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Five Years After Ferguson, a Spate of Dead Activists Fuels Distrust and Division

Six men linked to the Ferguson protests have died, some under suspicious circumstances. Coincidence? Depends who you ask.

Illustration: Rachelle Baker

OnOn the evening of Oct. 16, 2018, Melissa McKinnies — a prominent protester in Ferguson, Missouri — had a nightmare. Her body seemed to hurt. It felt like someone was pulling on her hands. When she woke up, McKinnies noticed a light on in the basement, where her son Danye Jones slept. Her husband, Derek Chatman, went downstairs to turn it off, didn’t see Jones, and told McKinnies, who walked down to look. There was no sign of Jones, but strangely, she noticed a brick next to his bed. She picked it up and took it into the backyard. That’s where she found her son, hanging from a tree.

McKinnies screamed. She thought it might be part of her nightmare until she realized she wasn’t asleep. She shook her head and tried to focus. Her husband and Jones’ uncle, Daniel Muhammad, heard and came to the backyard. They saw Jones hanging by a bedsheet, fists balled up, pants bunched around his ankles. A chair sat nearby. As the family processed the horrible scene, they thought they noticed some strange details — bruising on Jones’ face, for instance — so Muhammed took photos of Jones before helping cut him down. “The look in his face looked like he was defeated,” McKinnies says.

The police arrived 15 minutes later. They interviewed family members and collected evidence, including the bedsheet. In January of this year, the Saint Louis County Health Department released its medical examiner’s report into Jones’ death, concluding that he had committed suicide. It stated that family members told investigators that McKinnies last saw Jones walking into the backyard carrying a backpack the night before. Jones sent his sister Melisha a text message at 9:30 p.m. saying “I’m sorry,” to which his sister replied, “I love you.”

According to the report, family members told investigators that Jones “has stated several times over the years that he felt depressed; although, he was never clinically diagnosed with depression. Additionally, the decedent recently started a real estate business, which did not succeed, and he was dealing with rumors of him being a homosexual. Family stated all of these things were weighing heavily on Jones’ mind.”

McKinnies, however, doesn’t believe her son committed suicide. The medical examiner’s report, she says, is full of lies. She believes her son was lynched.

SSince August 2014, when protests erupted in Ferguson after Michael Brown, a black teenager, was killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, six people with ties to the demonstrations have died — many in violence, and some in strange circumstances. The first known death occurred in November 2014 during the protests themselves, when 20-year-old Deandre Joshua, a childhood friend of Dorian Johnson’s — the most significant eyewitness to Brown’s shooting — was found dead in his car after being shot once in the head and set on fire. The car was found near the Canfield Green Apartments, where Brown was killed, the morning after a grand jury declined to indict Wilson.

In February 2016, MarShawn McCarrel, 23 — a Black Lives Matter activist who protested in Ferguson — killed himself on the steps of the statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Hours before his death a post on McCarrel’s Facebook page stated in part “my demons won today. I’m sorry.”

Seven months later, 29-year-old Darren Seals — co-founder of Hands Up United, an activist group that formed after Brown’s death — was found inside a burning car after being shot multiple times. Seals was one of the first protesters in Ferguson; he often said he had been in the streets 45 minutes after Brown was shot. He was one of the most recognizable activists in St. Louis, routinely demonstrating against police brutality, gun violence, and racial injustice. Seals was standing with Brown’s mother outside the Ferguson Police Department as news broke that Wilson wouldn’t be indicted.

In May 2017, Edward Crawford — an activist made famous by a photograph showing him in an American flag shirt throwing a tear gas canister during the riots — was found dead at age 27 from what officials described as a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Two witnesses to the shooting say Crawford was distraught over personal issues. At the time, Crawford’s dad told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he didn’t believe his son’s death was a suicide.

And in November 2018, Bassem Masri, 31 — a Palestinian American activist who live-streamed protests in Ferguson — died from an apparent heart attack. A toxicology report released after his death showed that the heart attack followed a fentanyl overdose.

Danye Jones’ name is often included in this list now, even though he wasn’t an activist like his mother. In 2014, Melissa McKinnies co-founded a grassroots protest group called Lost Voices following the death of Brown. In the weeks after the shooting, the group’s members slept in tents along West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson’s main commercial strip, to protest racial inequalities and police-involved deaths like Brown’s.

“I kept putting myself in Lesley’s shoes,” McKinnies says, referring to Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother. “What if it was one of my sons?” She says she remembers “a lot of anger and pain, but at the same time excitement because you saw people of all different races come together for the greater cause.”

Three years later, McKinnies helped organize protests after Jason Stockley, a white St. Louis police officer, was found not guilty in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black man. She became well-known to police for her involvement in demonstrations around Ferguson; at one point she was accused along with several other protesters of taking a man’s iPhone who had been filming an activist planning session.

But over the last year, her activism has become even more personal.

