How Antonio French Went From a Ferguson Jail Cell to the Clinton Campaign – Next City

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How Antonio French Went From a Ferguson Jail Cell to the Clinton Campaign

The St. Louis alderman is using the lessons of Ferguson to drive reform on a local and national stage.

Story by Evie HemphillTwitter

Published on May 30, 2016

The Saturday prior to Hillary Clinton’s narrow Democratic primary victory in Missouri, St. Louis Alderman Antonio French is full of energy. Weeks earlier he accepted a paid position with the Clinton campaign, and on this March morning, French’s get-out-the-vote rally puts the relatively young politician squarely in his element.

He pops in and out of a modest-sized meeting room inside the recreation center that anchors his 21st Ward in North City. Fellow residents are gathering to hear actors Sean Patrick Thomas and Erika Alexander, among other speakers, stump for Clinton. French moves quickly from one spot to another, greeting friends, helping older individuals find seats and snapping photos of those eager for an image of themselves with Thomas or Alexander. Then he steps to the front of the room and lifts a microphone.

“The stuff that’s going to be decided by this next president, including the Supreme Court, is going to have ramifications for years and years to come,” he says. “We’ve got children here.” As if on cue, a baby in attendance immediately begins to wail. “Look, she’s excited right now.” The crowd erupts in laughter, and French takes the opportunity to characterize the crying as a natural response to Donald Trump’s candidacy.

“She’s like, ‘I can’t take it no more.’ I understand. I understand,” French says. “Now, you saw what happened in our town yesterday [during Trump’s downtown rally] … We cannot afford to put up anyone less than our best in November. The stakes are too high.”

Alderman Antonio French speaks with Hillary Clinton supporters at the O'Fallon Park Recreation Complex in St. Louis in March. (Photo by Evie Hemphill)

In breaks between his own remarks and his introductions of various speakers, French stands off to the side, frequently lifting his iPhone to capture and live-tweet the events of the day. This is a familiar position for the 38-year-old, who first drew national attention through his use of social media after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.

He filmed the ensuing demonstrations and was a prominent on-the-ground presence among protestors and police. French wound up capturing his own arrest on Vine four nights after Brown’s death. While French’s voice isn’t a new one in the region — particularly in north St. Louis, where he was first elected to the Board of Aldermen in 2009 — it’s been amplified ever since. And the issues Ferguson brought to the fore continue to inform his local agenda.

At the Clinton rally, though, his focus is the presidential race. He says he’s convinced Bernie Sanders “would be slaughtered in a general election,” one that he considers too critical to watch play out from the sidelines, given the Republican field.

After the Hollywood stars and several other local politicians speak, French takes the microphone again, urging his community to get the word out and get out the vote on Tuesday. He vaguely asks another campaign staffer how much longer something — it’s unclear exactly what — is going to take, and the answer is two minutes.

“Two more minutes, all right,” French repeats cryptically to the crowd. “It’s long enough for you to send out a tweet. It’s long enough for you to call a neighbor.” Then, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, a small army of suited officials moves a large podium into the unassuming multipurpose room — and Clinton herself is suddenly approaching the platform.

“What I saw last night in Chicago was deeply disturbing,” she says, quick to reference the previous evening’s clashes between Trump supporters and demonstrators as evidence of major work to be done across the nation. And then it’s on to assurances of a real plan for good jobs, quality education, affordable healthcare, student debt relief and criminal justice reform.

That last campaign promise hits especially close to home in the St. Louis region, where there’s increased awareness of racial disparities and renewed calls to action since events in Ferguson sparked a nationwide movement nearly two years ago. French has traded nights marked by tension and tear gas for days spent leveraging political support for related reforms at City Hall.

But despite his legislation establishing a measure of civilian oversight for the city’s police department and the comprehensive crime plan that he and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay announced in December, French sees a lot more work still ahead on many different fronts.

“My perspective is different from a lot of folks that are involved in Black Lives Matter and Ferguson stuff, in that for me this has always been a local issue,” he says. “I think a lot of the activists that were involved in Ferguson allowed themselves to get distracted, and so a lot of the momentum was lost. And so now, when you look back at the city of Ferguson and the state of racial justice in St. Louis County and St. Louis City, not as much progress has been made as we would have expected back in 2014.”

After her short speech in French’s ward, Clinton is swarmed by supporters of all ages eager to shake hands and take selfies. Longtime resident Lillie Vinson, who is 80 years old, watches the activity from several rows back and expresses some skepticism about the surprise factor.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton poses for photos with supporters after speaking in north St. Louis in March. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Why was Clinton’s second appearance in the St. Louis region that morning — in a predominantly white area — announced ahead of time, she wonders aloud, but not the one in North City? One of the celebrity speakers overhears her and tries to persuade Vinson it wasn’t about that. Vinson doesn’t look totally convinced, but when she gets to talking about what French’s representation has meant for her community and quality of life, her face brightens.

