Ferguson, Missouri

On their morning of August 5, near the stretch of West Florissant Avenue where hundreds protested the shooting death of Michael Brown four years ago, seasoned activists and newer volunteers poured each other mimosas. The grassroots community group Action St. Louis had converted a vacant storefront into a canvassing office for its campaign to oust Bob McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor who declined to charge Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Brown.

As part of its final #ByeBob push, the organization had invited the community to brunch. In the small kitchen space, cooks prepped food in aluminum serving trays, while volunteers unfurled eight large folding tables for guests in the front room. The back wall was a chalkboard covered in signatures, hashtags, encouragements, and political slogans.

By noon, the voice of Atlanta rapper Rich the Kid floated out of a speaker balanced on a metal chair near the windows. And groups of black community members, mostly women, were seated at the tables drinking, chatting casually, and alternating between flipping through pages of call lists or scribbling down to-do lists. Everyone bobbed their heads to the signature “New Freezer” beat.

The playlist switched to Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s single, “Apesh*t,” and a table of black women shimmied in their seats. “How y’all know this is what I wanted to listen to? Foreal, this my song right here,” said a woman in a blue-and-white-striped jumpsuit to no one in particular. The room laughed. If it weren’t for the call lists and canvassing materials, you might’ve thought the gathering was just friends hanging out. Here was a group of young black people volunteering their time to work on a political campaign—and they were having fun.

McCulloch, who has been in office since 1991, gained national prominence in 2014 during the investigation of Wilson. Protesters and many legal experts criticized McCulloch’s handling of that case, accusing the prosecutor of sabotaging any chance at an indictment by refusing to appoint a special prosecutor and handing the case over to a grand jury before the police investigation had concluded. Among local activists, he is known for harsh treatment of protesters. In the best-known example, McCulloch asked a judge to “make an example” of Joshua Williams, who was sentenced in 2015 to eight years in prison on arson charges that stemmed from a demonstration in December 2014.

For Kayla Reed, co-founder of Action St. Louis, the campaign for McCulloch’s removal was personal—a sentiment shared by many protesters who vividly remember the November night when the grand jury’s decision was announced. “Four years ago, I sat in a small room with other activists who had been protesting for months in Ferguson and watched Bob McCulloch smugly announce that no charges would be brought against Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown,” Reed wrote for The St. Louis American. “With tears in my eyes, I left the house and joined thousands in the streets to protest this injustice. I never forgot [McCulloch’s] face on the TV screen that night, nor his half-hearted apology to the family for their loss.”

Action St. Louis’s “Woke Voter STL” brunches are just one example of how the group is rewriting the political playbook. Earlier this year, it helped drive #WakandaTheVote, a campaign created by Reed alongside co-organizers Jessica Byrd and Rukia Lumumba of the Electoral Justice Project. #WakandaTheVote placed organizers at Black Panther screenings across the country to get people registered to vote in-person or via text message. The campaign spread rapidly, leading to more than 100 #WakandaTheVote voter drives at movie theaters and registering several thousand people.

“Electoral politics don’t have to be boring,” said Rodney Brown, a lead organizer for Action St. Louis. “I mean for me, it’s not boring because your life and your liberty are at stake. Everything from how schools are funded to what legislation is being passed is wrapped up in politics—so we do need to get people excited about it.”

Brown moved quickly across the room, jumping in and out of conversations with various volunteers and Action St. Louis members. Under Reed’s leadership, Brown and a small team of organizers create and coordinate all of Action St. Louis’s campaigns. They’ve been running the #ByeBob campaign from this office in Ferguson since mid-July.

The week prior, Action St. Louis hired roughly 20 canvassers as the primary elections drew near. True to the group’s politics, each of the canvassers were paid a living wage—$15 per hour—and by the end of the week, the team had knocked on 6,000 doors across North County. At the end of the #ByeBob campaign, the team had successfully organized around 170 volunteers to make 3,500 phone calls and mail 125,000 pieces of campaign materials, with the #ByeBob social-media campaign gaining 200,000 engagements online.

