Meet the St. Louis Alderman Who's Keeping an Eye on Ferguson's Cops

Antonio French spent a night in jail after documenting this week's protests. Here's what he thinks should happen next.

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 4:45 PM EDT
Alderman Antonio French photographs protestors marching in downtown Ferguson on Monday.

If you watched some truly jaw-dropping Vines of tear-gassing and smoke-bomb-throwing from Ferguson this week, chances are they came from Antonio French, the social-media-loving St. Louis alderman who's been spending lots of time with the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, since the shooting of Michael Brown. He also spent a night in jail after Ferguson police arrested him late Wednesday, initially without giving a reason and later saying it was for "unlawful assembly." (He captured the moment of his arrest in a Vine, naturally.) French still hasn't been given any documents related to his arrest, but he's back to keeping his Twitter followers—there are now nearly 80,000 of them—up to speed on what's happening on the ground.

We asked him about his arrest, what happens next in Ferguson, and his secret to keeping his phone charged while documenting the protests. 

What’s the No. 1 question you want answered right now?

Right now the thing that we still don't know is the physical evidence in the case. Specifically, autopsy results will be able to answer a lot of questions. At least two witnesses have come forward to date, and both have described almost an execution style murder on the streets. Location of gun wounds, number of gun wounds—any of those would really give some more info about exactly what happened.

The fact that police in Ferguson arrested an elected local official is pretty stunning. Has anyone at any level of law enforcement there reached out to you to talk about why this happened?

Oh, absolutely not. When I was released from jail, I was still outside as I bailed out some of my staff who were also arrested. While I was waiting, the chief of police just walked past me.

Are you expecting anyone to reach out to you?

Expecting anyone from Ferguson? No.

How did you think the press conference by the Ferguson Police chief this morning went?

Let me be very clear about this: they need to take the microphone away from that Ferguson police chief. All he does is make things worse. The captain from the Missouri Highway Patrol made clear after the press conference that he was not consulted about it, and in no way we would he have released negative or insinuating information about Michael Brown at the same time as you're releasing the name of this police officer. The mishandling of this whole situation continues. The governor was right to take the security out of the hands of the local authorities and now somebody needs to shut the mics off and let the adults handle it.

The press conference ends, and the crowd has a negative, angry mood again when we should be there celebrating what was a peaceful night. The first hour from the Ferguson police chief now has everybody pissed off again!

What were you doing right before you were arrested?

I was in my vehicle, as the officers there had thrown smoke bombs, flashbang bombs, and they tear gassed. When the tear gas started, I rolled up my windows. Because I went through this a couple days ago, I know that the best way to be was inside your car with the windows up and closing the vents. So that's what I did. My car was surrounded by officers in riot gear and assault rifles. One opened my door and asked me to step out. Before he arrests me, I was actually recording all the way up to that moment, then my phone died and I wasn't able to post or even view the video until the next day when I was released. and when I viewed it, the Vine was incredible, it recorded exactly that moment as the officers were in my car and pulled me out. If you ever shoot Vine videos, you know how difficult it is to get like, the moment within that six seconds! It was pure luck.

What are you up to today?

Man, I'm very thankful of the new guy in charge [Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol]. He gets it. He's doing a great job. What a difference 24 hours makes. It went from horrific to beautiful in 24 hours. And so now that peace is restored I'm gonna be out there with the youth as they continue to demonstrate again.

I think one of my roles now is to kind of articulate to the greater community and even to white America what it is they're seeing. Explain the young people's point of view. This is really a youth-led movement. I'm not old—I'm 36, so not necessarily young anymore—so my role is to be out there and to lead when necessary, intervene if things get out of control one way or another, and really just to be there to support. And at times, to protect these young people from more well-armed* people who are very aggressive and do not love these young people like we do.

If there was one thing you hope people outside of Ferguson take away from this…

For me, this is a very personal situation, a very local situation. These are issues that I've been talking about with great frustration myself for as long as I've been an elected official and even before that when I was just an activist-journalist. And it has just been so frustrating here in St. Louis. We talk about these issues and they are clear to those of us that are in the community, and they go completely unheard outside of our community. It's almost like you have two St. Louises here, and getting the one to care about the other has been so frustrating. I hope that this invisible St. Louis is now visible, and that it starts the conversations between the two that have to happen if we're ever going to become one St. Louis.

Where can these conversations happen?

There's kind of two levels. You have the top level, which is that in media outlets, your roundtable discussions, even conversations on the local radio about the future of our city, very often these are all the same demographics: these are a table of white St. Louisans, young or old but all white, talking about the future of our city, which is majority black. Those conversations have to become more diverse. And then, on a more personal one-on-one level, people have to start being around each other. We're such a segregated city that it is possible for people to go from the time they wake to the time they go to sleep and not interact with anyone, on any significant level, of another race.

