‘What you did changed me’: Ferguson protesters found friendship amid unrest

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)

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)

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.

“All of my friends have been killed. I’m sick of it,” protester Jamell Spann yelled at police officers in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, following the shooting death of Michael Brown. Fellow protester Elizabeth Vega comforts him. (Robert Cohen/AP/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

“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.

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