals would often take to his social media accounts to level pointed attacks at McKesson and #BlackLivesMatter, an umbrella organization founded after the death of Trayvon Martin that the media quickly linked to the demonstrations in Ferguson.
“Millions and millions flowing through the hands of these organizations in the name of Mike Brown yet we still don’t see any of it coming into the ferguson community or being used to help our youth,” Seals wrote on Facebook in May 2015, in a post not atypical of those found on his page. “I’ve been calling all this shit out for months but most of to fake ass movement mfs are just as bad as the oppressors because y’all saw what was going on just as well as I did and y’all sat back and said nothing.”
Regarding Darren Seals' death: read what he wrote. His main concern was local Ferguson movement hijacked by BLM and out-of-town activists.— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) September 7, 2016
For other local activists who felt angered that the media attention had departed from Ferguson and Greater St. Louis, his online screeds were often heralded as bold truth-telling. Yet many other organizers and activists distanced themselves, publicly and privately, from Seals in part because his attacks on other activists felt too personal to be launched in public and, several said, often included language or undertones that they found homophobic, misogynistic or otherwise impolitic.
“His Facebook page shows how controversial he was, under every post there was some kind of argument over what he was saying,” said Bradley Radford, a photojournalist who is among those who spent the most time covering the young activists who took to the streets after Michael Brown’s death. “He was always on 100.”
Those online tensions boiled over physically in February 2015 when, during a protest outside of the Ferguson Police Department, Seals confronted Mckesson in the parking lot of Andy Wurm Tire & Wheel autoshop, where demonstrators often gathered. According to previous interviews with both men, Seals approached and accused Mckesson of stealing money from local protest groups — an accusation often leveled at Mckesson and other prominent activists, but that has never been substantiated. When Mckesson smirked in response, Seals smacked him across the face.
Across activism circles — both among his allies and adversaries — Seals’s death rocked the psyche of the protest movement this week. Activists said they were shocked at the violence in which he died, eager to learn more and worried about whether it was a targeted attack. In recent months, Seals had claimed that he was being harassed by local police.
“In this line of work, we know that we’re being watched and we know that those of us who are being the most outspoken are probably being harassed a lot more,” said Rasheen Aldridge, a young organizer who was a member of the Ferguson Commission appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon (D) following the unrest. “But it’s crazy to see something like this happen, especially the way that it happened.”
Local activists are quick to note that Seals is not the first man in St. Louis to be shot and killed and then left in a burning car. In fact, on the night that it was announced that Darren Wilson would not be charged with a crime for Michael Brown’s death, a 20-year-old named DeAndre Joshua was found shot and killed and left in a burning car. Rumors quickly spread that Joshua had testified before the grand jury that was probing Brown’s death. But while Joshua was friends with Dorian Johnson — the primary and most well-known witness to Michael Brown’s shooting — his family insisted he had been nowhere near the shooting, and the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney’s office told The Washington Post in December 2014 that Joshua had not been a grand jury witness.
On Tuesday night, activists and friends gathered at the site of Seals’s death — building a memorial on top of the charred asphalt where his car burned.
Heather De Mian, an activist and livestreamer who remains a mainstay at St. Louis-area demonstrations about policing and who on Tuesday night livestreamed from the vigil, said she was dismayed that, when she arrived on the scene various pieces of debris from the vehicle and what appeared to be shell casings had been left behind by police investigators.
“The memorial is constructed on top of his car door, which the police just left there,” De Mian said. “You would think the car door would be important evidence, that there might be fingerprints, you know. The police just left it there.”
Activists, both locally and in other cities, said they will demand transparency and vigilance from St. Louis County in investigating Seals’s death, which many are convinced was a targeted attack. Meanwhile, friends like Aaten-White and Masri say they are committed to making sure the community center that Seals had dreamed of gets constructed in Ferguson.
“We find our true friends in moments of strife,” Masri said. “As his brother I will try to spearhead a new campaign to bring his dream to reality: ‘The Darren Seals Youth Center’ in Ferguson.”
For his part, Seals wrote on Facebook in October 2015 that, were he to die young, he did not want fanfare or tributes from family members, estranged friends or activists who had not been allies of his in life.
“If I was to die young (hopefully that won’t happen)…” Seals wrote 11 months before his death. “…Share memories, laugh together, cry, if you smoke or drink light one in the air and pour out a lil liquor and lay me to rest.”
While she didn’t agree with all of his politics or tactics, De Mian said that she will remember Seals as an eager activist who always greeted her with a hug and a smile.
Particularly meaningful was when Seals, unbeknownst to her, including livestream footage of De Mian in a music video for a rap track by him and several other St. Louis hip-hop artists. The song, “Born Targets,” chronicled their lingering anger at the police, dissatisfaction with politicians including Obama, and the ongoing need for justice for Mike Brown. In the accompanying music video, the artists rap while standing in front of the QuikTrip gas station that was burned to the ground on the second night of unrest in Ferguson in between splices of news clips and raw footage of the militarized police response to the demonstrations.
When the video was released, De Mian started hearing from fellow protesters about her guest appearance.
“The next time I saw him, at the protest on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2015, I went up and asked him why he had put me in the video,” De Mian recalled, with a smile that could be heard through the phone. “And he told me: we put you in the video it’s because you’re ride or die with us. You’re ride or die.”