Who are the people who have taken over Ferguson, protesting the killing of Michael Brown day after day? Meet Frankie. He’s on day 118.
By Raven Rakia
Frankie was volunteering at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park when he heard the news. A group of people came in talking about something that had happened in Ferguson — a boy had gotten shot and his body was still lying in the street. By around 11 p.m., the 24-year-old found himself on West Florissant Avenue “at least ’bout 4,000 people,” he says. “Upset, outraged over them not releasing the officer name, the information, or anything.”
For Frankie, what happened in Ferguson was a boiling point after the way he’s been treated his entire life: “This time in particular…it opened [my] eyes before it even hit world media or anything. There was enough people down there tired and frustrated over police brutality. I went through police brutality at a young age…and as I’m growing up now I’m still going through it with them putting their hands on me, lying on me, me going to jail for something I didn’t do.”
Frankie’s list of run-ins with the police goes long. It starts in middle school (he eventually attended — and was expelled from — 22 schools), and he is consistently harassed by police in his neighborhood growing up. Eventually, he goes to jail on a drug charge and deals with multiple trips to solitary.
I met Frankie in late August. We sat in a living room in St. Louis with a dozen other locals, watching a television documentary on the Ferguson uprising. Most of the people in the room had met each other protesting night after night for Michael Brown, and they were planning to organize in St. Louis against police violence and for community empowerment.
But Frankie was concerned. He had a meeting with his parole officer in two days. He’d already been warned about protesting. Parole guidelines can have different rules, but often include not hanging out with ex-felons or affiliated gang members.
Frankie is energetic and constantly moving — always talking and telling stories, and making people he just met laugh. His personality comes in handy with the organizing work he does. Frankie is also a 20-something, dark-skinned black man—an easy target. But he wouldn’t let his parole status dictate whether or not he would attend. There were many nights when the St. Louis County Police officers were arbitrarily arresting people, and if Frankie were to get caught, he would be in direct violation of his parole and would likely be sent back to prison. But for him, it wasn’t a choice. “I had to go out there, man,” he says.
In the 118 days since August when the protests began, Frankie has been out on the streets almost every night. We attend a number of protests together. A couple of times, Frankie yells at officers setting up checkpoints to restrict people’s movements: “This ain’t the border! Where do you think you are?” He shouts out the window.
One night, protesters gather out in The Grove. They’re chanting for Vonderrit Myers and Mike Brown. The crowd numbers in the thousands and the organizers want everyone to stay on the sidewalk.
“Only people on the street should be the organizers,” a man shouts into the bullhorn.
They’re talking mainly to Frankie, who is casually walking in the middle of the street with his hands in his pockets, showing no sign of leaving. Frankie shouts back, “They didn’t make me an organizer. They made me a convict.”
“Who’s they?” the organizer responds. Frankie looks at him as if they answer should be obvious: “The state, man.”
The St. Louis Public Schools 2011–2012 Student Code of Conduct Handbook outlines a strict discipline policy: For weapons, drugs, assault, threats on staff, and repeated infractions, the first offense comes with an automatic 10-day out-of-school suspension; the second offense includes long-term suspension or expulsion. Indecent exposure, insubordination, disrespect, fighting, vandalism, and coercion come with automatic suspension for the first offense.
Zero-tolerance policies were implemented throughout Missouri public schools — and most of the rest of America — beginning in the 1990s under Bill Clinton and extended, later, under George W. Bush. According to the ACLU, zero-tolerance meant that out-of-school suspensions rose by 600 percent between 2004 and 2009. Only 17 percent of those were for violent acts.
Frankie had been kicked out of 22 different public schools in the St. Louis area, usually for class disruption and “talking back” to teachers and authority figures. The schools he attended ranged from Lexington Elementary School to Normandy High — the high school that Michael Brown graduated from two months before he was killed.
When Frankie was 13, school authorities at his middle school called the police in to deal with him for disrupting class. Two police officers ended up physically restraining him: They hogtied his legs and tied his hands behind his back, duct-taped his mouth, and pepper sprayed him.
His experience resembles what many call the school-to-prison pipeline, a theory that argues that bringing policing and criminalization into schools streamlines the incarceration of young people and pushes them into the prison system.
And sure enough, when Frankie was 21, he was arrested and charged with a felony — holding enough marijuana to get him with intent to distribute. Missouri has some of the harshest drug laws and sentencing in the country, and marijuana sentences range from a year in jail for the smallest possession to life imprisonment. It also mirrors the country in being heavily disproportionate by race: In St. Louis, for every one white person arrested for marijuana, about 19 black people are arrested. Despite the fact that marijuana usage is pretty much equally split between black and white.
