Woman Behind Powerful Mike Brown Protest Photo Defies 'Respectability Politics'
When France Francois (pictured) held up her sign last week at a vigil in Washington, D.C. she had no idea it would resonate with so many people on social media.
Her sign read, "I CANNOT BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT!! #toomanynames #ferguson #dontshoot #mikebrown."
So far, one version of the photo has been retweeted more than 3,600 times and has more than 3,500 favors on Twitter.
Francois, 28, told AlterNet she's surprised that her photo resonates with so many people online, but doesn't want it to divert attention from Mike Brown and the reason she attended the National Movement Of Silence 2014 gathering: to mourn the deaths of black people who have died at the hands of law enforcement.
"I'm glad it sparked some conversation because I think, throughout the nation, we're all asking ourselves this question," she said. 'How did we come here again? How did we find ourselves in this very same space?'"
Francois said the sentiment behind the sign comes from her days as a student at Florida State University when she protested the death of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old who died after being beaten by boot camp personnel. After months of silence from authorities over his death, Francois, along with other students from Tallahassee Community College, Florida A&M University and Florida State University staged a 34-hour sit-in at then-governor Jeb Bush's office in Tallahassee.
She took to Twitter to explain her feelings further: "A feeling of rage and powerlessness gripped us in Tallahassee, and students and citizens marched into the streets, and sat down. We shut down the busiest street in Tallahassee with dozens of students linking hands and forming a circle. The police came and the black police chief soon followed. He said to me, 'I understand how you guys feel. I'm going to LET YOU do this.' He didn't realize we were ready then for whatever they had planned; we'd been preparing for jail, dogs, anything for over a year. He could not have stopped our civil disobedience even if he had tried."
After making her sign, Francois wasn't sure it would be appropriate to take it to the gathering. For one, her sign had a curse word in it and she was concerned it would be perceived as "rage." Unrest was also brewing in Ferguson and she knew the spirit of #NMOS14 was suppose to be a space where people unite in peace; she didn't want her sign to hijack that tone.
But after some thought, Francois felt the sign epitomized her feelings and fit in with the spirit of the gathering.
"For me, it goes back to the idea that we're not allowed to feel these sentiments," she said. "We always have to be stoic. We always have to make certain people comfortable and I really didn't want to make anyone comfortable at that time. I felt angry. I felt fearful for my young brother and my younger cousin. And I currently feel fearful for the son I might have and I wasn't trying to make people feel comfortable because I don't feel like this is a moment where we should feel comfortable. We should be questioning the fact that this continues to happen and I wanted that to be expressed."
While holding her sign in Malcolm X Park, an elderly woman, who said she was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, approached Francois. The woman told her she has been protesting the same kind of injustice that took Mike Brown's life for 70 years. She vividly remembers police dog attacks and the freedom rides.
"It was both humbling and troubling at the same time," Francois said, "because how far have we come? Really, as a nation, how far have we come?"