Image via Tef Poe on Facebook
Last night, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that a grand jury had decided not to press charges against Officer Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown earlier this year. Locally, chaos erupted, and many buildings in Ferguson were burned to the ground. Nearby, at a Run the Jewels show in St. Louis, Killer Mike gave an impassioned speech about the meaning of the decision, which we talked to him about earlier today. Playing that same show was Tef Poe, the St. Louis rapper who has, over the last several months, been one of the most outspoken advocates for Michael Brown’s case and one of the most dedicated organizers on the ground.
Tef Poe was among the first people on the scene after Michael Brown’s death, and he was in the streets during the height of the heavily policed protests earlier this year. Since we last spoke, Tef has continued his activism, even traveling to Geneva with Michael Brown’s parents and other local organizers to testify in front of the UN. He also just wrapped up a string of Midwest tour dates with Run the Jewels, dropping off the bill for the final show tonight in Detroit so he could remain in Ferguson. Last night, he was onstage when the decision was announced, and he headed over to Ferguson to see what could be done as soon as he got offstage. I gave him a call this afternoon to talk about what he had seen, how he’s feeling, and what comes next for Ferguson.
Noisey: How are you feeling right now?
Tef Poe: I’m good, man. Just a different range of emotions going through me every hour, every other minute, but for the most part I’m good.
Was there an angry vibe at the show? Was it solemn?
Surprisingly, people weren’t really angry at the show. You know what, St. Louis lives in different bubbles just like everywhere else in the country. I mean, if you’re at a rap show the night that you’re going to announce the verdict, chances are you don’t feel as politically engaged as the people in the streets do about it anyway. I did the show, we rocked it. A lot of my music already touches the subject matter that we’re dealing with, so I don’t really have to touch on talking points, stuff like that. If you listen to my music you kind of already know where I stand on issues such as this. So I just did the show, dapped up the fans, put on my Batman costume and got to the streets.
So what was that like? I saw on Twitter that the police tried to raid your guys’ office?
Yeah, when I was en route to West Florissant, I heard that the cops had actually tried to invade our office for Hands Up United. A few of the activists on the ground here with us approached them, stopped them from entering, and alerted them that they would need a warrant to enter the building.
What were the cops saying? Why were they trying to get in?
The cops were telling us that they were attempting to protect property, but we don’t understand why they needed to enter our building in order to protect property. And it’s wild because everything around us was burning. We literally watched two buildings completely burn to the ground. It took the fire department forever to come, and once they did come, they didn’t have hoses. Literally didn’t have hoses. They did not put any fires out.
What was the general atmosphere with the organizers and protestors on the streets?
I mean, we’re human, so we kind of sat back in a state of shock and awe. We were kind of just sort of having an out of body experience about it. It was quite something to witness. After the first two weeks of this situation, everything has been relatively peaceful. People protest every day here in St. Louis surrounding these issues, but you very rarely see that level of aggression and that level of anger so vividly displayed. So it was a real emotional moment. A few of us cried. A few of us had to walk away and get a breath of fresh air and kind of isolate ourselves. Just formulate our thoughts and put ourselves back into our own flesh. For me, it was just a shame that this is where we’ve come to, and no one has accepted responsibility for what has happened. It kind of just perpetuates the whole [image of] Missouri being a racist state and not having any problems with, [not] denouncing white supremacy.
And you’ve been so active with organizing around it. How does it feel to watch all of that culminate into a moment like this?
It really feels as if no one really cares. It really feels surreal on a certain level, and then on another level it’s what we expected. We didn’t expect Darren Wilson to be indicted. I had a meeting with the US ambassador when I went with Mike Brown’s parents to Geneva to address the UN, and at that meeting I said to him “the problem for me, in actuality, as an organizer, isn’t that you guys don’t address the killing of minorities by police officers, it’s the fact that you do address it and act as if you’re truly trying to do something about it.” In this country, the track record proves itself. The statistics don’t lie. If a police officer kills an unarmed minority—or anyone, for that matter—they will not be punished to the full extent of the law. And it consistently proves itself to be true. This consistently proves itself to be a fact.
So if this is where we’re at in our society, just put it on paper so we don’t look like a bunch of idiots for protesting and demanding justice or demanding something that the law isn’t built to produce for us. And then as a consequence of that, people get angry because they feel like the system—and the laws that are put in place to be a fair and balanced view of what justice actually is—isn’t fulfilling itself, and certain individuals aren’t being held accountable. So how about we just throw all that bullshit out the window and just admit that cops can kill whoever the hell they want to kill and we’ll do the game of charades with you, we’ll play the game with you, we’ll dance with you and act like there’s actually a chance that they’ll be indicted when in actuality we know they won’t.
