Kayla Reed is the executive director and co-founder of Action St. Louis. (Photo by Lawrence Bryant for Reveal)
The race was too close.
Kayla Reed, co-founder and executive director of Action St. Louis, curled over her desk. Her long, dark locs created curtains around her body as she used one hand to search election results on her cellphone. With the other hand, she hopped into a Zoom call on her laptop.
It was April 6, election night in St. Louis. And it was a defining moment for the Ferguson movement.
“Blake, I can’t even …” Reed bursted out, as her close friend and activist Blake Strode appeared on the Zoom.
Jokingly, she told Strode to “calm down,” though in truth, she was trying to calm herself. Six of the seven St. Louis aldermen the Action St. Louis Power Project endorsed were in the lead, she told Strode.
But the most important race — the one to decide the next St. Louis mayor — was still too close to call.
Every time she had been maced by police while protesting in the streets of Ferguson. Every time she’d fought for police reforms from the outside. Every time their demands were put on the shelf. The thousands of doors she’d knocked on the past five years – all of it led up to this moment.
Reed wasn’t the only one on the Zoom call who was stressing about the election. The tight group of organizers had been fighting side by side since 2014 and understood how high the stakes were for their city – and for the future of Black lives across the country.
They tried to inoculate themselves against the bitter disappointment they feared might await them at the end of the night. Ferguson front-line protester Brittany Ferrell told Reed that prior generations would be proud of Action St. Louis and the movement they’d built.
“I wish my granny was alive to see this,” Ferrell said.
Then two hours after the polls closed, the final results came in.
Tishaura Jones – whom Reed had been trying to get elected for four years – would become the first African American woman to lead the city.
Rather than screaming in celebration, the group held several minutes of respectful silence, as Reed sobbed.
Ferrell and Strode quietly congratulated her on the screen. Her partner, who had just arrived at the Action office, held her.
Reed remembered all the years of work, all the walls they’d run into. “I just remember what it feels like,” she said through tears.
“So much is possible.”
St. Louis is among the most segregated cities in the country. The northern half of the city, which is about 90% Black, has suffered decades of disinvestment, while other, whiter areas in the city have benefited from tax incentives for development and job creation.
This inequity is at the heart of the Ferguson uprising.
Following Michael Brown’s shooting death in 2014, then-Gov. Jay Nixon established the Ferguson Commission to study the underlying conditions that led to the uprising. Its “People’s Report” ultimately laid out 189 recommendations for addressing systemic racism, from housing and economic injustices to a lack of police accountability. None of the police reforms have been fully put in place.
As Reed and a new generation of leaders saw each of their reform efforts fail to curb police violence, they soon realized that what they really had to overcome was the police union’s political force in local elections.
So she set out on a larger mission: to build a political movement so appealing and so powerful that it would win control over the levers of power at the Police Department.
Now, Reed is on the cusp of realizing her vision. Jones was sworn in April 20, and Reed is serving as an adviser. What Reed and Jones do in the coming years could provide a resounding answer to the question of whether policing in America can truly be reformed.
They’re already at work. On Jones’ ninth day in office, she proposed taking $4 million away from the police budget and reallocating some toward hiring social workers who can answer calls related to mental illness and drug addiction.
Just as St. Louis’ experience shows how police reform fails, Reed’s journey is inspiring activists across the country as they try to build a new power structure and protect Black communities from state-sanctioned violence.
“Now what we’re seeing is folks are kind of skipping that stage that Ferguson went through,” Reed said. “And they’re like, ‘OK, we saw that that didn’t work. How do we get to where you are quicker?’ ”
The day everything changed
Reed was working part time at a local furniture outlet store on the muggy afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, when she got a text message from rapper and activist Tef Poe. An unarmed Black 18-year-old named Michael Brown had been shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in the suburb of Ferguson, just a mile from her apartment.
Brown’s body lay in the middle of the street for hundreds of Black neighbors in the Canfield Green apartment complex to see — for four hours.
Reed saw the heartbreaking photo on social media of Brown’s stepfather holding a handwritten cardboard sign stating, “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son!!!” It all compelled her to go to the scene when she got off work. There, she ran into old friends from high school. She saw friends who lived in the same complex. They were hurt and grieving.
