During the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the murder of Michael Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson, a few activists rose from the fray. Johnetta Elzie, 25, was one of those people along with her partner DeRay Mckesson, and as a St. Louis local, she was on the scene shortly after Brown was killed and police left his corpse on the ground for hours. That fateful day of racial terrorism affected Johnetta, known as @nettaaaaaaaa on Twitter, and pushed her to become an activist, bolstering the Black Lives Matter movement with We The Protesters, Mapping Police Violence and Stay Woke, all of which have grown beyond her own expectations.
During this year’s Essence Music Festival, I met Johnetta outside of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and made plans to catch up later. In the shadow of Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and the removal of South Carolina’s Confederate flag, here is our recent conversation, edited for clarity.
Was seeing Mike Brown’s dead body in the street on August 9, 2014, the day he was killed, what sparked you to become an activist?
I don’t even really call myself an activist, that’s something people say to describe what I do. I was doing what everyone should be doing if you say that you love where you’re from and your people. I was born and raised in St. Louis and I love everything about growing up here. It just so happens that black people get killed by the police often here and I was tired of it.
The police killed my friend Stephon Averyhart, last winter and they didn’t even do a full investigation or ask witnesses questions. The detectives went strictly off of what the police told them, like “He had two strikes, we got a felon off the streets, problem solved.” That really hurt me because he wasn’t a felon, he was my friend. We grew up together from 18 to 25, that’s a long time to look for someone to come through the door and then they’re just gone. It was traumatizing and my final straw. To see Mike Brown’s body lying on that ground and reading the tweets from this guy named Thee Pharaoh who live-tweeted everything that happened. [Knowing what we did from Pharaoh’s tweets] I wouldn’t dare believe what the news or the police had to say.
After the incident, I remember mainstream media tried to interview Pharoah and he was not interested in talking because he didn’t feel safe to do so.
Right, we know not to trust them because the police use the media as a tool. That’s why we need to tell our own stories.
Tell me about Mapping Police Violence and exactly what you and DeRay do.
Before we created Mapping Police Violence, we had the Ferguson Protestor Newsletter and then it evolved to be called the Protestor Newsletter because we started covering more than just St. Louis. We didn’t think it would last as long as it did or that there would be so much news about black death. It was an informative tool for people who didn’t know where certain stories started and gave updates to other deaths and their corresponding cases. It was also a good way to keep events scheduled and people’s calendars organized. From there we made We The Protesters, a tool kit center with the list of demands that we’d gotten from different cities, policy think tanks and chants. If people needed chants to set the mood of their protest, we had a list of over 50 and vine clips of people showing the rhythms of how they were supposed to go.
Then we made Mapping Police Violence which is special to me, I love it. It chronicles all of the unarmed black people who were killed in 2014 and if we could get their pictures, it’s there along with their age and story of how they died. The site makes sure we’re telling the truth of everyone’s story. It also has an interactive map with a red dot showing everyone who was killed in 2014, which is a lot to even see and know that they all died due to police violence.
From there, we also created Stay Woke, a survey where people can input their skill set and how they want to help and plug into the movement. So far over 5,000 people have signed up and so we’re just working on the backend to catalogue everything and hand it to the people that are doing the work in their cities and states where people have volunteered.
All of the things you mentioned sound like a full-time job, but do you also have a paying full-time gig?
Yes! I’ve been working at Amnesty International as a field organizer for about the last seven months.
Are they open to all you do?
Working here has let me know that I’m more passionate about what I do with DeRay and the rest of our team. It’s hard to care or even pretend to care about the things that Amnesty focuses on. But Amnesty does have interesting pushes coming up like a new campaign about police accountability that just launched through a report that was released about the laws surrounding the use of deadly force. It was interesting to read and learn which states even have something on the books.
You’ve called yourself a “modern day freedom rider,” what does that mean to you in this day and age of social media, which people like Rep. John Lewis didn’t have?
Those are really big shoes to fill. What was done in the Civil Rights movement was very important and a legitimate life-long commitment because you knew that you could be killed at any moment for doing what you think is right. It’s similar to what’s happening now, for example there was a shooting at a protest and the protesters weren’t the people shooting. It’s frightening to know that you can die for just protesting though it’s your first amendment right. It makes me very numb knowing that that could happen at any moment but you have to come to terms with it. You can’t focus on anything else but doing the work and know that if death were to happen, the movement would continue.
You’ve said the focus of your work is to change the awareness of Americans and those on social media so they can see that the violence happening to black people is routine rather than a horrible one-off news stories about just one or two dead people of color.