OnOn a mild, sunny day last winter, McKinnies stood outside a custom apparel shop in Ferguson, family members close behind, wearing a T-shirt with the phrases “Justice For Danye Jones” and “2018 Lynching” written in red. In her arms, she carried a brown paper bag filled with fliers. One side showed Jones in a suit next to a brief summary of his life. The back showed the photo taken by Muhammad of Jones hanging from the tree and a list of reasons why his family believes it wasn’t a suicide.

McKinnies walked into the shop and began telling the owner why she and her family members — all wearing Danye T-shirts — were there. She handed him a flier.

“He was lynched in the backyard?” the owner asked her. Yes, McKinnies said, and told him all about her son and how he wouldn’t have done this to himself. McKinnies then stopped by a nearby barbecue restaurant. “We’ll be praying for you,” one woman told McKinnies. Next, they drove to a salon and told the story again.

“When I say lynched, all of a sudden, they’re like, ‘What? Lynched?’” McKinnies told me after we visited almost half a dozen businesses that day. “They still do that? In 2018? We’re so used to hearing my son was shot. But to hear that my son was lynched in my yard, that’s a whole different ball game.”

McKinnies is calm and stoic, with little time for subtlety. When I asked “How are you?” in my first phone call with her, she replied: “Well, my son was killed.”

McKinnies’ actions have come with a cost. She says raising her voice has led to intimidation and harassment. Cars with tinted windows have sat outside her home on multiple occasions, she says, before speeding away once she or her husband stepped outside. She says she’s received threatening messages over social media and been told to shut down her bullhorn — a tool she used frequently at demonstrations — or something bad might happen.

While both the medical examiner’s office and the St. Louis County Police have ruled Jones’ death a suicide, McKinnies says she hadn’t noticed a change in her son in the weeks leading up to his death. She says Jones was just entering the real estate business, trying to flip homes. He was dating but didn’t have a girlfriend. He talked about wanting to work in Africa but still lived at home until he got his money together.

“He didn’t believe in suicide,” she says, mentioning a conversation she had with her son after one of her stepcousins committed suicide. “He was very against it.” The allegations of Jones being gay or that his business was failing are not true, McKinnies says.

Muhammad, Jones’ uncle, says his nephew packed what appeared to be an overnight bag the evening he died, and the family believes Jones was somehow lured out of the house by someone he knew. Muhammad says the sheet was tied into “Navy knots,” which he says Jones wouldn’t have known how to tie. The family cites the bruising on his face that didn’t show up in the medical examiner’s report and questions why his pants were down to his ankles.

“That’s what they would do in the day when they were lynching us,” McKinnies says. “They would pull our pants down.”

There is conflicting information about the call the family made to the police after finding Jones’ body. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, police officers said family members initially reported his death as a suicide. But Muhammad, who says he dialed the police, says he never used the word “suicide” on the call, and now police say the case was “classified as a suicide” based on the “context of the conversation with the reporting party and the dispatchers.”

“Because we know Danye, we’re able to tell people, that’s not him. And that’s why we’re not going to sit down and just be quiet.”

“If we didn’t know him like we know Danye, then we would’ve been one of those families like, ‘Man, life is just too hard for him. He just couldn’t take it,’” says LaToya Jordan, Jones’ aunt. “Because we know Danye, we’re able to tell people, that’s not him. And that’s why we’re not going to sit down and just be quiet.”

AAlthough the deaths of Jones and the five Ferguson activists occurred in a region with one of the highest murder rates in the U.S., it’s difficult for many in the community to view them as unrelated. The families and activists here see a pattern and don’t trust the police to properly investigate.

Following Michael Brown’s death, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Ferguson Police Department routinely violated the rights of black residents, who were the subject of 85% of all traffic stops, 90% of tickets issued, and 93% of arrests — while only comprising two-thirds of the city’s population. According to the Justice Department, officers emailed each other racist jokes, excessively used Tasers and dogs on black residents, and focused on increasing revenue-generating municipal fines that disproportionately affected people of color. Ferguson activists say they have little confidence that the authorities are actively trying to solve these cases.

“We’re losing them and not finding out what’s happening to them,” says Ohun Ashe, a local activist and creator of For the Culture STL, a website promoting black-owned businesses around St. Louis. “Not being told anything. The deaths of activists are real. I don’t think that’s something we should take lightly.”

Ashe and other activists point to the Darren Seals crime scene, where the activist was found with gunshot wounds in a burning car. Videos from the scene that later popped up online showed what appeared to be bullet casings and the door to Seals’ car, neither of which were collected by investigators. Ashe also believes police mishandled the investigation into Jones’ death and doesn’t think he committed suicide, saying there are “too many questionable factors.”

“They called it a suicide so quickly,” Ashe says. “No real investigation.”

Sgt. Shawn McGuire, a St. Louis County Police Department spokesperson, says no arrests have been made in the Seals and Joshua cases — which are still open investigations — because of a lack of evidence and witnesses. The police department’s homicide-clearance rate — the percentage of murder cases in which arrests are made — was 65% in 2018 and 62.5% this year, close to the national average. As for the accusations that the police department hasn’t properly investigated many of the deaths, McGuire says: “Our department is a highly credited police department that works multiple crimes like this on a regular basis.”