What the hell is going on in Ferguson?! pic.twitter.com/S5Yjnns6bU
— Tammie Holland (@TammieHolland) August 9, 2014
“Growing up in North County with brothers who are the same height as Michael Brown, same complexion as Michael Brown, you just felt like this could have been any incident,” Reed said, “us walking home from school or to the park.”
She remembers the day turning to dusk as police officers got out of their cars with cans full of mace and attack dogs at their sides.
“They were just responding to people mourning out loud, and that just created such a deep frustration within the community,” Reed said.
At first, it was that grief and fury that drove Reed to the protests every night. What kept her going was an urgent need to protect future generations in her community and beyond.
“Folks gravitated toward Ferguson after Mike Brown was killed, in part, because they had interfaced with the systems that produced Darren Wilson,” Reed said, “and in order to ensure more Black children are not gunned down.”
She would get off work from her weekday job as a pharmacy technician at 6 p.m., then run home to change and eat dinner. An hour later, she’d be at the protests in front of the Ferguson Police Department, staying until 3 a.m. With only a few hours of sleep, she’d be back at work at 9 a.m. This was her schedule for months.
Sometimes she was leading chants, but a lot of times, she was the one telling jokes to lighten the mood. Like at the candlelight vigil for 18-year-old VonDerrit Myers Jr., who was killed by an off-duty officer two months after Brown as he went to get a sandwich. After a woman got candle wax on her forehead, Reed made sure she was OK. Then she told her it was just “free brows.”
“This work is really heavy, and I cope with it with humor,” Reed said. “Laughter connects people in the same way that food does.”
When Reed was old enough to drive, her parents warned her about the dangers of being stopped by police and how to keep your hands where police can see them. But Ferguson made it visceral in a way no talk could.
“You don’t know that you’re breathing bad air until someone tells you because that’s just what you’ve been in,” Reed said.
She started working with the Organization for Black Struggle, a group founded by Black activists who had been fighting systemic racism since the 1960s. She learned how the region’s long history of redlining, separate but unequal education and the mass incarceration of Black people were the fuel that fed the uprising. The Ferguson Commission came to similar conclusions when it issued its report in fall 2015.
At the commission meetings, Reed heard discussions about well-documented disparities in policing, like the traffic stop report that the Missouri attorney general’s office released every year. Black drivers were nearly twice as likely to be stopped by St. Louis city police as white drivers, according to the attorney general.
Understanding how pervasive racism is in her region was an epiphany that put Reed on a path to becoming one of the leading voices in St. Louis’ public life and, ultimately, a queenmaker.
“I wasn’t an abolitionist,” she said. “I wasn’t a Black feminist. I didn’t have a critique of capitalism. I was just a person who lived in St. Louis who believed Mike Brown shouldn’t have died that day.”
She quit her pharmacy job in November 2014 and threw herself into organizing full time with the Organization for Black Struggle.
The fallout from Ferguson
The Ferguson Commission offered a searing critique of structural racism across one of America’s major cities. It grabbed attention and galvanized action, including establishing a Racial Healing and Justice Fund for the region and increasing financial empowerment education to combat poverty.
But on police matters, the report’s been a dud. The commission recommended 16 police reforms, 13 of which were directly relevant to the city of St. Louis, including the creation of a civilian board to independently review police investigations into allegations of misconduct.
Not one of the recommendations has been fully completed, according to a 2019 study by Forward Through Ferguson, the nonprofit organization that was created to monitor the implementation of the commission’s calls to action.
Take the St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board. The board has not reviewed a single one of the more than 50 cases in which police shot someone since 2015.
Forward Through Ferguson classified the creation of the board as a “policy change that meets the letter, but not necessarily the intent of the call to action.”
Five of the report’s recommendations for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department received the same assessment. Only one measure, an increase in police training, was considered to even potentially be leading to change.
The Police Department and the officers union have managed to stifle the success of the reforms, whether by testifying against measures at City Hall or undermining the reforms that did pass.
“It is unequivocally true that the police union is the main opposition to any sort of movement toward accountability and reform,” Reed said.
The union says it is not anti-reform, but merely fighting for the due process rights of its members. The Police Department didn’t respond to requests for comment for this series.
