August 20, 2014

When she saw people protesting after the death of Michael Brown, when she saw the outrage and turmoil, Akilah Johnson also saw echoes of what she has seen and heard as a reporter for The Boston Globe – lack of diversity on the police force, unequal resources for poor communities, strained relationships between police and communities, the death of young black men. And it felt, to her, like something people in Boston needed to know more about.

So Johnson flew to St. Louis and headed for Ferguson to report on something that echoes in Boston.

The reason, she said, “is to bear witness of this moment for our readers.”

Johnson joins well over 100 journalists from around the U.S. and outside the country who’ve come to Ferguson to witness what’s happening.

“I would think that that’s part of the reason you’ve got media here from around the world in this moment,” she said.

From her August 18th piece for the Globe:

For the hundreds of men and women who have turned several blocks of West Florissant Avenue into a protest zone, this is the release of generations of pent-up frustration. Brown’s death had echoes of their own treatment at the hands of a police department they say does not respect black residents, who make up about 70 percent of the population in this small city in northern St. Louis County. Brown’s death resonated with them, tearing open the scars of old injustices and serving as a moment of awakening.

‘Sometimes you have to stand and fight. . . . You can’t run away from things.’

But his death also hit home far from the borders of this city. People have traveled to Ferguson from hundreds of miles away, ready to add their presence to the cause.

“For me it wasn’t so much about reporters being arrested, which was huge, or tear gassed, but you had Americans in an American city that were being tear gassed and trampled down on,” Johnson said. “I think it just kind of erupted into something that was so much more.”


It rained on Saturday as Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson walked through a crowded street in Ferguson. Johnson shadowed his walk and watched as he responded to people bearing their grievances. Many were heated and angry.

“He responded with compassion, to be very honest,” she said. “You don’t often see police officers respond that way in volatile situations.”

On Monday, Johnson spoke with Poynter via phone as she walked down Ferguson’s Florissant Avenue. She felt tired, she said. But she’s not following the pack of journalists to most press conferences and she’s not reporting the daily news. Instead, she’s telling the stories she discovers from people around Ferguson and beyond.

“So that’s freeing for me on some levels, on a lot of levels,” she said.

Twitter has been a huge help in finding people in the community and people from her own community, like the woman who drove from Boston to be in Ferguson.

Johnson has been surprised by how open people are, that they’ll talk with a stranger.

“But people want to tell their stories,” she said. “They want to talk, they want to be heard and I’m lucky enough to be a vehicle to do that.”

There’s a variety of press in Ferguson now, she said, from independent journalists to people from big news organizations. The racial diversity of those reporters could be better, but, she said, “I think that’s a common problem, and I think it would help in terms of relateability and story framing and talking to people and putting into context what people are going through.”

At night, she reports on social media through Twitter, Instagram and Vine. Then, she’s part of the pack. It’s safer, but if she can get out of it, out of the way of so many others here reporting, that’s where she finds the best stories.

She tries to remember the line from Dr. Seuss’ “If I Ran the Zoo.”

If you want to catch beasts you don’t see every day,
You have to go places quite out-of-the-way.
You have to go places no others can get to.
You have to get cold and you have to get wet, too.

“I think there is just something singular about what’s happening here, but something universal as well,” Johnson said. “That’s why so many people are here. They feel compelled to come and bear witness to this moment.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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