It seems particularly difficult too because then they have this institutional language they can hide behind to say, “well, the evidence isn’t enough to support XYZ.”
Right. And any police shooting there’s never enough evidence. That’s the crazy part. Oscar Grant can get killed on camera, shot in the back, handcuffed—it’s never enough evidence. Eric Garner, murdered on camera—not enough evidence. Kajieme Powell, shot down on camera—we can’t press charges, we can’t release the police officer’s name. It’s ridiculous. It’s astounding. And it happens at the rate for black males, the same rate that the lynchings occurred in the lynch mob era. It’s a real problem that we don’t have real time measures to address. We’re not taking a realistic approach to it because nobody really wants to deal with racism—nobody wants to deal with racism—and especially deeply rooted, institutionalized racism that’s supported by the state, that’s supported by the government, and so forth.
Do you think there are steps to be taken?
For me, it starts with real conversations, for one. If we can’t have a conversation about how police in Missouri were essentially founded as undercover guys for the Ku Klux Klan when slavery ended—we don’t have local control over the police because of situations like that. Because of age old ridiculous laws that were founded during the prohibition era, during the slavery era, that were just never rehashed or touched because they made life a little bit more convenient for rich people, or people who come from certain backgrounds, or people who have certain skin color. We can’t talk about the fact that in Missouri our governor says he’s a Democrat, and black people overwhelmingly vote Democrat and support the Democratic party blindly, yet when we have a real concern and there are mass numbers of people saying that it’s our concern, the same party we’ve pledged allegiance to turns their back on us or does things to make us appear to be wild, uncontrollable, angry, misguided, and uneducated—all in one breath. I think that we have start there. We have to start with opening the platform for that.
The thing about Ferguson is that people here are tired of the regular textbook conversations about the law, and government, and voting, and so forth. I’ve voted several times, you know? But that’s not going to stop me from becoming the next Mike Brown if I’m at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong police officer.
Absolutely. That’s the horrifying thing, just how much the institutions are propped up—like, this is going to be figured out. But clearly, it’s not. Tell me more about the trip to Geneva to testify before the UN. What was that like? What did you take away from that?
Myself and about five other people went alongside Mike Brown’s parents. It was organized primarily by a lawyer—actually, he’s an SLU law professor named Justin Hansford. Basically, we went to testify before the UN about torture practices that are upheld by the police in America and in Ferguson and St. Louis specifically. And it was kind of a soul-staring experience because I had an opportunity to have a few brief conversations with the parents. I had a few extended conversations with Mike Brown’s mother. You know, I just learned some things. I had the opportunity to have a few conversations with her and really learn some things about her life and case that you just won’t see in the media.
Like she has other children aside from Mike Brown. And how those children are coping with the loss of their brother. How do you explain to those children that this is what’s going on surrounding your brother’s death? A few of them, the pictures I saw, they were younger than Michael. This is a real family, man. They have real issues. The media—they portray her to be one way. But when I had these conversations with her and got to sit down—she’s really a nice person. If anything, what you’re witnessing is a person who’s hurt. She lost a child. All of this crazy stuff happened surrounding that.
Yeah. I can’t even imagine on top of the pain that you would normally feel to have the entire world watching—it’s a lot.
Exactly. And one thing that really stood out to me about the Geneva trip is that it exposes the ridiculous nature of racism. And what I mean by that is that you have a family that comes Missouri. Their son gets murdered by a police officer. Some kind of way, for whatever reason, they have to fly to Geneva, Switzerland to testify before a group of people who don’t even speak English. They have to fly to Geneva to humanize Michael. To make him a real person to other people, you know? If they’d never laid eyes on his parents—this is just a story, this is just a fable. You don’t really feel it until you see those people sitting in the same room as you, crying. They can barely talk because they’re shedding tears. And I think that’s just so insane that you have to go through all of this just to make your deceased son a real person to someone.
That is insane. What do you see is the future for organizing in Ferguson and the issue of police violence?
That’s a hard question to answer because this stuff is still unfolding. Every minute by minute something changes. We try to stay on top of it. We try to plug in where we can plug in, where we should be. But it’s a very irregular situation—all the way down to the fact that Bob McCulloch released the decision at nighttime, as if he was wishing for violence. You unleash such a controversial verdict at night. I felt like that was irresponsible. And if it wasn’t irresponsible, then it was planned. So we’re dealing with people like this, dealing with people who have all of the resources. They have all of the money. They have complete control and sway over the media. They have control over public opinion to a certain degree. The reality of the situation is also that you just don’t go at law enforcement. Law enforcement is viewed as a very noble position in our society. A very noble occupation. And for us to be primarily young and black and engaging in conflict with the police on a regular basis, it just changes the fabric of everything for our lives. There are places we can’t go. There are things we can’t do. I’m standing outside by myself right now as I speak and I know people are twitching for me to come back into the restaurant because safety is a real concern for me right now.