As the leader of Forward Through Ferguson, David Dwight has spent the last several years closely monitoring the progress of police reform. He eventually came to the same conclusion as Reed: The transformation of public safety could happen only if there were a transformational shift in political power.
“I think white supremacy eats programmatic change for lunch,” Dwight said.
The activists began to focus on what they called “re-envisioning public safety.” But that phrase didn’t get much traction until 2020, when protestors started chanting, “Defund the police.” The chant was meant to be confrontational in order to get people’s attention, and it worked.
To that end, Forward Through Ferguson and Action St. Louis are among more than 40 organizations that signed onto The People’s Plan this January, which Reed describes as “a holistic vision of what St. Louis needs to do for communities to thrive.” For public safety, the plan envisions reducing potentially aggressive police interactions by decriminalizing drug addiction, mental illness and poverty. The groups want to divest from police overtime, the SWAT team and surveillance. And they want to invest in nonviolent first responders who understand how to address mental illness, and even traffic stops, without using force.
The plan is to realign the city’s budget to reflect this new vision of public safety. The Police Department makes up about a third of the city’s general revenue fund; Jones is already beginning to direct more of those funds to human services.
“That’s so much of what ‘Defund the Police’ is about at its essence,” Dwight said. “How are we reducing the systems that are actually perpetuating inequity and disproportionately hurting people of color.”
How Reed built political power
As Kayla Reed made her strategic shift, the circuit attorney seat was up for grabs in 2016. This was the person in charge of criminal prosecutions in St. Louis, an elected official with the power to prosecute police.
“We decided to say, ‘Well, how can we put our hands on the scale?’ ” Reed said. “We’re organizers. We talk to people, we mobilize them to action. Can we mobilize them to take an action and vote a particular way?”
This was the moment Reed and a coalition of organizers and protesters decided to take a giant leap into the political realm.
Largely led by Reed and fellow activist the Rev. Michelle Higgins, the group’s goal was to not only build a successful political movement to address inequities, but one that Black millennials could call home. Organizers enticed these young voters by essentially holding events that they themselves would want to go to.
They hosted regular #WokeVoterSTL brunches, where attendees could sip mimosas, listen to music and hear about issues on the ballot. Part of their genius was to make politics — which had long felt alienating to young Black people — totally accessible, said Blake Strode, executive director of the nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders.
“It’s just, like, a cool hangout event, where also you learn some political information,” he said.
At one of the group’s first big projects, Strode and Reed moderated a candidate forum for the circuit attorney contest — a debate that had previously been hosted only by local news outlets and the League of Women Voters. In a race that rarely got much attention, they packed a university auditorium with young voters, standing room only.
Their candidate, Kimberly Gardner, ended up winning the race – beating the police union’s choice.
It eventually stopped being a side project and became their calling, giving rise to what is now Action St. Louis.
The first candidate Action St. Louis officially backed was Tishaura Jones; the city treasurer ran for mayor in spring 2017 on a criminal justice reform platform. Again, Strode and Reed led a debate for the mayoral candidates, peppered with comic bantering. And this time, it drew so many young people that hundreds had to sit on the floor.
Jones lost by less than 900 votes.
“It was hard because I thought we did everything we could do,” Reed said. “I mean, now I realize we didn’t do much of anything that we could do.”
In that 2017 mayor’s race, Reed estimates that her team knocked on about 1,000 doors, urging residents to vote for the candidate who they believed was going to address the racial inequities that the Ferguson report had outlined.
“That’s when we understood we had a lot of narrative power,” she said. “People looked to us for guidance. But we didn’t have the organizing power yet.”
They didn’t have long to gain that organizing power.
“I said at the time, a glass of water could have ran against Bob McCulloch, and I would’ve campaigned for it,” Reed said.
She knocked on doors after classes, without getting a paycheck. She led teams of canvassers on the weekends.
Activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham, who served as a Ferguson Commission member, remembers arriving at Action’s campaign office one weekend.
“It looks like a film where you’re seeing somebody’s presidential campaign office,” she said. “It is that full in there.”
Reed was in the middle, managing the chaos and putting everyone to work, while still making everyone laugh.
