'What You Did Changed Me': Ferguson Protesters Found Friendship Amid Unrest

Aug 9, 2019
Originally published on August 9, 2019 11:26 am

Five years ago, Ferguson, Mo., erupted.

A Ferguson police officer killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man, in what the U.S. Department of Justice would later rule as self-defense.

After Brown was killed on Aug. 9, 2014, protesters took to Ferguson's streets, chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot!"

In the days of protests that followed, strangers Jamell Spann and Elizabeth Vega marched to the Ferguson Police Department to demand justice.

The two strangers forged a friendship out of that painful day and a photograph that immortalized their first encounter, taken by Robert Cohen of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, won the Pulitzer Prize. In it, Spann, a young black man, is yelling, his face contorted with anguish and tears. Vega, a woman twice his age, also emotional, places a comforting hand on Spann's shoulder.

"What you did changed me," Spann, now 26, told Vega, 52, in a StoryCorps conversation in June.

Vega first saw Spann enraged and confronting Ferguson Police in riot gear.

"I remember tears streaming down your face, fists clenched as you were naming off all the people that had been beaten by the police that you knew," Vega said. "It was a raw, real moment and I just put my hand on your chest. I don't know why I did that, but that just felt like the right and human thing to do."

Spann, though, thought others viewed his emotions captured in the photo as a sign of weakness.

"I feel like what everybody perceived was this vulnerable black guy," he told Vega. "And where I come from, that shouldn't be taken as vulnerable. That was ... warrior spirit. To have love and righteous anger that is in your body and your soul awaken in you ... and that feeling has lasted for five years."

Spann is from St. Louis, where he says he's used to seeing young black men like himself die.

"I didn't know Mike Brown, but I knew how it felt to watch somebody die," he said.

Spann said his and Vega's experience is one of many, that there's no one person who can fully paint the picture of the protests immediately after Michael Brown was killed.

Elizabeth Vega and Jamell Spann became friends after Vega comforted an emotional Spann while they were protesting in Ferguson, Mo., as strangers in 2014.
Dupe Oyebolu for StoryCorps

"I don't know if you know this, but you changed my life that day," Vega told Spann.

Those feelings are mutual, Spann said. He's grateful for Vega's support.

"I didn't want to feel like I needed help, but ... I appreciate it because I see that without it, a family or a village isn't sustainable," Spann said. "There needs to be more than just swords and shields — you need blankets and hugs, too."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Kelly Moffitt.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. Five years ago, demonstrators made their way to the Ferguson, Mo., police department to protest the shooting of a black teenager named Michael Brown. A local photographer captured a moment when the lives of two strangers became entwined. The photo shows a young African American man. His face is twisted in anguish, tears running down his cheeks. Next to him, an older Latina reaches up to comfort him, resting her hand on his shoulder. The picture would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Those two strangers - Jamell Spann, now 26, and Elizabeth Vega, 52 - came to StoryCorps to remember that pivotal moment and the friendship that grew from it.

ELIZABETH VEGA: We're on the sidewalk, and the police were advancing on us in full riot gear. And I remember tears streaming down your face, fists clenched as you were naming off all the people that had been beaten by the police that you knew. It was a raw, real moment, and I just put my hand on your chest. I don't know why I did that, but that just felt like the right and human thing to do. What did you think when you saw the photo?

JAMELL SPANN: I said I ain't like it because I feel like what everybody perceived was this vulnerable black guy. And where I come from, that shouldn't be taken as vulnerable. That was warrior spirit to have love and righteous anger that is in your body and your soul awakened in you. And that feeling has lasted for five years.

For a lot of black men that grew up in St. Louis, we watched each other die a lot. I didn't know Mike Brown, but I knew how it felt to, like, watch somebody die, you know what I'm saying?

There is no one person that I feel like anyone can talk to to truly understand what happened in those initial nights and how it feels as people who still live here in this city.

VEGA: I don't know if you know this, but you changed my life that day.

SPANN: I'd definitely say our relationship and what you did changed me - that calling that we couldn't explain that drove us to each other. I didn't want to feel like I needed help.

VEGA: And now...

SPANN: I appreciate it because I see that it's - like, without it, a family or a village isn't sustainable. There needs to be more than just swords and shields. You need blankets and hugs, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAKE OIL'S "BLACK BAND OF WATER")

MARTIN: Jamell Spann and Elizabeth Vega - they met in the days after the death of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Mo. Their interview will be archived, along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAKE OIL'S "BLACK BAND OF WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.