If convicted, Frankie faced more than a decade in prison. His bond was set at $20,000 cash, but Frankie’s family didn’t have the money. Before going to trial, he spent 19 months in a St. Louis city jail called Medium Security Institution (MSI), otherwise known as The Workhouse.
Frankie recalls experiencing “torture and pain” regularly at MSI from solitary confinement, guard abuse, and unsanitary conditions. He says guards would repeatedly force inmates, including himself, to fight each other and place bets on them, or would bribe prisoners with cigarettes, snacks, and outside food to get them to fight each other while they watched.
The roaches he remembers particularly. “When you wake up in the middle of the night and flick that light on you see the whole cafeteria, it’s bugs and roaches, mice.” The overcrowding in the jail exacerbated the unsanitary conditions.
One day when Frankie was being held in solitary, he says he was physically abused by one of the guards in the unit. Frankie was let out of his cell l to go see the nurse for a checkup. As he returned, with his legs and arms shackled, the guard approached Frankie and told him he was walking too slow. Frankie responded, “This is how I walk.” Then, as Frankie tells it:
“He slammed me to the wall. Picked me up off my feet and started choking me. Choking me and I passed out and next thing you know I got slammed to the ground. And right there he still had his grip around me and I couldn’t scream or nothing because that’s how tight he had the grip around me. You have a lieutenant that came running in and another C.O. There’s a nurse there…They see my eyes roll back and I wasn’t responding so they took him off me… Trying to kill me, that’s what it felt like. He jumped off …but he ran back and grabbed my leg and twisted my ankle. This is a guard. And [then] I go in my cell without no medical attention.”
Frankie was sent to solitary too many times for him to recall. The reasons varied: from fights with another inmate that he was coerced into by guards, to holding his hands in a way that guards said looked like gang signs. The longest he spent in the hole was five months. Frankie calls it “the worst five months” of his life.
The ACLU reported on the conditions at the workhouse in 2009; the report backs up Frankie’s account at MSI. Specifically: “Inmate assaults by COs, inmate assaults on other inmates directed by COs, systematic cover-up of incidents, false reporting, failure to make reports, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, medical neglect, squalor, overcrowding, extended incarceration, inmates stripped naked and subjected to temperature extremes, negligence resulting in death, intimidation, [and] failure to log and report medical matters.”
In one section of the report, a correctional officer explained that “inmates are regularly forced to sleep under beds and toilets” because of the overcrowding and “mats and steel inside the facility are not regularly sanitized; vomit and human feces are sometimes found on surfaces in areas where inmates are housed.”
In 2012, some inmates filed a lawsuit. Major Tanya Harry, chief of security at MSI, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
When the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson came through, Frankie told me what he thought: “I’m outraged and the people that I hang around are outraged because they keep getting away with certain things. We not finna let them get away this time…Missouri is the show-me state. We ain’t doing no talking. We’re gonna show them…Muhfuckas ain’t gonna keep taking this bullshit. I know I ain’t gonna keep taking no bullshit. They keep killing our brothers out here. This is our race.”
All Frankie knows is black people are either dying or disappearing. His cousin: in prison with two life sentences. His brother: killed a week before our second interview. Michael Brown, Vonderrit Myers, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford III, over the span of a few months. I ask Frankie how he’s doing. “Hurting,” he says, looking down at his hands, his shoulders hunched. “Hurting real bad.”
It’s a feeling shared by a lot of protesters, who refused to suffer in silence. If they had to feel the pain, the rest of the world should feel it, too. Or as someone borrowed from Katniss and tagged on a St. Louis landmark in the Shaw neighborhood, “If we burn, you burn with us.”
The community work Frankie has been doing for the past 10 years includes mentoring, providing people with jobs and child support, setting people up with GED classes, and getting amnesty for people with traffic warrants. He hopes to continue this work with a group called the Mighty 13, made up of 12 other men he met while protesting in August. The group will help people who have run-ins with the law, set people up with job opportunities and other resources, and survey people regarding the issues they’re concerned with in the neighborhood. But in Ferguson, the collective outcry that began in August and has lasted for over 100 days was more than the trauma of a few hours. The ingredients to make St. Louis boil over have been adding up for years.
“I’m sick and tired. I’m sick and tired of it,” Frankie says. “If young warriors gonna be out there like that, I’m [going to] stand with them because I’m a warrior myself. And when we come together for something like that, we’re united. You don’t let nothing break that.”