It was 8:30 a.m., and DeRay Mckesson was at a McDonald’s here, the place humming with customers despite riots that left the businesses on both sides boarded up.
With two iPhones and a laptop glowing on the table before him, Mckesson began editing the slickly curated newsletter of articles, tweets and photographs that he and a friend have published almost every day since an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, was shot by a police officer just around the corner.
Mckesson’s readership has been mounting as tensions in Ferguson are again on the rise ahead of a grand jury’s decision, expected in the coming days, of whether to indict the officer, Darren Wilson.
The protest campaign, which emerged out of the riots that followed Brown’s killing, lacks a single charismatic leader or direction from a national organization. But at the front lines, an influential contingent of organizers including Mckesson is giving the movement a sense of identity and shaping how the American public sees it.
Regardless of whether the grand jury indicts Wilson, protest leaders say they plan to keep pricking the consciousness of whites and the political establishment, using confrontational tactics to make it clear that the lives of African Americans must be protected.
“I want to believe there is a way to protest that is more than marching but not bloodshed,” Mckesson said.
The key figures in the campaign, representing more than a dozen groups, include a rapper, a law professor and a 15-year-old, and their tactics range from working within the political system to more militant action. The movement is plagued by infighting.
But a common thread runs through some of the most influential organizers. They are black, relatively new to civil rights activism and technologically savvy, masters of social media. Using Twitter, Vine and Instagram, they mobilize their peers, document every twist and turn, and annotate history in real time.
Charles Wade, 32, a fashion stylist from Austin, started a Twitter hashtag, #OperationHelporHush, the day after Brown’s killing, and overnight it raised about $5,000 to support protesters.
Shermale Humphrey, 21, had been working at a Subway restaurant in St. Louis when Brown was shot. She became so caught up in the protests that followed that she stopped going to work and started organizing marches, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience.
When the riots erupted in August, Mckesson, 29, was in Minneapolis working as a school administrator. Since then, he has spent his weekends and vacations in Ferguson, flying back and forth, participating in protests and developing his newsletter with a local partner. The readership just passed 5,000.
“If we allow black lives to be killed so effortlessly in Ferguson, then nothing I ever did before really mattered,” he said.
Mckesson, a slight man with close-shaven hair and a tidy goatee, has long been an advocate on education issues. But it was the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen killed in 2012 by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, that turned Mckesson’s attention to the perils faced by young African Americans. A Florida jury acquitted Zimmerman.
“I will never forget where I was when the Zimmerman verdict came in,” he said. “It was dark. I cried.”
So when he saw a commotion on Twitter and reports of a body lying on the street in Ferguson on the night of Aug. 9, Mckesson decided he needed to see for himself what was happening. He got in his car and drove nine hours from his apartment to the scene of the shooting. After being chased and tear-gassed by police along with other protesters, he said he decided to immerse himself in the cause.
It has meant getting up as early as 4 a.m. to scan headlines and scroll through e-mails and social-media postings to assemble the newsletter that he puts out with his partner, Johnetta Elzie, before going to his job as senior director for human capital at the Minneapolis school district. It has meant unleashing tweets that are passionate and perfectly on message at all hours.
Like: “We are 94 days in. This is a mature movement. This is organized struggle. We are on the right side of justice. Black lives matter. #Ferguson.”
And: “Silence will lure you with its promise of comfort. But silence will drain your spirit and weaken your soul. Silence corrupts. #Ferguson.”
Like others, he is preparing for another round of protests if Wilson is not indicted. Whether violence erupts, say Mckesson and other organizers, depends largely on the police response, and these leaders don’t pretend to influence, much less control, such a broad, disparate and emotion-driven movement.
He has set up a Web site to be a clearinghouse of information for protesters and plans to “bear witness,” as he has from the beginning, through Twitter. But there is not much else he can do. “Because,” he said, “how do you prepare for what could be the most difficult day of all this since Mike Brown’s death?”
Some of the protest leaders, including traditional civil rights leaders and clergy, have a long history of fighting racism.
But then there are others, like Wade, the Austin stylist, who had not been particularly active in social causes before Ferguson. Wade’s life had been a whirlwind of fashion-magazine shoots and flights to Los Angeles. But he became concerned about the recent spate of African Americans shot by police and vigilantes, and the night of Brown’s shooting noticed a troubling deluge of tweets about Ferguson.
He decided it was time to drop everything and join this cause.
“At a certain point, this problem will get worse if I don’t step in and do something,” he recalls thinking.
Eager to help from his perch in Texas, he tried to raise some money through his following on Twitter. His fundraising pitch was retweeted by actress Amber Riley from the TV show “Glee” and by the singer Estelle, and within 10 days, he raised $25,000. Today, he spends much of his time in Ferguson, living out of a budget hotel by the airport and raising money to provide rations to the protesters.
Every Sunday, he co-hosts a dinner at the tire lot across from the Ferguson Police Department. On a recent evening, the menu was chicken-and-vegetable soup with a side of cornbread — enough for 75 people.
He said he thinks the movement will soldier on even if the police officer is not indicted. Groups are preparing for the fallout from a non-indictment, and Brown’s parents have started a campaign to push police departments to require officers to wear body cameras.
“People just want a crumb of justice right now, and an indictment would be a little something to tide us over,” he said. “Long term, this movement is much bigger.”
Humphrey, the former Subway worker, had been living with her uncle before she lost her job. She now bounces from couch to couch in her circle of protester friends — a sacrifice she said is worthwhile, because what is the point of working when she says she could be killed any day because of the color of her skin?
Now, she said, standing at the Rowan Community Center on a run-down block in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of St. Louis, “I sleep, eat and breathe this.”
To her right, people touched up signs that said “F--- the Police” and “Shoot Back.” Behind her, others walked in and out of the building with steaming plates of barbecued chicken — a sort of fortification for the grand jury announcement. All around was fodder for her disaffection: abandoned buildings surrounded by overgrown lawns and litter.
Humphrey represents a more militant strain within this movement. She considers herself a “revolutionary,” and although she does not support violent protests, she believes burning down the QuikTrip gas station in Ferguson during the first days of the riots was an appropriate response by protesters, “because people have so much built-up anger at the system and they have a right to express themselves.”
Standing amid this hive of activity, she swapped tales with her fellow protesters like war stories — the time they were arrested on the front lines. The tear gas and the pepper spray. The long nights of strategizing and making signs. “The movement doesn’t sleep,” she said. “Why should we?”