“Your aldermen, these judge positions—these are direct ways we can effect change in our communities,” Brown told me. “My heart is in the protest—believe me, I’m with it, I’m for it—but there are so many different ways to harness and express that protest energy. We can hold space in the streets with protests, and we can secure electoral justice through voting. We can do both.”

The organization’s approach hinges on communicating the relevance and impact of voting in the everyday lives of black people, using methods and mediums that are familiar, practical, and comfortable. From its chalkboard wall to its providing decks of cards for a casual (or not so casual) game of spades, Action St. Louis deliberately creates spaces designed by and for black constituents. Action St. Louis organizers simply thought about what today’s black voters might enjoy congregating around. Why not free brunch? Mimosas? Spades? Music? The brunches are as much about political education as they are about building community.

The first brunch of the #ByeBob campaign, called the Black Joy Brunch, was organized in partnership with the Color of Change PAC earlier this summer. Attendees were invited to participate in a text-a-thon to reach voters and increase awareness for the August primary. At that single event, volunteers reached more than 41,000 voters in St. Louis’s North County.

Action St. Louis’s second brunch was held in mid-July and organized in partnership with the Ferguson Collaborative and the Advancement Project. Representatives from both partnering organizations trained attendees on voting rights, informed them on the political positions of candidates up for reelection, and walked them line by line through a sample ballot. Primary candidates like Wesley Bell, who was running against McCulloch, also attended, giving brunch goers a chance to interact with local politicians and ask direct questions about everything from ending cash bail to closing St. Louis’s infamous “Workhouse,” a controversial medium-security prison in St. Louis.

“Our brunches give everyday constituents a window into how electoral politics work. Normally during campaign seasons, you have to pay $20 a plate or $50 a plate just to get in and see any of these candidates,” Brown explained. “With our brunches, not only do we bring candidates, but we ask them questions that matter the most to people—the questions that affect communities the most.”

Brown hadn’t stopped moving since I walked in earlier that morning, and didn’t appear to be slowing down. Someone offered to get the DJ another mimosa as A$AP Ferg’s “Plain Jane” played in the background. At the same time, rapper and activist Kareem Jackson—better known by his stage name Tef Poe—walked quickly to one of the supersized notepad pages taped to the wall. Sharpie in hand, he updated the list with the names of people who were out knocking on doors or would be leaving for a shift later that afternoon.

This final brunch was the last of the #ByeBob brunches before the primary two days later. As they ate their waffles and pastries, organizers didn’t know if the work they’d put in would be enough. Pundits considered Bell, a onetime brunch guest and Ferguson City Councilman, an underdog in the race.

To nearly everyone’s surprise, Bell won—handily. His victory confirmed for Action St. Louis and its supporters that people power can hold politicians like McCulloch accountable. “One of the things I think we need to stress when we talk about campaigns is politicians earning the vote of the people. A lot of the times, politicians feel entitled to the black vote,” Brown told me a few days after the primary. “But with Action STL, we want to create spaces for us, by us that keep us informed and engaged in electoral politics.”

Having served as a public defender, municipal prosecutor, and municipal judge, Bell is known for his progressive politics centered around criminal-justice reform. His platform promises to end cash bail, expand drug-treatment diversion programs, and introduce more restorative-justice options as alternatives to incarceration.

Though the voter turnout data can’t solely be attributed to Action St. Louis’s #ByeBob campaign, the results are impressive. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 42 percent of registered North County residents voted in Tuesday’s primaries—a 16-point increase compared to 2016.

As Brown reflected on the strategy that went into the #ByeBob campaign, he noted that the majority of the organizers and volunteers were black women, a trend across countless organizing efforts around the country. “Whether it was phone banking or knocking on doors, black women really drove this campaign,” Brown told me. “Black women made up the majority of the volunteers and the majority of the people we were working with. Black women, like always, show up and support.”