“If it weren’t for Antonio French, we wouldn’t be sitting in this building today,” says the retired schoolteacher, who has lived in her 21st Ward home for 60 years. He’s doing great work in the ward, she adds. “That’s why we keep voting him in.”

French’s own interest in the neighborhood’s health — and his inspiration to continue to strengthen it — is personal. He notes that he and his wife are “educated folks with options.” And the neighborhood that he grew up in, “at the height of homicide and murder in St. Louis City … where I had to get rid of everything red in my wardrobe,” is not something he wants his 5-year-old son to experience.

“For me, my son is really my hourglass,” French says. “He is a representation of the sense of urgency that I have to improve these communities. He is already at an age where he has begun to notice the decay. We were driving through the Third Ward on his way to school a few weeks ago, and he said, ‘Daddy, look: The dinosaurs came and crushed the buildings.’ … And so I can do what so many other people have done which is just, say, moving. Or I can work every day to try and improve it, and that’s what I’ve chosen to do.”

BLOCK BY BLOCK

The driving tour of his neighborhood has already filled up an hour by the time French stops his Kia minivan at a gas station to refuel. But the alderman seems to be just getting started. After paying at the pump, he hops back into the vehicle and pilots it down another of the streets he knows so well.

“Look at this beautiful house,” he says. “I want you to watch the transformation. We’re going to go three blocks over and see how it changes. Look at that house right there … that’s a vacant house over there, two houses down from their house … Now we’re two blocks over — vacant, vacant. You’re starting to get to these blocks where you have more vacant houses than occupied houses. And then one block over it’s even worse.”

French has lived most of his life in this community, one that exists within a larger, long-neglected area of St. Louis. His grandparents still reside on the same block where his parents first met — and where he and his wife and son now occupy a house of their own. A sense of urgency and pride accompanies his lament over the scattered evidence of decline.

“Too often, when folks think about north St. Louis, they think about the knuckleheads who live in that house and don’t do their yard, and what we need to think about is the person in that [other] house, who has to live next to them,” he says. “We have to keep these people in the city … A lot of these neighborhoods are at the point where a little investment will keep these neighborhoods stable for 10 or 20 years. Or, if we do nothing, then that decay down the street is going to spread over here.”

A chain-link fence with barbed wire on top keeps people off the site of an abandoned factory in north St. Louis. (AP Photo by Jim Salter)

Representing roughly 11,000 constituents who in many cases feel that their city has forgotten them, French is convinced that there’s a disturbingly deliberate aspect to the creeping neglect. For too many of those in leadership positions in St. Louis, he argues, the eventual exodus of residents invested in these communities is “kind of their plan” when it comes to development on the north side of the city.

“That critical mass [leaves], and then somebody can just come in, and the property values are so low that they can buy up most of it,” he says. “Then you say, ‘Oh, we’ve got this big project, so we have to use eminent domain on 200 properties.’ … That is very scary to people who live in these neighborhoods.”

But on this mild spring afternoon, at least, the alderman isn’t dwelling too much on the deep-rooted problems and frustrations. Signs of vitality and improvement also mark his ward, one of 28 that make up the city, and he’s eager to discuss that transformation too. With windows rolled down, he heads for O’Fallon Park, a public space that he remembers as an abandoned haven of criminal activity when he was in high school.

“This is the lake where my grandmother taught me how to fish, and this place had turned to pot — it became a place where drug dealers and drunks hung out and families wouldn’t,” French says. “And so one of the very first things I did [as an alderman] was make it a priority to redevelop this park.”

The roadway that curves through the expansive green space is being repaved on this particular day, and the place is buzzing with outdoor activity. Several residents wave hello as the local politician, whose 130,000-strong following on Twitter is unusual for a city alderman, passes by. He points out the seating areas, chess tables, expanded basketball courts, accessible playground, the pavilion that serves free meals in the summertime — all of it worlds away from the O’Fallon Park of 20 years ago.

The biggest change occurred in 2013, when the $18 million O’Fallon Park Recreation Complex opened as a key anchor in the community. As French describes it, ensuring affordable access to the complex didn’t come easily at City Hall. In fact, the facility’s debut was delayed when French pulled the legislation in protest of planned membership rates.