At least one activist who questions the investigations has had her own brush with death. Mya Aaten-White, a 29-year-old artist, was shot in August 2014, one bullet piercing her forehead while leaving one of the Ferguson protests. She does not know who shot her, but suspects she was targeted for her activism. She says she was one of the first demonstrators to gather in Ferguson after Brown’s death.

“I’m them, but I just didn’t die,” Aaten-White says. “I’m here to talk about it. That’s the only difference.”

After she was shot, Aaten-White was taken to a nearby home and then placed in an ambulance, where she posted a selfie to her Instagram account from her stretcher. “I was laying with a bullet in my head,” she says. “But I was conscious the whole time.”

A month later, the Riverfront Times published Aaten-White’s incident report. The report, which is two pages long, provides little more than Aaten-White’s own account of what happened. Aaten-White says that she was told by hospital staff that the bullet doctors removed from her skull was later taken from the hospital by police officers.

“My shooting was probably the first unsolved thing that, if that would’ve been looked into, all of these other things could’ve been prevented,” she says. “Everybody let it go. Nobody followed up on it. The only people to speak up about it were Darren [Seals] and Edward Crawford.”

As for Jones’ death, Aaten-White says she thinks he was killed because somebody wanted to cause harm to McKinnies. “I think it was intended to defeat Melissa,” Aaten-White says. “To try to break her down, stop her, quiet her.”

The multiple deaths have caught the attention of the NAACP, which has called for “transparency and justice” from police. Malik Russell, an NAACP communications director, says there are “suspicious circumstances” surrounding many of the deaths related to the protests. “We’re wondering how are these stories connected.”

Many activists, meanwhile, say they continue to receive threats. The Rev. Darryl Gray, a Ferguson pastor who is active in the community, has reported finding a box in his car containing a six-foot python. Ashe says she has been followed, threatened, and been told to stop her activism, which is similar to what McKinnies has reported. “This stuff is real,” Ashe says. “These people aren’t playing.”

“You think, am I next? What’s going to happen to me? It’s a scary situation.”

Marcellus Buckley, 27, who protested in Ferguson in 2014 and recited poetry to demonstrators, says he regularly gets threatening phone calls and disturbing messages on Facebook.

“You think, am I next?” Buckley says. “What’s going to happen to me? It’s a scary situation. It’s in the back of your mind at all times, especially when you’re active and protesting and going against the powers that be.”

FFive years after the protests in Ferguson, the city is still dealing with the same seemingly intractable issues that led to the unrest in the first place. In St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located, homicides have increased in each of the last three years. Some of the stores along West Florissant, the heart of the city’s protests five years ago, have been repaired, but many have not. The racial disparity of traffic stops for black drivers, one of the main issues for activists here, has only grown since 2011, according to a report by the Missouri attorney general. Since the Ferguson unrest in 2014, that disparity has increased by 12 percentage points for black residents and declined by 22 percentage points for white drivers, and overall, black motorists are five times more likely to be stopped than whites. Activists say relations between black residents and law enforcement remain contentious, and some even say things have gotten worse.

“None,” Aaten-White says, when asked if any progress had been made since 2014. “Not at the mainstream level.”

McKinnies says she plans to continue advocating for change to Ferguson’s most urgent problems, but she has to get through this period of her life first. She regularly updates her Facebook feed with #JusticeForDanyeJones and #2018Lynching. The family has hired a private investigator, who she says has identified some of the perpetrators, including some who were familiar with Jones. These are the people who lured him out of the house that night, she says, but didn’t think it would go as far as it did.

“They didn’t know it would end in his murder,” McKinnies says. “The ones that set him up, the ones he knew, they’re now scared for their lives.”

Still, she says she would never trust police with the information. “Hell, no. They helped cover it up,” she says. “I really don’t believe that we will get justice in the courtroom. I really don’t.”

McKinnies isn’t planning to attend demonstrations for the five-year anniversary of Brown’s death this year. Instead, she’s been invited to a dinner hosted by McSpadden, Brown’s mom. “I’m done with the whole Ferguson protesting thing right now,” she says. The deaths of her son and the other demonstrators have frightened activists around Ferguson, she says, some of whom have tried to keep their distance from McKinnies and her family out of fear.

By the end of the month, McKinnies says she plans to move out of the house where Jones died and leave Ferguson altogether. She also recently separated from her husband. Jones’ death, she says, strained their marriage.

It would be easier, she says, to believe that Jones killed himself. “I could move on and I could start grieving,” she says. “But no, we’re not going to do him like that. He wants us to fight for him. That’s all I know to do right now, is to fight.”

Update: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Danye Jones’ sister. It is Melisha.

Writer, reporter, producer; formerly at TIME, ABC News, National Geographic, and Gimlet. Currently producing a documentary for Audible on policing in Brooklyn.

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