“It just felt like a place that you wanted to be, that you wanted to come commit to,” Cunningham said.
Action St. Louis and the coalition faced an even tougher battle than in the mayor’s race because St. Louis County is more conservative than the city. McCulloch was the status quo Democrat, who had been in office since 1991. So it shocked the region when Reed’s candidate, Wesley Bell, a former Ferguson City Council member, won by 13 percentage points.
The election happened Aug. 7, 2018 – almost four years to the day after Brown was killed – making Bell the first African American to be elected prosecutor for St. Louis County.
Bell’s race taught Reed and her allies a critical lesson.
“People don’t really answer numbers they don’t know,” she said. “They don’t want to stay on the phone for a long time.”
But on a sunny day close to an election, people are more likely to have conversations with voters like them, the people who knocked on doors for Action St. Louis. Reed needed to hire more staff and expand the coalition to get more door-knocking hands and more feet.
They also had to constantly engage voters in racial justice efforts, prioritizing ending cash bail and closing a local jail, known as the Workhouse, that has long been criticized by advocates for its inhumane conditions. They demanded that any candidate running for office be accountable to their agenda.
And that’s what the coalition has been working on for the last three years. Action St. Louis now employs eight people. This spring, Reed says they knocked on 25,000 doors to get Tishaura Jones elected, made more than 230,000 calls and sent 100,000 text messages.
Before the results came in on election night, Reed’s exhausted team gathered around the island in their office kitchen for a drink. Reed gave a speech about how much Black people in St. Louis have lost – their children, their history, their resources and voices.
But the political movement that they’ve built since Ferguson was “wilder than our ancestors thought possible,” Reed said.
One of the men on her team was 15 when Brown was killed. Others were in their teens as well. They’re now being led by a 31-year-old Black woman, who was working as a pharmacy technician six years ago because nursing school had been too expensive.
For every single one of these young activists, the trajectory of their lives changed the moment Brown was killed.
“If tonight comes in the way I feel in my bones, it is because movement chose her and movement built itself to be able to win — to place her in the seat,” Reed said of Jones.
Action St. Louis’ wins didn’t end at Jones. It also flipped the Board of Aldermen, which is now dominated by elected officials committed to re-envisioning public safety.
Mayor’s new agenda takes shape
Jones took her oath as mayor April 20. Her plan for public safety includes redirecting 911 calls related to mental health and drug addiction away from the Police Department. She plans to put more money into affordable housing, job training and better access to health care. And she plans on closing the Workhouse.
“I think the police are terrified of Tishaura Jones’ candidacy because they see her like they see Black protesters,” Reed said.
But the police union is scared of Reed and Action St. Louis too, Jones said. Reed and the coalition have amassed more political power than the police union, a feat unthinkable just six years ago.
“Citywide, no one matches their ground game. No one matches their effort,” Jones said. “So they are becoming the endorsement to have or the backing to have in order to get elected.”
Jay Schroeder, president of the police officers union, said he’s aware of the changing political landscape.
“We have to get more active in the political scene in St. Louis city,” he said. “There’s going to be a bad situation with a policeman. It’s going to happen. But we need to get our message out – that you’re talking about the smallest percentage of things.”
Reed’s movement is built on a different message: The problem isn’t a few bad apples, it’s the entire system. And leaders and activists around the country have been watching Action St. Louis and taking cues on its successes. Reed co-hosted the Black National Convention in August, a virtual event designed to empower organizers in cities across the United States that drew thousands.
When Brittany Packnett Cunningham was leading classes as a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, she brought Reed in twice to speak. She said Reed was at the top of her students’ list of favorite speakers because of her “political creativity.”
“They’re never just pulling on one lever,” she said. “They are thinking creatively about how we’re building at the base.”
They look at electoral maps, she said, city budgets and creative ways to fund racial justice initiatives and recruit more canvassers.
“You actually have to engage the entire system and make it bend to your will, instead of you bend to it,” Cunningham said. “And that’s why I think Action St. Louis does so well.”
Reveal reporter Trey Bundy contributed to this story. It was edited by Andrew Donohue, Jason Hancock and Nina Martin. Kenya Vaughn was a contributing editor. It was fact checked by Liz Boyd and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
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