On the evening of July 5, 2005, police in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood were serving a search warrant at a home in the mostly Black neighborhood of Meacham Park when 12-year-old Joseph “Bam Bam” Long suffered a seizure and collapsed.
Witnesses would later testify that officers did not bother to administer aid to the boy and instead stepped over and around him while they conducted their search. It was a White officer known as “Big Mac”—Sgt. William McEntee—who kept Long’s mother from attending to her sick child. When finally an ambulance was called, it was too late; Bam Bam was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Watching all this unfold from a neighboring home was Bam Bam’s 19-year-old half-brother Kevin Johnson, known as “KP” in the neighborhood. When McEntee returned to the Meacham Park neighborhood two hours later to respond to a report of fireworks, the distraught African American teenager confronted him, proclaimed “You killed my brother!” and opened fire, fatally injuring McEntee.
A jury convicted Johnson of McEntee’s murder and sentenced him to death. Citing mitigating circumstances and irregularities at trial that included an ineffective defense lawyer, protesters have petitioned Missouri’s governor to grant clemency to Johnson and commute his sentence to life without the possibility of parole.
Leading the movement to free Johnson from death row, however, is the unlikeliest of activists, a 45-year-old African American woman named Michelle Smith.
The making of an activist
When 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in 2014, Smith was doing time in state prison for fraud charges. When George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer six years later, she had been out of prison for about three months.
Two months after that, a friend sent her a posting for a job with a nonprofit called Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. She did not apply so much as pounce.
“I went to a conference recently where someone said that ‘Those who have been shot at are going to lead us,’” she told the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder in an interview. “I think he meant those people who have been in a place where survival isn’t guaranteed, because we’re the ones who most feel that sense of urgency.
“We can’t rely on the Democrats, and we can’t rely on [Black Lives Matter] The grassroots in the Black community will have to save itself.”
Spurred on by social media and the understanding that both politicians and Black professionals have largely abandoned the poorest African American communities, Black grassroots activism seems to be resurgent across the country, harkening back to the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements in the 1950s and 60s.
Activism on the rise
After a nearly 70-year-old arrest warrant was discovered in the basement of an Alabama courthouse, activists and relatives of Emmett Till scoured the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, to make a citizen’s arrest of Carolyn Bryan Donham, the White housewife whose accusation of a catcall led to the 11-year-old’s lynching in 1955.
In Oakland, Black and Latino parents have been occupying Parker Elementary School since May 25 to reverse the school district’s plans to close it. Similarly, dozens of mostly Black and Latino tenants of Philadelphia’s University City Townhomes have occupied the affordable housing project for nearly three weeks to protest its sale to developers.
Demanding access to affordable housing, jobs and health care, thousands of picketers attended last month’s March on Washington organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, while African American students across the country are spearheading efforts to rename campus buildings named for staunch segregationists or Confederate heroes.
Black workers have played instrumental roles in drives to organize Amazon warehouses and Starbucks cafes. Demonstrations continue against police brutality such as last month’s fatal shooting of a Black Door Dash driver in Akron, Ohio despite growing repression from law enforcement.
Scholars have identified an upward trend in grassroots Black activism beginning roughly near the end of the Obama administration. A 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of African Americans used social media for political purposes compared to roughly a third for Whites and Latinos.
“Since Mike Brown’s tragic death and the Ferguson uprising, there has been a move to center the voices of the people on the ground, “Smith told the MSR. “It all stems from the recognition that the people who are most affected by these issues are Black and Brown and poor, and we are in the best position to come up with solutions.”
The activist legacy
The African American poor and working-class are hardly strangers to political activism. They were key players in the formation of the Black Panthers, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the labor struggles that modernized the economy during the New Deal.
In his classic study “Black Reconstruction”, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that Abraham Lincoln was forced to sign the Emancipation Proclamation by the slaves’ mass action, which included sit-down strikes, work stoppages, the constant sabotage of their owners’ crops, and escape, after which many joined the Union Army.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Nation Under Our Feet,” the historian Steven Hahn wrote: “In late January 1868, less than a year after Radical Reconstruction had commenced, freedmen and women in the vicinity of Woodville, Mississippi, were, I learned, driving their employers to distraction.
They were not, according to a federal agent on the scene, laboring ‘as faithfully as they should,’ and instead insisted ‘on having Saturday for themselves.’ But most irritating of all was their disposition to ‘leave work to attend public meetings and speakings of various kinds, and at difficult places’ up to twenty-five miles distant, and to hold ‘private club meetings’ closer to home.”
Twice convicted on fraud charges—first when a friend arranged for her father to cosign for a college loan for Smith without his consent or Smith’s knowledge, and again when she collected a few months of federal disability payments after she landed a job—Smith was incarcerated for 50 months in total.
Her experience with the criminal justice system, reading revolutionary figures such as Malcolm X and George Jackson, and the failure of BLM to deliver anything of value to Ferguson, all influenced her decision to become an activist.
“You can’t do community work from a mansion,” she said, referring to reports of the purchase of expensive southern California homes by Patrisse Cullors, executive director of the BLM Global Network.
Smith has created her own NGO focused on prison abolition, she said, and teaches activists how to engage lawmakers about the issues. Sometimes, she said, she even reaches into her own pocket to put money on the books of inmates.
“I don’t have much,” she said, “but I do what I can. I just want to free my people.”
Jon Jeter is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, who has also served stints at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Washington Post, among others.