It’s a legitimate problem and it’s all about changing hearts and minds. I see the changes personally when I’m talking to my grandparents because they’re of the Civil Rights era but something happened with their age group where respectability politics really got a hold of many of them. It can be frustrating to talk to someone of that age group and say “This is what the victim did but they didn’t deserve to die.” There’s something in respectability politics that will make those people say, “Well, they shouldn’t have done this or that” but it’s like “No, you know for a fact, and have lived through it, that you don’t have to do anything for a police officer or a white vigilante to kill you and get away with it. You know it doesn’t have to be anything other than the color of your skin.” It is unlearning that internal oppression.
Speaking of internal oppression, I spoke to a guy in New Orleans who said he feels the newest form of white supremacy, instead of chains, is an invisible prison. You can’t see the walls but you know they’re there because you feel the weight of the possibility that you could be killed at any moment. Do you feel that’s true?
Yes, I do.
In contrast, did you feel that weight was lifted, albeit briefly, during the Essence Music Festival while in the company of so many happy black people?
It was magical and I wasn’t paying as much attention to the experience as I should have while I was there. Just being around so many black people of different ages and the kids were great. The little girls all had knick knack balls or afro puffs and all the little boys had a cute little haircut. I would love to go back to those four days of being around nothing but black people.
What did you make of Kendrick Lamar’s performance on the final night?
I was into it! I am a Kendrick fan. Way before Ferguson, people on my Twitter timeline talked about this dude named K.Dot and I wondered ‘Who in the hell is K.Dot and why won’t they stop talking about him?’ When I finally listened to Section.80, I fell in love. My friends and I drove an hour and a half to see him perform in Mizzou and our tickets were $20. He was so great, it was just he and his DJ and he commanded the stage all by himself.
Since then I’ve been a big fan, which is why when he said ‘We can’t talk about the police killing us until we stop killing each other’ after the protests, I was floored. I know he knows the real story, despite his respectability politics, and then To Pimp A Butterfly came out. I still don’t like “Blacker The Berry.”
Ed. note: Here is Kendrick’s full quote from his January 2015 interview with Billboard:
Asked about the high-profile killings of African-Americans by police in 2014, from Ferguson, Mo., to Staten Island, he says, “I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it’s already a situation, mentally, where it’s f—-ked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.”
Where he raps about black on black violence in the final verse, right? I ignore that lyric too.
Yes, that’s the one song where I had to accept that I don’t have to agree with everything. He’s still growing and becoming more and more aware. We just get to see it happen publicly, I think he gets it. “We Gon Be Alright” is like a gospel song to me.
I agree, it was cathartic to hear him perform that song in such a black space. Everyone lost their minds when the first chords came on.
It was dope. I didn’t know Kendrick was closing the Essence Festival weekend of performances, when I figured that out, it had me going all night watching Auntie Mary.
Auntie Mary J. Blige, yes! Back to your activism, in light of the Emanuel Nine, how do you think that event has changed the country’s consciousness in terms of the work you’re doing?
It’s hard to be critical of the black church—not for me, but in general—while having feelings of needing to protect the black church. It woke people up, but it wasn’t the people who were most directly impacted. Less than 48 hours after the massacre, the people from Emanuel forgave the shooter, Dylann Roof. He hadn’t asked for forgiveness and probably doesn’t even want it. He wanted to do that and it made me sad that black people are forced to move on so quickly from feelings of anger and pain.
What Roof did shook people up and woke up another group of those who thought ‘Oh, I think all of these deaths are a problem but it’s their problem.’ But even if you’re not religious, which I’m not but my family is, I could see those victims being my family on a Wednesday night at bible study. Black people know that Wednesday is bible study night, that’s an African American tradition and to know that Roof went into that sacred space and murdered those people is horrific. But I wish it didn’t take more death to wake people up.
Like in New York City, when Eric Garner was choked to death on camera and the Staten Island grand jury still failed to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for any crimes, it prompted the real discussion of who deserves to live and who deserves to death.
Yes, and which black lives really matter.
What was your relationship to the Confederate flag growing up?
In St. Louis, there weren’t any confederate flags but in rural Missouri, when we’d drive from St. Louis down south, there were confederate flags all over. That made sense because St. Louis and Kansas City are heavily populated black areas in Missouri and everything else is just white. I knew it was the flag for the white people who wanted to keep blacks enslaved.
What do you make of the removal of South Carolina’s Confederate flag?
I think that all the flags should come down and should have hundreds of years ago when the Confederates lost the war. That’s the part that loses me because why is this even a debate? We’ve all grown up with these horrible flags and Confederate statues. I’ve never seen losers have so many monuments across a country they wanted to leave, they seceded from America!
It’s important that South Carolina took their Confederate flag down but I believe that white supremacy will sacrifice this flag as long as they get to keep everything else so I’m not really moved. It’s interesting to see which congressmen are against removing the flag though, it’s a great way for blatant racists to show themselves. These are people who are in control of making your laws, legislation and policies and they believe the Confederate flag should fly because it’s a part of their “heritage”—a heritage which includes black people being in bondage.
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Image via Instagram.