When people hear about racism, their minds immediately go to the deep South. However, St. Louis has historically been one of the most racially segregated cities (don’t forget the Missouri Compromise). Protests in this city join the effort to end systemic racism, which is not just about police brutality: it is unequal education opportunities, lack of resources for Black communities, and refusal to recognize the privileges of non-Black people. I originally wrote this piece about my experience attending protests, but I soon realized that my duty as a journalist now is not to write from my own perspective, but to amplify black voices.
Victoria Neal, a recent graduate from Ladue high school, is the co-organizer of the youth-led protests and the platform “Speak Truth To Power.” I interviewed her over Zoom the day before the second protest, and we talked about the mission of the protests, how to stay peaceful, and the future of the BLM movement.
OW: What does the champion “speak truth to power” mean to you?
VN: It means that we have to demand changes from people who have the ability to do it. It’s not just about gathering community, it’s about gathering people where changes can be made.
OW: Can you briefly talk about the process of organizing the protests?
VN: I literally was on a FaceBook group, and I was like, “I feel like there should be a protest in Ladue.” Everyone commented on the post saying, “If you feel like there should be one, do it.” I went to a protest and I asked the organizers what they think I should do, and I just put it on my socials, said here is when we are meeting, and planned out a route.
OW: When you said you think there should be a protest in Ladue, it reminds me that during the protests, you mentioned you targeted the richest neighborhoods (not only in St. Louis but in the country) because “people with money have the power to make changes.” Can you elaborate on that?
VN: Well, growing up in Ladue, I always remember people repeating what their parents say. It’s like, “Well, my parents don’t think it’s a good idea. My parents support the cops more than they support the Black community.” And issues like that. I always heard how little they care about other people. They would have all that money, but they wouldn’t give any money towards changes.
OW: I see the trend of people following their parents’ beliefs. But do you think things have changed among your peers? Like in your high school, have people been having conversations with their parents about investing back in the community?
VN: I do feel like it started a lot of important conversations. Changes do take time.
OW: Last Friday we had a really successful turnout. As a student-led protest, the participants ranged from students to parents to retired veterans. Did you expect this many people to come and this diverse of a group?
VN: No, I didn’t expect that big of a group at all. The chiefs in the local police station asked me before we started how many people I expected. I said a hundred plus hopefully, and [now] they were like "there are a thousand people here."
OW: Do you think as many people will come this Friday?
VN: I don’t know. I hope they keep the momentum going. But as you might know, the second week of protest is always lower numbers.
OW: Are you concerned that people — especially non-Black people — would stop talking about this movement too fast? That after another week, they will go on with their lives and continue to ignore the struggles of being black in America?
VN: That’s what always happens. It’s always like for a week, everybody is concerned, everybody is up in arms. And after a week, people go back to their lives, especially who it doesn’t affect, which is non-black people.
OW: What procedures do you take to keep the protests peaceful, and what are some tips for protestors to keep themselves safe (besides staying in groups)?
VN: One of the main things is that you have to let everyone know your intentions before the protests. In all of our things, we put that it is a non-violent protest. Our organizers even talk to the police officers and let them know where we are starting. You don’t let them know every detail because if you live in an area where the police officers don’t support protesting then they can corner your protest. But if you live in a different area, just let them know so they can work with you, and so nobody is blindsided. We let the community know in advance, so stores that feel uncomfortable board it up. So the neighbors aren’t like ‘what’s happening’ and driving where we are trying to protest.
OW: What do you think about riots or protests that have gone violent?
VN: Personally, I don’t support rioting. I think it does more harm to the community than it helps. But I understand the anger that leads to it. I was in the first night of rioting in Ferguson, and I literally saw a peaceful protest turn into rioting. You can tell it’s a different group of people, it’s not mainly protestors. But also, you can tell how angry people are. I totally understand. I would never condemn people for expressing their anger.
OW: Yeah, I don’t judge how people process their anger and grief. Do you think police play a role in provoking or instigating violence during these protests?
VN: Most definitely. The protest last weekend in Ferguson, they started so peacefully, everything was peaceful. When they announced that SWATs are on the way, everyone started panicking. The police then built a wall in front of us, and a wall on the side of us, and everyone is getting cornered and attacked, and that’s when people get angry. That’s when people start to lash out.
OW: You spoke about how in the past protest organizers have mysteriously disappeared or are found dead, and you are aware of the risks that you are taking. You also mentioned that you received multiple death threats, which was heartbreaking. What are some ways that you are protecting yourself and other protest leaders? What can we do to help besides remembering your names?
VN: Well, one of the main things is for lots of organizers, even the organizers that helped me, are anonymous, which is always something. If a friend sends you a link to a protest, you shouldn’t screenshot their link. You should make your own link because you shouldn’t share who is sharing things -- that’s how they find people. On Facebook groups, you should make sure that you’re following the right people and going to the right event. Otherwise that’s how you end up at a protest that isn’t legit, that’s a set up. Also for organizers, you have to make sure that you’re always talking to other organizers. They’ll let you know what areas to avoid, which people to avoid, especially if you meet a protestor who has been doing it for a longer period of time.
OW: As a leader, there is lots of pressure on your shoulders. Additionally, it has been an emotionally draining time in general. (“We’re tired of being tired.”) How do you cope with hopelessness and prevent burnout?
VN: Before, I was definitely starting to go spiral, I was seeing too much on my timeline. My heart was really breaking for the Black community and for my family. But when I was leaving the protest, I saw all these people -- people from my school that I never thought would come out, people from my community -- seeing them come out really changed my heart and gave me hope for the future.
OW: Yeah, me too. It improved my mental health seeing a community here. Last but not least, what are some ways that people -- especially non-black people -- can help and/or get involved in your movement specifically? How can we be better allies? I apologize, it’s not your responsibility to educate us.
VN: As a person living in a white-majority area, most of my time is spent educating, so I’m used to these types of questions. Donating and petitions are always helpful. Since I live in a wealthy area, one of the things they can do is lobby. Talk to your mayor, your state representative, even big businesses. Even if you’re a cashier at Walmart, take it to your boss, or take it to the other employees. Fortunate 500, even Edwards & Jones, the business in St. Louis, if their CEOs, if the people in power say something, then things will change. It’s literally the smallest things you can do. Start conversations, reaching out to people, signing petitions, donating. All of that helps.
OW: What are some ways we can keep this movement going and remind people this is not a momentary thing?
VN: One of the main ways is “when you see something, say something.” Whether it is micro aggression, whether it is flat out racism, police brutality, or the systematic oppression you see where you work. Report that. Because that’s how it started. It started from a video. It started from somebody’s mom saying they didn’t like what happened to their sons. Always advocating for better, advocating for changes.
OW: You talked about things that have been slowly changing for decades and changes take time. But this past few weeks has been a moment that radicalizes lots of people. I don’t know if we can afford to take it slow, but at the same time I don’t know if there is a way to accelerate the process.
VN: Well, I feel like this might not be the fastest way, but in November when it’s time to vote, it’s the time when changes happen. Everybody is acting like it’s just the president getting the reelection, but you vote for so many things in November. Literally, once you get the right people in power, they can start instantly changing laws. Right now we have Congress people who want radical changes, but if they don’t have the support of Congress, they can’t do anything. Massive changes end who is in power.
OW: What do you think about abolishing the police?
VN: I think it’s a dream. I feel it’s important to have a system that helps the communities instead of destroys the community.
OW: Thank you for your time! I’ll see you tomorrow [at the protest].
VN: I’ll see you then.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
If you are in St. Louis protestor, feel free to dm me @_oceanwei on Instagram or email me at email@example.com for a comprehensive resources link.