“The mayor and I went to war and battled, and then we won,” says French. “And so any kid in the city can use that facility right now for about 20 bucks a year. All our North Campus kids have memberships here, and this place stays full of kids. And that is the only way it was going to be successful. I didn’t want to build something that is only for the few elites of the community that can afford it.”

An outspoken critic of the Slay administration, French speaks frankly about his own tactics, saying it’s about leverage and choosing winnable fights. His threat last fall to filibuster a vote on funding for a new NFL stadium unless Slay sat down with him to negotiate a crime plan is a more recent example.

“Similarly, we had influence on this stadium deal,” French says. “We had the votes on the committee. Now, I knew enough to know that there was no way in hell that that particular deal was going to happen, because that particular deal required a man who made it very clear he didn’t want to be here to pay $600 million to be here … But the mayor and them wanted it passed, and so, fine, we used it as leverage to get what we needed, which was a crime plan. Now implementation is a whole ’nother thing, but we do have a plan.”

Presented as “PIER,” it focuses on prevention, intervention, enforcement and reentry, identifying 15 focus neighborhoods for a two-year influx of city resources, most of them communities in north St. Louis. The plan aims to increase accountability around public safety and promises everything from surveillance cameras, community policing and park rangers to youth activities, job placement services and economic development assistance.

“There’s no permanent friends, no permanent enemies — it’s just permanent interests,” French says of the dealings with Slay. “I work with people I disagree with. And at the end of the day we get stuff done, and that’s what’s important.”

The jury is still out as far as the real impact of that plan and other such efforts, according to St. Louis resident Andrew Arkills, president of the Tower Grove South Neighborhood Association.

“Much of what Alderman French has started, led and proposed is still in its infancy,” Arkills says, “but he should be applauded for, at the very least, bringing the topics into the spotlight. His legacy will depend on whether those projects get fully implemented and cause lasting positive change.”

Describing French as a gifted communicator who commands a following when he chooses to move an issue forward, Arkills adds that the alderman “has a tendency to be overly coy, to the point of it being unclear where he stands” — and is at times perceived as playing both sides of a given issue.

“Some call this being opportunistic, some call it being a shrewd negotiator,” says Arkills, who is a business analyst. “Politicians are by nature a little bit of both, so the true driving force on the decisions he makes is likely somewhere in between.”

REPORTER, POLITICIAN, SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR

French got his start in local politics 16 years ago, after graduating from Auburn University, by responding to an “activist wanted” ad in the Riverfront Times and becoming a signature gatherer for a statewide ballot initiative aimed at campaign finance reform. Soon he was managing political campaigns for city- and state-level candidates. In 2002, he also started a short-lived alternative newspaper in St. Louis, naming it the Public Defender.

“We put out about six issues, and then it moved to the web and became PubDef,” French says. “And PubDef, I think, was ahead of its time. I remember talking to a reporter at the [St. Louis] Post-Dispatch at the time, Jake Wagman, and telling Jake, ‘Hey man, listen, there’s this new thing out, and you really need to get hip to it, man, it’s called YouTube.”

French estimates that about 500 PubDef videos still exist online. Technology has advanced and the alderman has shifted away from those journalistic roots in the years since, but video footage continues to be something of a theme among his endeavors.

“I think what I recognized early on in PubDef, which is still true today, is that that’s kind of where we’re going [as a society],” he says. “It’s so convenient now, with technology, for somebody to be able to pull up on their phone and actually see what happened, instead of getting somebody else’s interpretation of it.”

What French and others documented of the Ferguson protests — and the national social media following he gained as a result — certainly speaks to such trends. Looking back on that August, French recalls sometimes returning to his vehicle, closing the vents as tear gas was released and continuing to film the volatile situation, including the night of his own arrest.

“I continued to record — tweeting and Vine-ing — as you see lots of officers and the SWAT gear and the smoke and bombs and them shooting the tear gas,” French says. “You see it, and they slowly make their way closer to where we were and eventually surround the car, and one of them opens up my car door and says, ‘Sir, would you mind stepping out,’ and they arrested me. And there were no charges, but they kept me overnight in jail.”

Several of French’s colleagues were also arrested that night, including employees of North Campus, the nonprofit he founded in 2012 to enhance opportunities for children in his ward.

“All the people in jail that night were the least violent, the least confrontational,” he says. “These were not the people who were causing the trouble.”

A few cells over from him sat St. Louis activist, writer and former cabbie Umar Lee, who has plenty of disagreements with French but also views him as someone who has dedicated significant thought and action to trying to address some of St. Louis’ most entrenched problems.

“I think Antonio’s a polarizing figure, and those who love him really love him, and those who hate him really hate him,” says Lee. “He’s a black politician who’s tried to bridge the racial divide but is looked at as a flaming black radical by many in the St. Louis white community and [as] somewhat of a sellout by some in the black community.”