I think that when the smoke clears, a lot of our plans are just to become a self-sufficient community and to really break away from the Democratic and Republican game of charades. If we’re gonna vote for someone, let’s vote according to the issues that they address that concern us. And if we can’t find a candidate within the two-party system that’s capable of doing that, let’s look at what the ability to run an independent candidate looks like. Let’s really step forward and see what inclusion in this system looks like for us or the disrupting of that system is something that we must do to be included. These are the things we’re asking ourselves. These are the things that float around in our head. I think that’s where this community is going once things get a little bit more settled.
Can you describe the scene in Ferguson you witnessed last night?
I saw multiple buildings burning. A building right next to our office pretty much burned down. It was burning for hours upon hours. The fire department initially showed up. They were late. The building was already on fire and pretty much worthless at that point. They came and continued to let the fire go off without stopping it. A building not very far from that building on the opposite side of the street was on fire. There were no attempts to really put that fire out as well. When people were looting different businesses, the police officers for the most part just stood by and watched it happen. There was no interference of looting. There was no attempt to set up perimeters to stop people from looting. They just let it unravel and let it happen.
After a moment, when the fires occurred, that’s when the militarized police showed up. They had the body armor with the machine guns and they started to approach the crowd. We were outside protecting our office building and the strip mall that our office building is in. So we prevented maybe seven or eight businesses from burning down. The police came to us and tried to make us leave the scene. They threatened us with arrest, but we responded that we were protecting our property. You’re not gonna protect our property, then we have to protect our own property. We had a few conversations with them and after those conversations, they decided to fall back and just let us do our thing.
Even with that said, there was still a bit of aggression to us because we’re regular citizens. We don’t have machine guns, we don’t have body armor. We’re literally out here with hoodies and boots and blue jeans, trying to protect property. So we eventually left because there were sounds of gunfire in the background and the shots got progressively louder. We didn’t know if we would be hit by a stray bullet or not. And actually, a bullet did come through one of the windows of our office. We weren’t able to recover the shell today, but it’s clearly a bullet hole. It’s pretty big. We don’t know where that came from.
Did you have any confrontation with the people trying to get into the businesses?
No, the people were cool, man. That’s the crazy part about it. There’s so much unity among people on the ground out here right now. A person would give you the clothes off their back if they could in this situation. That’s something that was created by the lack of indictment for Darren Wilson. Previously, the lack of appreciation for the fact that Mike Brown was a human being created that. There’s a really warm feeling of unity, even though it doesn’t look that way. We walked up to a group of young guys and specifically asked them to not burn down certain buildings or touch certain properties and they said, “OK, man, cool. We got you. We won’t do it.” Those are the conversations that the police can’t have, and the police can’t have those conversations with them because the police aren’t humanizing people that look like them. Those guys aren’t human to the police, so the police respond with guns the same way as you would with a rabid pit bull. You can't control this dog, you gotta lay it down, versus us who don’t have guns at all being able to walk up to these people and have a conversation and say, “Hey look, man. Would you mind not burning down this building?”
We just talked to Killer Mike. Did you have a chance to talk to him at all? He’s a big advocate of yours.
Yeah, I did five shows with Mike and El-P on the Run the Jewels tour. I opened up the concert for the last week. I’m supposed to be in Detroit with them tonight, but I couldn’t make it. [sighs] Because of all this stuff going on at home.
How was that?
It was awesome. Sold out concerts. On par with a message that I agree with. I didn’t have to really change my music much. It’s a real family environment. They have a real appreciation for what we’re doing on the ground on the organizing tip. I talked to El-P backstage about what was going on in Ferguson, and he told me a bunch of his ideas to help. I look forward to working with him and Mike in the future concerning what we’re gonna do on the ground and different things we can do to help the families.
There haven’t been a lot of high profile people speaking out but those guys have been on top of it. Is there anyone else you feel has been that way?
David Banner and Talib Kweli. David Banner, specifically. He’s become like a family member of mine through this situation. I can call David any time of the night for whatever reason, and he’ll pick up the phone and try to help out. He texted me last night as we were blocking the officer. He was like, “What do you need me to do?” I said, “I don’t know at this current moment. Let me think about it tomorrow and call you back.” So Killer Mike, David Banner, Talib Kweli. Those are the three rap artists that I’ve been talking to on a regular basis and they’ve been actually coming through with actions to back it up.
Check out VICE News for more updates from Ferguson.
Follow Tef Poe on Twitter.
Follow Kyle Kramer on Twitter.