First as a member of Lost Voices and then as an independent activist, Melissa McKinnies has consistently spoken out against racialized police violence. For that, she has paid a steep price. In 2016, McKinnies was arrested following a nonviolent protest at a Trump campaign rally. Authorities charged her with felony robbery in connection to an innocuous incident at a Michael Brown-related event two years prior.
The single mother faced 17 years in prison, but that didn’t stop her from condemning the 2017 acquittal of Jason Stockley, the White St. Louis police officer who fatally shot Black motorist Anthony Lamar Smith.
The following year, death hit McKinnies in her own home. On October 17, 2018, the body of her 24-year-old son, Danye Jones, was discovered hanging from a tree in their backyard. The noose was made of a bedsheet.
Police eventually ruled the death a suicide, but McKinnies insists that Danye was lynched. She believes her son’s demise is part of a pattern in which several other Black activists with ties to the Brown rebellion have died or faced threats:
- Per The Associated Press, Deandre Joshua, 20, was found shot in a burning car blocks from a November 2014 protest against the acquittal of Brown’s killer. Activist Darren Seals, 26, was also found shot in a burning car, in September 2016.
- HuffPost reported that Black Lives Matter activist MarShawn McCarrel, 23, fatally shot himself outside of the Ohio Statehouse. State police ruled it a suicide but there were no witnesses.
- Edward Crawford Jr., the 27-year-old famously photographed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch throwing a tear gas cannister back at police, fatally shot himself in May 2017 according to police.
- Bassem Masri, the Palestinian-American activist known for live-streaming the Ferguson protests, died of an overdose of fentanyl in November 17.
- In March 2019, activist and reverend Darryl Gray told The Associated Press that he found a box containing a 6-foot python inside his car.
Reflecting on the deaths, which McKinnies refers to as murders, the grieving mother talks about the personal cost of fighting the power—and why she won’t stop.
At first, coming into the fight for justice for Mike Brown, it was like, “We’re fighting for something good!” But when it hit the fan and one [activist] after the other has died, it's like, “Wait a minute. Hold on. All these people can't be mysteriously murdered!” That's not what we signed up for. This stuff is getting too real, like maybe we shouldn't have stepped in this pile of boo-boo.
It’s nine months in since I lost my son Danye. It's been really rough around here. I don't sleep much. In the past, I imagined myself in the shoes of those mothers that have lost their sons to injustices and coverups. That's one of the reasons I decided to fight as hard as I did. Now I'm living that life of one of the mothers of the movement. I wasn't prepared for it. You never are.
My children, the three of them, were very close. They were always together. To have an integral part of our family gone, it’s hard for them to cope. I'm just trying to help them through it while they try to help me through it.
I raised all three of my children alone, so, they have always been very protective over mom. Danye was the most protective. He always wanted to make sure that I was taken care of. He felt like that's what he was supposed to do. I never wanted him to think that way, but he just took that on as my oldest son.
Danye was very loyal. If he cared for you or loved you, he looked out for you. He saw the good in people when others didn't. That was just Danye. That’s just who he was. And that’s why when the police said that he took his own life, we know that's not true.
We didn’t put it out there at first, but we were receiving death threats. From the time we were out protesting Mike Brown’s murder in 2014 to 2017 when we were protesting the Jason Stockley case, it got worse and worse and worse. People started coming to our homes, sitting outside of our homes and sending messages. At that point, we would put it out there that we were being threatened, especially the more that we got involved.
During the Jason Stockley case, I was really in the forefront. I imagine them thinking, She just won't sit her tail down and shut the hell up! I guess when you're standing up for something, cowards try to figure out how to shut you up. And you have some that are willing to do whatever it takes just to have that notch on their belt. It's not like it's new. This is something that has been going on for forever: they shut up the one that they feel has a voice. They profile us. They watch us and they find out what are our strengths and weaknesses. And they knew that my children were a way to get me.
When I said, “It would kill me if it was one of mine” in a [Colorlines] video in 2014, it was at a point when I really didn't know better. I was just speaking out of emotion. I should've been just more strategic. This is a lesson for others: Don't let them know everything. You can fight without letting 'em know your strengths and weaknesses. Because that's what they're hoping; and that's why they're watching.
To people who ask what they can do to help, I say, share Danye’s story. Share it in its entirety. Let people know that they are covering some of the murders up. Ask for an investigation.
That’s what I now live to do, to speak on what has happened not only to my son, but to other peoples' children, to Darren Seals and others. With Danye, at this point, we're doing a private investigation because asking the police to investigate is just like asking murderers to look at themselves and to tell the truth. They don't do it to tell the truth. They do it to get away with it.
We have a GoFundMe in memory of Danye Jones and the funds will go toward the investigation, which will include having his body exhumed. The funds will also go toward my move. I have to get out of this house. I'm still here, and I can't go in my backyard. I can't look in my backyard. All the back windows, the blinds have to remain closed at all times.
I hear people saying that the stories of Danye Jones and Darren Seals need to be known so that others can realize that there's a price to pay for fighting for something that we believe in. I feel like that's more of a coward's way of speaking because it suggests that we should be afraid to fight. But we all have to die. And to people that call themselves warriors, if you're a warrior, you cannot die on your knees. You have to die standing for something so that our children have something to look forward to. And they can say, “You know what? My mom, my dad fought for me. They did that for me.”
I didn’t raise cowards. That's why Danye once came to me and said, “I want to be an activist.” My son didn’t die on his knees.