One Year After Mike Brown’s Death, Organizers Tef Poe And Kayla Reed Still Hungry For Justice
There was a time when Tef Poe and Kayla Reed enjoyed the luxury of the ordinary. Reed, 25, was a pharmacy technician and worked at a furniture store on the weekends while Tef was a rapper. Both were aware of the systemic racism inside the St. Louis police departments, but on August 8, that too was considered ordinary.
The next day, Mike Brown was killed.
His 6-foot-5 body—riddled with bullets, the fatal one lodged in his head—lay on display in the sweltering sun for hours in Ferguson’s Canfield Green Apartment Complex, turning that blanket of ordinary to an armor for revolutionaries. Tear gas, tanks and a militarized police presence swarmed Ferguson amid the protests that erupted and while America watched in horror as its racial tensions violently oozed into the streets, Kayla and Tef strategized, organized, and got to work.
A year after Brown’s death and the Ferguson uprisings, Reed is now a field organizer with the Organization for Black Struggle and Tef, a co-founder with Hands Up United, both groups committed to mobilizing and uplifting black people. But their new lives come with much responsibility, weight and even burden. Reed, a round-faced brown skin girl with a welcoming smile and warm demeanor, now suffers from anxiety. With skin the color of maple syrup and a tattoo of Martin Luther King on his right arm (soon to be accompanied by a tattoo of Rosa Park’s mugshot), Tef copes by smoking weed and will unexpectedly cry even on the best of days. Yet, both activists are fueled by a hope for a better tomorrow or at the very least, the prevention of another hashtag.
Moderated by Raqiyah Mays in a room full of journalists, Reed and Tef outlined this weekend’s Mike Brown commemoration taking place in St. Louis and Ferguson. Michael Brown Sr. will lead a silent march and rappers Talib Kweli, Bun B and Rapsody take part in the “Ferguson is Everywhere” concert along with a day of civil disobedience.
“On the most simplistic level, basic 101, this is life or death,” said Reed, punctuating each word with her hand.
And if we’re being honest, too many have died already.
VIBE: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mike Brown a year after his death?
Tef Poe: The first thing that comes to mind is the word “burdens.” We’re all drastically different. We went to Ferguson together the first day alongside my manager and we really went to see what was going on and we couldn’t even imagine ourselves getting involved. It’s just weird to see how these circumstances produce what they produced. I think I can speak for both of us on some level when I say it’s very hard to carry some of the things we carry in order to continue. A year later, we’re still kind of struggling to keep the spaces we’ve obtained within the movement.
Kayla Reed: I think the position that we’re in a year later, there are a lot of positives. We’ve impacted a nation that none of us thought would happen on August 9th. It’s not just that my life has changed, but also what the people have decided to do in Ferguson and I’m honored to be a part of that. I think it’s also realistic to say that there are trials because we’re new to this and we’re building it and as you build, you realize you messed up, so you have to rebuild. His word is “burden.” I guess I would say “struggle.” Struggle is not necessarily a bad term, it’s a just a process you have to go through to get to the other side. I’m alive and I’m here and I’m able to fight in a way that a lot of people are not, so while it seems like there are some burdens, I’m honored to be in this space. I take this very seriously.
A year later I still do this for Mike Brown and every other person who should still be here.
— KayRay (@RE_invent_ED) August 6, 2015
What do you want the media to know that perhaps they haven’t gotten right?
Tef Poe: I feel like there’s never enough coverage about the ongoing development of the movement. I think it’s stressful for young organizers when everybody has this very immediate need for tangible results, but it didn’t take us a year to get into this circumstance. While a lot of us are actually learning on the job, I think that there should be more coverage about it. I’ve literally watched this woman develop into the best organizer in St. Louis. Kayla Reed: He’s trying to preach to y’all today. [Laughs.] Let me give you a dollar. Tef Poe: As a person that wasn’t organizing at first to any capacity and boom! Certain laws are being passed now on the merit of people who otherwise didn’t see a position in politics for themselves. I like to talk about the transformational stories of the movement. I don’t really get caught up in the mumbo-jumbo, mainstream media frenzy surrounding the movement. It creates tension points and narratives that just aren’t being pumped out from Ferguson, Baltimore or Cleveland. A brother of ours said something very valid. He said, “Look at who’s writing the stories before you look at people in the movement. Look who’s the author of the story.” I know things are happening, but I know we have to develop what I like to call revolutionary principles and values within ourselves that we don’t allow the media to sideswipe or take value from us because there’s value in what we’re doing. We have to remember that a lot of that starts with ourselves and the way we view the movement as black people.
