Photo by Faces of the Movement.
On September 6, 2016 Ferguson activist Darren Seals was murdered. In many ways, his death marked the end of one phase of the movement that began with the killing of Mike Brown and the beginning of another that frustrates people who were active from its beginning.
I first became aware of Darren Seals when he showed up on my Twitter timeline in 2016, calling out people he felt were exploiting Mike Brown’s death for personal gain. At first I ignored what he had to say because his criticisms sounded like petty jealousy and unwarranted personal attacks. Over time, once I learned of his being one of the first people on the scene after Mike Brown’s killing and on the very front lines in Ferguson before the cameras showed up, I began to pay more attention to what he had to say.
So many of his points sounded credible that I began to check for his tweets regularly. The way he attacked people made me hold off from engaging with him too much, but I listened. By the time I finally decided to reach out to him publicly he was murdered, shot dead and left in a burning car, one of many Ferguson activists killed in a similar fashion.
Darren Seals’ death brought him the kind of mainstream media attention that eluded him while he was alive. His critiques of the BLM organization weren’t addressed much in the press and in hindsight it’s easy to see why. To an outsider, Darren probably seemed like an extremely problematic hater, although the challenges and charges he made have been echoed by others. I won’t concern myself with that, as that story is still playing out. What concerns me is that the erasure of Darren’s life, work, and death, feels like the continued marginalization of already marginalized people.
What is obvious is that once Ferguson became #FERGUSON, the voice of protest began to shift from the raw righteous anger of locals to the slogans, photo ops, and polished academic discussions that have become a trademark of this latest version of the civil rights movement.
At the administrative level, it appears that arbitrary ideas of intersectionality and allyship took priority over protesting the police killings of Black men and women, to the point that the movement has became so vague as to be unidentifiable to the people whose issues brought it to prominence.
Voices like Darrens were overshadowed by those who knew better how to market a moment, many of whom are clueless about the everyday reality of being poor and Black. That reality ain’t about politeness. It’s about survival. People in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Baton Rouge are fighting to stay alive and people with their backs against the wall ain’t got time to worry about whether they’re being “problematic”.
Darren was excellent at articulating that real life frustration. True, he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and he was not media trained, but he was a real one who loved his city and his people. And while I didn’t agree with everything he said, that love and realness was undeniable. It was a realness that was a little too real for people who aren’t familiar with it.
For all the talk from modern day activists about abandoning respectability politics, so much current movement energy is anchored in trying to enforce moral absolutes that don’t connect to the real world. So many activists have internalized the idea that only the deaths of “perfect” victims are worthy of protest, and only “perfect” spokespeople are worthy of attention, when the state that murders us doesn’t make those distinctions.
If Black Lives truly Matter, that concept has to include the lives of imperfect, “problematic” Black men and women who we don’t agree with and who’s ideology and upbringing aren’t the same as our own.
It has to respect the people in the streets who may not speak the King’s English but can create a movement and voice their demands better than their self-appointed translators.
It means listening to and fighting for Black men like Darren Seals while they’re alive, before they become hashtags. As for what Darren felt and his concerns, do your research and draw your own conclusions.
This essay was originally published in 2018. It has been updated and edited for clarity. -Ed.