Nearly five years after his passing, family and friends question mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of 29-year-old Ferguson activist Darren Seals.
Before Seals was brutally killed, he wholly dedicated his life to a single noble objective: uniting and freeing the Black community from racist oppression, especially police violence. “He just reminded a lot of people of Malcolm X,” said Seals’ mother, Mary Otis. “He wasn’t scared to die.”
A skilled orator, Seals empowered and mobilized members of the community to organize in the pursuit of justice and accountability. He raised awareness about police violence in the years before he was found shot to death in his vehicle in the Riverview area of St. Louis in 2016. He would have celebrated his 31st birthday on May 15.
Even before the death of Michael Brown in 2014 placed Ferguson, Missouri in the spotlight of the then still-emerging Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Seals was already rising as a force against police violence. More than a year before 18-year-old Brown was fatally shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, a death largely responsible for fueling the movement, 25-year-old college student Cary Ball Jr. was shot 25 times by St. Louis police after crashing his car at the end of a police pursuit.
When Ball’s mother, Toni Taylor, first met Seals at a protest for Brown outside of the Ferguson Police Department on August 10, 2014, the day after his death, he was speaking to the crowd about her son. “He was actually talking about my son, Cary, and that’s what made me walk over to him,” Taylor said. “He was telling the crowd, ‘If ya’ll would have listened to me last year, I was trying to tell ya’ll about Cary Ball Jr.’”
Taylor approached Seals and tapped him on the shoulder. When the young activist saw that the poster board she was holding was full of articles about Ball and heard Taylor say she was his mother, he lifted the board into the air and rallied the crowd. “Cary Ball Jr.’s mom is out here with us!” Seals yelled, encouraging the demonstrators to stand in solidarity with her.
“And from then on, we just loved him on sight,” Taylor said.
When a grand jury ultimately declined to indict Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, Seals consoled the teen’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, outside of the Ferguson Police Department. Images of the encounter have been shared widely.
“We already knew what the decision would be, but at the same time it still hurt to hear it,” Seals told MTV at the time. “And for Mike Brown’s mother to be right there in my arms crying—she literally cried in my arms—it was like I felt her soul crying. It’s a different type of crying. I’ve seen people crying, but she was really hurt. And it hurt me. It hurt all of us.”
Taylor characterized Seals’ death two years after they’d met as “State murder.” In the early morning hours of Tuesday, September 6, 2016, St. Louis County Police responded to reports of a fire at 9600 block of Diamond Drive in Riverview.
After the fire had been extinguished, police found Seals inside the Jeep Wrangler. He had been shot before the car was torched. Police ruled the death a homicide. Authorities have never identified any suspects in Seals’ death.
According to Taylor’s retelling of an eyewitness account from a man who was watching from his porch that night, someone was driving Seals’ Jeep who did not know how to drive a clutch transmission and had trouble moving the vehicle into the area. The driver allegedly jumped out of the Jeep and hopped into a getaway car that quickly sped away. Next, another man emerged from nearby bushes and threw an object into the vehicle. The man then ran away before the car burst into flames.
Otis said that the blaze was so intense that all that was left to identify her son was his skeleton and a few fingers. She and Taylor say Seals’ death came after he was terrorized and targeted by the police for months. “If anything happens to me…Mama, prepare your heart…They are going to kill me,” Seals told his mother prior to his death.
“All I care about is our people coming together… They have our people so divided, but somebody has to join them back together. But prepare your heart, because every leader that ever tried it, they shut them down and killed them,” Otis recalled her son saying.
Otis said she tried to hire three different investigators in the search for answers after Seals died, but that each declined to become involved after she mentioned her son’s name. His death is a part of a larger pattern of people tied to activism meeting brutal fates. Since Michael Brown died, at least five people connected to activism in Ferguson have died.
The body of Deandre Joshua, a 20-year-old friend of a young man who was with Brown the day he was killed, was found dead in a burned car the day after the grand jury declined to bring charges against the officer. Like Seals, he had been shot before the car was set ablaze. At one point, St. Louis police investigated a possible link between the two deaths.
Although the deaths of Edward Crawford Jr., 27, and Danye Jones, 24, were ruled suicides, family and friends have doubted those claims. Police said Crawford, a well-known Ferguson protester captured in an iconic photograph throwing a gas canister back at police, fatally shot himself in 2017, but his family has cast doubt that his wounds were self-inflicted.
Jones’ mother, Melissa McKinnies, an active Ferguson protester, said she believes foul play was involved in her son’s death. Jones was found hanging from a tree in his mother’s backyard in October 2017.
Bassem Masri, a 31-year-old Palestinian-American known for livestreaming the Ferguson protests, was found unresponsive on a bus in 2018. A toxicology report showed he had suffered a fentanyl overdose.
As the deaths of activists continue to rouse suspicion, a brewing controversy within the movement has escalated. Long before the Black Lives Matter movement reached an unparalleled level of worldwide exposure in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, Seals warned about the hijacking of the movement and accused the organization of profiting off of Black death.
The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation revealed in February that it raised $90 million amid America’s racial reckoning last year. In March, the father of Michael Brown and other Ferguson activists demanded $20 million from the organization.
“We’re coming for what we deserve,” said Tory Russell of the International Black Freedom Alliance.
The Brown family and BLM met to hash out issues between BLM and parents of police brutality victims later that month. Neither party has publicly disclosed details of the meeting, but the Michael Brown Chosen for Change Foundation confirmed that there is “no financial relationship or agreement” between the two groups.
“Darren used to call it Black Death businesses. He said that’s what Black Lives Matter was doing,” Taylor said. “Look at it years later, that’s what they have done.”
Niara Savage welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.