The New Yorker did a profile on Darren Wilson in which he said he doesn’t think too much about Mike Brown. How did you feel about the story?
Kayla Reed: White supremacy on any level does not shock me. I’m very aware of how it operates and how it manifests in the systems that oppress us, so in the space, as far as The New Yorker, I’m disappointed but I’ve come to expect that some of the national media outlets do things to agitate spaces. Am I shocked? No. But my response is we knew Darren Wilson was racist the moment he killed Mike Brown. Stood over his body and had to negotiate with his grandmother to put a sheet over him. We knew the day he got assaulted and his cheek looked rosey red to me. We knew he got a million dollars and he’s living apparently on the outskirts of St. Louis and is concerned about a lawsuit and doesn’t see the value that someone lost their child. I think he is living proof of why we continue to be in this struggle and why we continue to fight but I have no expectations his mind will be liberated from the hatred that he encompasses.
Tef Poe: I think Darren Wilson also opens the floor for a deeper conversation [regarding] the humanity of law enforcement or lack thereof. It doesn’t leave any room for emotion, or for anything heartfelt towards the victims of the system. You’re taught to behave in a very robotic manner. If a police officer tells you to get out of the street, there’s no opportunity to say that I’m in the street because I’m actually crossing the street to go talk to my grandmother. Are we running to Darren Wilson for validation on black lives? I don’t care for what his opinion about that matter is. The night of the indictment, one of our young brothers from Ferguson called my phone. He was enraged. He said to me, ‘They didn’t indict him him.’ His heart was broken. And I told him, ‘It doesn’t matter because we about to indict him.’ We are the collective power. His opinion doesn’t even matter.
Kim Royster is now the highest ranked black woman in uniform in the NYPD. She now will oversee police academy recruitment. Do you think having more people of color on the force can prevent a Mike Brown situation from happening again?
Kayla Reed: Do I think Darren Wilson being white has something to do with Mike Brown being dead? Yes, absolutely. Do I think putting black officials in higher positions will help challenge a system? In some ways, yes, but there’s a culture that’s established that says, now after a year of protesting and uprising, it takes a camera only to indict an officer. With this position that she will be in, can she change policy? Can she change the culture? A couple of recruits a year might be something, but what are you doing about the ones that are already in the system? The ones that have been on the beat for 10 or 20 years that have a mentality and view that says black people are the enemy? Darren Wilson wasn’t a rookie. Most of the police officers who do engage in shootings are rookies. Will she change training? Instead of 80 hours of training and eight hours to de-escalate a situation. Those are the questions I need answers to before I make an assumption that just because you’re black and on top things are going to change. We have that in a lot of places an nothing changes.
Tef Poe: My older brother is doing 25 years in prison due to some of the problems in my neighborhood and we had an all black police force. I won’t even say his name, but one of the cops is supremely crooked. A black cop. He told my father, ‘I didn’t get my hand on you when you were in the streets but I’ll get one of your sons.’ So for me, to bring the black policing narrative in and ask if it changes anything, is almost ridiculous. They become soldiers with this army the second they put the badge on. I think that right now the best things for our spirits, the the best thing for our future is resistance to this opposing army that drives through our neighborhood with loaded weapons.
What is your emotional response to white supremacy?