In my life I've been blessed in that because of what I do, I bounce between so many different worlds. It's very comfortable for me to be sitting at a table with a millionaire for lunch, and then out on the street with gangbangers at midnight. But that's not typical. I get to see firsthand how these folks don't know anything about each other. Zilch. It's troubling.

A news outlet took the angle of going to interview white people in St. Louis County who live within five or six miles of ground zero of this protest movement, to hear what they have to say about it. It broke my heart. They just have a very negative feeling about it. Dismissed it as "thuggery." I think a great percentage of white St. Louisans right now are still not getting it.

The first part was to stop the violence. And we have: we had our first peaceful night yesterday, and it was beautiful. So the next phase now is to initiate the difficult conversations. Part of my media schedule this week is going on some outlets that aren't really friendly territory for me to talk to that audience. KMOX, the biggest talk radio station in town, has probably a 90 percent white audience. Going on Fox News with Sean Hannity later  tonight. You gotta talk directly to those folks, and explain what's happening here.

What do you say to folks asking "where is the black leadership" right now?

I would say that's a good and fair question. What this thing has brought out is not only a division between black community and white community, or even between young people and the people who police the neighborhood, but also between black youth and their elected leaders. There's a disconnect. I by no means went out there to be directly involved or to be a voice for this thing. I went down there to observe, and I was expecting local leaders to be taking the lead. That didn't happen. I personally called an old friend of mine who is a state senator, Maria Chapelle Nadal, and told her she needs to get her butt over there. To her credit, she's been there ever since.

That first night, when it got very violent and the riots happened and the looting happened, I was out there and that was the first time I put my camera down and got involved. That was when the young guys were first starting to come up to that line of police in riot gear. I was trying to calm them down, pushing them back. There were a couple young men who were angry and I had to physically constrain and try to talk to them and they weren't trying to hear it. And later, they may have been involved in the violence. But fast forward 48 hours and these same men, the same exact boys, were leading the youth non-violent protests. And then last night they were out there and I hugged one of them and I said "Man, I am very proud of you." And he said he was proud of me too. What's happening is we're having rapid maturity right now. We gotta put these guys on the fast track to becoming the leaders I know they can be.

What else can the young people in Ferguson be doing now?

One of these guys that's been very involved down here who I'm also very proud of is a local rapper by the name of Tef Poe. He has a unique opportunity through music. He brings people of a lot of different races together. He's been tweeting about this constantly, and he's been down on the ground. It's brought a lot of young white people down. Last night was one of the most diverse groups we've ever seen here. I posted a picture last night on Twitter, there's a beautiful blonde white woman walking through the crowd holding a sign that says, "I support the black youth of St. Louis." That's what it takes. By reaching her, she can then convey the message to her community when she goes back.

What do you say to police who claim that if Eric Garner and some of the other black men who've been killed by police recently hadn't allegedly resisted arrest, they would be alive today?

I think the statistics show that American police kill black people too often. The use of deadly force should be avoided by all means, and only used when absolutely necessary. If a police officer is in fear of being hit, that is not in fear of your life. If you think somebody's gonna hit you that does not give you the right to take their life. That trigger is pulled a little bit too often. There's a scale. If a child walks up to a police officer and hits him, he's not gonna pull gun out and shoot him. If a white woman slaps a police officer in the face, she's probably not gonna be shot. But if a black man rubs up against a police officer in the wrong way, he is in fear for his life.

African-American men are taught this at a very early age. You have be on guard, be careful around police. So if that's what you're taught to survive, then you're not being taught that these are the good guys, these are the people who will protect you and serve you. You're being taught that this is somebody who will probably kill you under certain circumstances. We have to change that relationship.

The first thing police always say is, "well, community doesn't cooperate, they don't tell us." Well, they don't trust you! When there is a crime, I make it a point as an elected official to go to the crime scene. I've seen too many crime scenes. I've seen dozens of young men's bodies on the street. I go because people in the community will talk to me before they'll talk to the police. If we wanna catch the person who killed somebody, it's important for someone to be there who they trust.

Do you have some kind of secret industrial grade battery pack on your phone? How were you able to take so many Vines!?

My secret is that I park my car kind of strategically and keep coming back during breaks charging a little bit and charging a little bit. But I'll tell you I have not seen 100 percent on my iPhone in like 5 days (laughs). I'm constantly living with 25 percent. I'm gonna recharge it fully today and I'm gonna post a picture of the 100 percent.

Correction: This interview transcript initially included two misheard words. French said "well-armed people," not "well-off people." The name of the radio station KMOX has been corrected from "KMLX."

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