Lee goes on to speculate that French “almost had this Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders effect after Ferguson.” People saw him as someone who could really unite St. Louis moving forward, and he “was bound to burst bubbles from that point.”

“He was a young guy with fresh ideas when he first popped on the scene, and he’s disappointed people. He’s disappointed me at times,” Lee says, then counters his own assessment with some competing evidence.

“When I got fired from Laclede Cab for my political activism … different people in the St. Louis political establishment promised me things and didn’t deliver. Antonio is the only person that reached out to help me during that time,” says Lee, who briefly took him up on the offer of a part-time job driving a shuttle for North Campus. “I think that’s to his credit — that this is a guy that would take on a controversial Muslim character that people said was bringing ISIS to Ferguson and all that shit … That shows me that he’s someone, despite the criticism, despite all these things, who genuinely goes with his gut and tries to do the right thing.”

As the Ferguson movement has expanded and moved on to other cities, French’s focus continues to be St. Louis. He was instrumental in opening up the #HealSTL office in downtown Ferguson several weeks after Brown’s death. Although the space burned to the ground in November on the night of the announcement that a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Brown, the nonprofit has since reopened next door. Its mission is threefold, aiming to defend the civil rights of oppressed people, leading voter registration and education efforts, and expanding job and economic development opportunities in the area.

“That office is still there,” French says. “We partner with organizations that do job placement and operate out of that building through the Ferguson 1000 program. So we’re just committed to the long, hard work.”

That work includes the passage of legislation last spring establishing a Civilian Oversight Board for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department — the result of a bill sponsored by French. While the board doesn’t have as much authority as he and many others would like, he considers it a step in the right direction.

When it comes to some of the other action that takes place at City Hall, French doesn’t hesitate to express frustration.

“One of the things that drives me nuts — and this is something where I sometimes lose [it] at the Board of Aldermen — is seeing so much money being wasted,” French says, touching on what he considers a problematic, top-down approach to development. “Nothing drives me crazier than seeing money being wasted. So when I see this McKee thing, and he got $43 million, and nothing was built? That pisses me off, because with our program [North Campus], we operate on $50,000 a month. And what we’re able to do on $50,000 a month? Oh my goodness.” (Paul McKee is a developer who received tax credits in the purchase of land in St. Louis.)

REBUILDING A COMMUNITY

Traveling around his 21st Ward, French frequently pulls over to the side of the road in order to discuss a particular property. Abandoned school buildings, empty lots, dilapidated churches — he points out more than a few during the tour, but there’s a hopefulness about many of the stops.

On one block, an old boxing gym has been transformed into The Learning Center, one of several North Campus locations that provide afterschool mentoring, tutoring and enrichment to more than 150 area children elementary through high school age. Elsewhere, a handful of empty lots have been acquired by the nonprofit with an eye toward becoming Lots of Learning, which may range from community gardens to outdoor performance areas. And just this spring, the organization bought several long-vacant school buildings, including one where French himself went to grade school.

French founded North Campus in 2012 to enhance opportunities for children in his ward. (Photo by Antonio French) 

“It’s all about rebuilding this community,” says French, the self-described “chief volunteer” and main fundraiser for the organization. “And so what we are doing with the children is one component of it, but then we are also doing stuff with their families, and we’re also doing stuff with the infrastructure around here and with the buildings and economic development.

“Really at its core, what North Campus recognizes is that it is all the same problem. For too long St. Louis Public Schools has kind of tackled the problem from their perspective, the police department has tackled the problem from their perspective, the various departments of city and state and federal government attack the problem from their perspective, but nobody is, like, coordinating the efforts to all deal with the problem. And that’s what North Campus partnership does.”

French turns down his own block and once again pulls over to the curb. The main maintenance person and groundskeeper for North Campus walks up to the passenger side of the van.

“Hey, you’ve got that boarded up over there?” French asks him.

“I’ve done all of it,” he replies.

“All right, thanks,” French says, going on to explain that several members of the North Campus staff now live on the same block. The organization provides incentives for its diverse full-time employees to truly make the neighborhood home, he says, rather than simply a location they visit to do a job.

In conversation with French, that sense of personal investment in a particular place — and obligation to its future — keeps coming up.

“To actually live in this community is to understand the kids and the families and to know what’s going on and to have an interest in the community, to have an interest in the street being repaved,” he says. “You care about the street being repaved because you drive the street too. You care about that park, because that’s your park.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Evie Hemphill is a writer and car-free commuter in St. Louis.

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