Tef Poe: I’m personally hurt, to be honest with y’all. Like the other day, I just sat down on my bed and I started crying for no reason. I had a great day but that morning, when I was getting dressed, fresh out the shower, for whatever reason, I just sat there and the tears just poured out. I cried for a nice minute. I was actually thinking about Sandra Bland. I was thinking about Kajieme Powell. [Editor’s Note: Kajieem Powell was a 25-year-old black man shot by police after stealing items from a local convenience store. It’s believed Powell suffered from mental illness.] For some reason, those two were real heavy on my heart. I’ve taken Mike Brown’s death personal. For me, it was just very personal to be out there and the outcome just told me that everybody that looks like me can go to hell and it continually happens over and over even to the point where we have to legitimately explain that we’re breathing the same oxygen as these people.
Man this morning I straight up started crying for no damn reason .. Like broke down didn’t know what was wrong smh this shit is heavy on us — War Machine III (@TefPoe) August 2, 2015
Still tripping off the fact I started crying yesterday morning totally out the blue and for absolutely nothing my heart is knotted in this .
— War Machine III (@TefPoe) August 2, 2015
Kayla Reed: I think I’m numb to it because I didn’t understand these kinds of terms before August 9th. I wasn’t aware of these systems and in a way, that awakening was really traumatic within itself. So a year later, I’m definitely at a point where I’m numb. I’ve decided that fighting the system is so necessary I have to balance that with empowering my people. I have to go home knowing that I did something for my people, knowing that they can see it was a tangible thing. So anxiety is real for me right now, if I’m being completely transparent. I struggle within the last month moreso than the last 12 months because there is a lot of pressure that falls on you to not only do the work, but to also advocate for people who are not in the space. You feel [the anxiety] in your chest and in your stomach. I think that I have to be numb to the hatred and the system. Sometimes I’m ready to fight and sometimes I just need to block that out because what matters most is the boy or girl walking down the street that looks like me that needs to know they matter.
There are some people who say the organization doesn’t have a leader. Do you agree?
Kayla Reed: I don’t think that movement is leaderless, I think that we’re leaderful. I think that in a space where you are fighting for black lives, you have to understand how diverse black life and black culture is, so it can’t be one person. I’m a straight black person. I can’t advocate for the queer community or the trans community the way that they can, but I have a responsibility to leverage my privilege to uplift them in this space. So you want one person, I’m telling you what happened in the Civil Rights movement once they took that one person out, fear spread like wildfire. So if I can build 100 people to be what people are calling “leaders,” that’s something that’s bestowed upon you. A lot of the movements before us achieved great things, but this movement is fighting a system on a larger level at a capacity that people are dying. So you want a leader? I want people to live. What you want out of this movement is not what I want out of this movement and we can agree to disagree.
Do you think the movement would be more robust if hip-hop took a stronger stance?
Tef Poe: As a hip-hop artist, I lost respect for people that I had grave respect for and that’s from an underground scene and a few of my friends that are deep in the industry. I’ve also lost respect for some black men on different levels that aren’t artists, let alone being an actual artist who have a platform to actually talk about things. So it’s weird to be in these spaces with different rappers now. Some of them might even consider themselves conscious rappers. They rap about the community, and they rap about all these grave conspiracy theories about how the white man is killing us and the record industry is ran by Jews. They do all of this but then when an actual moment of resistance occurs, the same thing I’ve been rapping about for five mixtapes now. Where am I? What am I doing? Did I actually show up? Or was I in the studio writing these highly imaginative bars about being a revolutionary? So I find myself in this space viewing a lot of conscious rappers the same way I view studio gangster rappers. You a studio revolutionary.
Kayla Reed: To me, you beefin’ about ghostwriters, but you’re not writing about what’s going on and you talking about TIDAL as a movement. It’s a movement to give people in the upperclass more money. In reality, it’s a level of comfort these successful people I would imagine they have that by putting themselves in that light might risk that. They don’t understand the sacrifices necessary for the liberation of our people because they are comfortable in the system that oppresses us, because they made it out of that bottom level. That happens. … I cannot beg you to come into this space as a black person. In my heart, you have a responsibility to plug into your people and be accountable to them because you use them and the culture.