Surrounded by clouds of tear gas that hung low in the air above his head, Edward “Skeeda” Crawford sat on the sidewalk and watched as the Ferguson police traded shouts and threats with dozens of residents who had gathered in protest on the night of Aug. 11, 2014.
For three consecutive nights, enraged crowds had gathered to demand answers about the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old whose body had been left in the street for more than four hours. But this was the first night that Crawford had joined the protests.
“This is beyond Mike Brown,” Crawford said that evening. “This is about all of us.”
Two days later, Crawford would become a nationally recognized symbol of the unrest in Ferguson when, dressed in an American flag tank top and clutching a bag of potato chips, he picked up a tear-gas canister and tossed it back toward riot gear-clad officers. The scene was captured by the lens of St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer Robert Cohen and was part of the package that earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize for their photography of the unrest.
Crawford Jr., 27, died Thursday night after what police say was a self-inflicted gunshot wound, leaving behind four children.
According to police, Crawford was riding in the backseat of a vehicle that evening when he began telling the two other occupants that he was depressed.
“The victim began expressing he was distraught over personal matters to the witnesses,” Leah Freeman, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police, said in a statement. “The witnesses heard the victim rummaging in the backseat, then heard a gunshot and observed the victim had sustained a gunshot wound to the head.”
Crawford’s father, Edward Sr., told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he believes his son accidentally shot himself.
News of Crawford’s death quickly rippled across activists circles.
Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a state senator who was a regular at the Ferguson protests, said she was in disbelief when she saw on Facebook on Friday morning that Crawford was dead.
“This young man represented so much for Ferguson,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “On a global level, he is the individual who represented the Ferguson movement and what we were doing with our activism.”
By the time of Brown’s funeral on Aug. 25, 2014, Crawford had become a local hero and celebrity — dozens stopped him and asked to take pictures with him as he exited the church and a handler helped shepherd him to various members of the media for interviews.
Nearly a year later, St. Louis County officials charged Crawford with interfering with a police officer and assault for his iconic tear gas toss. In court documents, prosecutors said they were charging Crawford with “throwing a burning gas canister at police officers and making physical contact with (an officer), causing him to be knocked to the ground.”
“When they shot the tear gas, it landed pretty close,” Crawford said in December 2015. “It sounds like a grenade is going off when it’s shot…it landed fairly close to me……I threw it out of the way. I really didn’t aim for a direction, because I didn’t really have time to even think about where I was going to throw.”
His death comes eight months after the murder of Darren Seals, a prominent Ferguson activist who was found shot dead in a burning car last September, prompting some to question whether Crawford’s death was truly a suicide. St. Louis County PD said Friday that the investigation into Seals’s death remains active. (Another man, Deandre Joshua was found shot to death in a burning car in Ferguson on the night of the grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson).
“We’ve had three or four shootings, two of which have been quite similar to one another,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “Whether it’s a suicide, whether it was a mistake, whether it was a murder, it is a huge loss.”
Enshrined in the minds of many as a symbol of defiant protest — which he said in interviews had brought attention to issues of police impunity and brutality that had long been overlooked — Crawford always expressed skepticism about whether real, sustained change would ever come to the people of Ferguson.
“You’re gonna write your story, and you’re gonna leave town, and nothing is going to change,” he told this reporter in August 2014. “One day, one month, one year from now, after you leave, it’s still going to be f–ked up in Ferguson.”