Johnetta Elzie saw that she was outnumbered. When she tried to answer students’ questions about the protests that followed the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, the men with her interrupted and answered instead. When she tried to tell her story, the men told theirs instead.
It was about three weeks after Ferguson erupted in unrest last summer and Elzie, another female activist, and six men from the fledgling protest movement were speaking to a room full of Washington University students in St. Louis. Except only the men were talking.
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An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of fugitive Assata Shakur.
“The other woman was silent. She was just sitting there,” recalled Elzie, 25. “So I just politely packed up all my stuff and went down to the library. I couldn’t take it.”
Several young women involved in organizing the Ferguson protests have described similar encounters with a gender barrier: men bowling them over at meetings or not inviting them to help make decisions. The media, they said, also tended to focus on the guys, who sometimes delivered more inflammatory sound bites — about, say, the likelihood of a riot.
But refusing to be silenced, Elzie and her peers have elbowed to the front lines of protests over the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed, black, 18-year-old Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. As a tense Ferguson awaits a grand jury decision on whether Wilson will be criminally charged in the shooting, many women will be behind the protest bullhorns in the days and weeks ahead.
With a partner, Elzie, who has more than 20,000 Twitter followers, puts out a daily newsletter about Ferguson that has more than 7,000 subscribers and has become a central repository of information about developments around St. Louis.
Other women similarly refused to back down after early skirmishes with their male counterparts. They organized their own demonstrations, contributing to the complicated mesh of establishment and start-up activist groups that took to the streets in the chaotic, early weeks after the shooting.
“There are some who still think God only speaks in baritone, and that leaders only speak in baritone,” said Traci Blackmon, a pastor in the Ferguson-adjoining city of Florissant, who said that her fellow clergy tend to be men. “We still teach our males to be dominant, domineering.”
Meanwhile, girls are taught to be nurturing and collaborative, said Blackmon, one of six women who have been appointed to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s 16-member Ferguson Commission to examine the aftermath of the shooting. “There is a socialization that creates certain forms of leadership.”
However, “we’re in a century where women are no longer satisfied to have their leadership channeled through someone else,” Blackmon said. “It’s changing, thank God.”
Complaints about male prominence in other left-leaning activist movements have surfaced before. A 2011 Guardian article, titled “Occupy Wall Street’s women struggle to make their voices heard,” described the deep discomfort of female activists with some of their male counterparts, who overran the women and made a disproportionate number of the speeches.
Ferguson demonstrator Rika Tyler, 23, recalled an incident when she arrived at the neighborhood where the shooting occurred with two local friends who are rappers, Tef Poe and T-Dubb-O. As tensions escalated, “they were like, ‘Hang back until we figure out what’s going on.’”
She refused — and was tear-gassed alongside the area’s outspoken state senator, Maria Chappelle-Nadal. Tyler said although Poe tries to include her, “he gets more shine because he is a rapper and he’s male,” adding: “Every time I try to say something, he overpowers me, and we’ve had a long conversation about it.”
Poe didn’t respond to requests for comment, but tweeted to his more than 41,000 followers last week, “I invite the criticism from women and members of the LGTB community because at the end of the day I don’t know [anything] and they can teach me.”
Tony Rice, a Ferguson resident who became a dedicated demonstrator and tweeter in the city’s protests, said he doesn’t think he has talked over women, though “as women they’ve probably picked up on stuff I’ve done.”
Over the months, he said, the protests have become a “women-led movement. … They’re stronger, smarter, sober. A lot of guys are saying, ‘I can’t be up there [on the front lines], because I’ve got warrants.’ The women don’t make excuses.”
Yet television images tend to give an outsized role to men, said Brianna Richardson, 27, a University City resident who used to live in Ferguson and has lately been drawing inspiration from the autobiography of the radical Black Panther activist and fugitive Assata Shakur.
“What you see on the ground and what you see on the news is two completely different pictures,” Richardson said. “You’d think this is all about men, giving all these speeches, having all these ideas. When you’re there, you see women have a more prominent role.”
In her activism, Richardson said she brings up black women and girls throughout the nation who have been killed by police.
“When it comes to being a black woman, you deal with the oppression of both race and gender,” Richardson said. “You can’t turn one off. I will always be black and a woman. … Black lives matter, trans lives matter, women’s lives matter. I’m standing for all of black lives.”
On the day of Brown’s shooting, Brittany Packnett, 30, the executive director of Teach For America in St. Louis, said she was giving her usual speech at a girl’s empowerment conference in Kansas City. But as she watched anger unfold in Ferguson — with young women and girls on the scene — Packnett realized that “telling girls to be leaders tomorrow wasn’t good enough — they needed to be leaders now.”
And so did she, Packnett said. Like Blackmon, she was appointed to the Ferguson Commission.
Kayla Reed, 25, a pharmacy technician from University City, said she wasn’t invited to be a part of planning meetings made of mostly men from established activist groups — until she led her own surprise demonstration in October, earning an invitation to meet with groups like the Organization for Black Struggle and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment.
Now, Reed said, at some protests “there’s actually more women than men. A lot of times you’ll see women on the bullhorn — we’re not just coming in after the fact, cleaning up, making sandwiches.”