After Michael Brown was shot and killed near Ashley Yates’ hometown in Ferguson, Missouri, she decided to take action. She immediately joined the protests, and eventually, quit her job to become a full-time activist and organizer. Now, she looks back at her time spent on the streets of Ferguson, and the emotional and mental toll it has taken on her.
Ashley talks with host Shannon Cason about the life of an activist, why so many activists like her suffer from PTSD, and how she’s now taking steps to take care of herself.
On moving from Cleveland to St. Louis at a young age
Ashley Yates: For me, the joke goes that my aunt kind of saved me from not knowing who I was. I remember being in Cleveland, and talking on the phone to my grandmother, and her talking to my parents, going, “Who’s that little white girl on the phone?” And I’m like, “What do you mean, grandmother?”... These are the influences I was around. This was how I was taught to speak. So I had no clue even what she would mean by that, but I could hear it and hear them talking about it.
My aunt was the person who kind of said, “You know what? You are who you are, and this is who you are.” So she threw every book at me, and I just ate them up. A Taste of Power by Elaine Brown, Assata, Soledad Brother, Revolutionary Suicide. She’s just like, “Here you go.” The one thing she could never ever get me to do, though, was watch Roots. She had the VHS tape, and — I’ll never forget it — it was as long as my arm. I’m like, there’s no way I’m watching something like this.
On her first encounter with the police
Yates: I was actually headed to my job as a CDF Freedom School worker and … all I had to do was turn in to the church parking lot. We were coming from lunch, and ... they stopped me at a stop sign. I’m like, “Why are you stopping me? I was actually at the stop sign. I couldn’t have been committing any traveling violation. You just popped out. What’s up?” They told me, “Hey, we’re checking because we have had a string of illegal temp tags.” I’m like, “What do you mean, illegal temp tags?”
My father had just bought me a car, and I had the temporary license plate in the back that’s written. And also, in the place of where my license plates were supposed to go, I had the dealer plates, so that struck me as very strange. I’m like, “Why would I go through the problem of having dealer plates on my new car, but somehow I’m trying to fool you all?"
I let them run all of my stuff. They called for backup, and then a second officer came around and tried to ask my two colleagues that were with me — two black guys — for their identification and I got really pissed (I was 19 or so at this point) because it didn’t make sense. ... Now I look back at that and I’m like, “Wow, that could have gone a really different way.”
On first hearing about the police shooting of Michael Brown
Yates: I was at work at a retailer just scrolling on my phone, looking at social media, expecting to see the normal jokes. Because at this time, everyone wasn’t highly politicized on social media. So I just kind of logged in to get some giggles. Definitely did not get that. I saw something very different.
I knew that I had to go and just see what was happening. I just had to, I just had a need to just see for myself and really just understand that that had happened right down the street from where I grew up.
So I got off work, drove down there. ... It was dark at this time, and there were maybe about 30 or so people still kind of milling about, crying, holding each other, trying to figure it out. And I spoke to them, got the exact same stories that I had seen on social media live: that he had his hands up. And then they told me that folks were gathering at the police station, which was a couple miles away, if that. So I drove over there and joined about 60, 70 folks, maybe, who were standing outside that first night just looking at the police and yelling. And that first night, we started organizing to get some answers.
On her experience at the Ferguson protests
Yates: I can hear myself now back in that video, watching it, ‘cause I can’t quite remember saying these things, but I watched it and I’m like, “Oh, that’s me.” I remember turning my camera to show the people that were with me and saying, “This is how we showed up.” And turning the camera back to the cops and saying, “Look what they have. This is how they showed up.”
I didn’t sleep for probably a year because I was basically doing double shifts. I would go to work and then head straight to West Florissant or South Florissant. ... If I had a morning shift, I would get off at about 4, head down there, leave from West Florissant about 3 a.m., go to bed at about 5 a.m., and be at work by 8. And then doing it all again the next day. So there wasn’t a lot of sleep. There wasn’t a lot of down time. There was literally having clothes in the back of the car, so I could change to go to West Florissant, so we weren’t wasting time, knowing that we just needed to have a daily resistance and that this was an all hands on deck situation.
On the first time she heard about PTSD
Yates: You’re holding something that is an act of war against humanity. You’re holding these atrocities that are happening in my community. I’m seeing things burn that were integral parts of my adolescence. Places where I went to buy school supplies or stopped and got a Slurpee after lunch or, you know, maybe met this cute boy one time. Like whatever may be, these are places that are ingrained in my memory, and now they’re reduced to ashes. That’s tied into the murder of this child in my community. So, yeah, that’s a lot to hold.
I think I realized about a month after going out that this was very real. We had street medics coming in and talking to us about PTSD, and very assuredly, saying, “You’re going to have symptoms of PTSD.” And I remember the first time I heard that writing it off. Nah, I’m not gonna have PTSD from this. We just gotta keep going, and you know, just deal with it and figure it out.”
About a month later, I definitely was like, “Nah, this is real. This is real. It’s some heavy stuff. And I have a right to make sure that I’m mentally OK with dealing with this.”
On her first experience of PTSD
Yates: One thing that sticks out very clearly for me is being at an organizing meeting at someone’s house and this helicopter in the sky, and it was very clear that they were close to the house. So I remember stepping out, I think, and seeing the helicopter and then trying to step back in and still hearing the helicopter. People were just going about their normal conversations, and I felt like everything inside of me was shaking. I just remember being very honest and I was like, “Y’all, I’m sorry. I can’t. I don’t know what’s happening. I’m not OK. I can’t do it.”
These things happen in our home. I’m hearing and reading about soldiers being triggered by things when they come home, similar to the experience that I told you about with the helicopter. That is a trigger, but the catch is that those things happen where we live, so we are constantly triggered. That street doesn’t transform into a street in Afghanistan. It’s the street where that happened. But we’re not allowed to feel, and it’s like, these are very, very clear things that would impact anybody, and that you would have no issues saying it impacted anybody if those folks didn’t have dark skin.
These interview highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity by Candace Mittel Kahn.