After 3 Years in Prison, Josh Williams Dreams of Returning to the Protest


Josh Williams leads a protest chant on September 26, 2014. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Josh Williams leads a protest chant on September 26, 2014.

Four years ago, on a Saturday in August, Josh Williams took a bus from his home in Bellefontaine Neighbors to Ferguson. What he saw there changed his life. But the next four months would see him go from protester to prison inmate.

At the time, Williams was an eighteen-year-old north-county kid, the same age as Michael Brown when he was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. Overnight, Williams found himself in a protest movement that no one saw coming — and, as the country would soon discover, one that refused to be ignored.

Williams seemed to be everywhere. He was facing picket lines of officers at the Ferguson Police Department. He was speaking at community meetings and walking arm-in-arm with Cornel West. He was flying across the country, turning up in Chicago, Ohio and Washington, D.C., where he joined with other activists and comforted families reeling from the deaths of sons shot dead by police officers.

During protests around Ferguson and St. Louis, Williams was unmissable — his favored outfits featured an American flag bandana, chunky green sunglasses and a bright red sweatshirt. He frequently carried a megaphone, though he certainly didn't need it to make his voice heard.

To those close to him, Williams wasn't a ball of rage. He was a goofball, indelibly friendly, passionate about his newfound mission and eager to learn. Yet he could be intense. During a December 2014 meeting of the Ferguson Commission, he and other protesters confronted St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, shouting down the chief's platitudes about planned reforms. Williams managed to get within a couple feet of Dotson, and, with just a wooden podium separating him from the city's top police official, the teen called the chief a liar — or, more precisely, a "lying fucking ho." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch led its coverage of the meeting with a photo of Williams.

By the winter of 2014, the Ferguson movement was growing beyond street protests. Groups of activists were planting seeds of political change that would reshape the region, and eventually culminate in Wesley Bell's electoral victory last week against 27-year incumbent St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch — the very official many blame for the non-indictment of Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson.

Yet Williams' life took a sudden turn that December. And even as so much has changed in St. Louis in the four years since, Williams, now 22, has found himself stuck.

"Being in prison, it's like time stands still," he says, his voice carrying over the phone line from a maximum security prison in Jefferson City.

"You're frozen. Everything in the world is going on without you."

Josh Williams, right, with Cornel West during a protest in St. Louis in 2014. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Josh Williams, right, with Cornel West during a protest in St. Louis in 2014.

Williams is in prison on an eight-year sentence for arson and burglary.
The charges stem from a night of protest that erupted at a north-county Mobil station on December 23, 2014. It was almost Christmas Eve, and that night Williams had been on his way to a hotel party with other protesters.

Then the texts started coming in.

"At the time, everyone in the movement had news alerts," Williams remembers, "and we got the text that Antonio Martin got shot down. We dropped everything and went out there. "

The protest that night quickly filled the gas station's parking lot, and, as another participant later recalled, the atmosphere grew "rowdy." The parallels to Brown's death were immediately striking: Martin, too, was just eighteen, and he'd been shot by a Berkeley police officer responding to a 911 call about a burglary. The details weren't clear yet, other than that a black teen was dead. Protesters stormed the parking lot. They were furious.

"The feeling that night, it was high energy," Williams says. "I really wasn't thinking that night. After all we been through, it happened again. That's the reason I had an attitude, like, forget everything. Because the government is not hearing us until we do something — until we make them hear us."

As December 24 dawned, hundreds of protesters packed the parking lot. They crowded around police cars, challenging the officers. The scene quickly unraveled. Someone broke the back window of a police cruiser; officers deployed mace and threw people to the ground; then someone threw a firework that exploded next to a gas pump. The detonation sent sparks and smoke arching over the panicked crowd.

The scene continued to splinter. Police arrested several protesters, but others scattered. One group of protesters rushed to shut down a nearby stretch of Interstate 70. But others had plans that went beyond civil disobedience. With their faces covered by hoods and baseball caps, they moved toward a QuikTrip across the street.

Activist Tory Russell was with Williams that night.

"He was hella mad, I was mad too," he recalls. "He ran off to the gas station, I actually picked him up. I actually walked him back into the street."

But in the chaos, it was hard to keep track of the teenager. Russell adds, "I wish I would have just took him away."

Williams managed to wrestle away from the older activist. When people began looting the Quiktrip, Williams joined in.

From a vantage point across the street, a Fox-2 cameraman filmed more than a dozen people entering the gas station. In the footage, you can see some emerging carrying cases of beer and other items. Then a familiar figure in a red sweatshirt enters the frame.

The camera records as Williams douses a pile of wood with lighter fluid, and then, as the blue flame builds higher, he uses one of the logs to ignite a magazine rack inside the store.

Asked about it today, Williams says he's embarrassed by what he did. At the the time, he had no criminal record, and he was identified with a protest movement that was under constant criticism — much of it unfair — for violence that often broke out at the fringes of demonstrations.

And Williams acknowledges that the QuikTrip had nothing to with the police shooting of Martin.

"I have regret for what I did to the building," he says. "But not what I went out there for that night. I went out there to show support for the family."

The fire was extinguished in a matter of minutes — in fact, the footage appears to show it being doused and stomped out by other figures entering the store — but the Fox-2 cameraman had already notified the police, and the footage made the news. Fox-2 would eventually provide fourteen minutes of raw tape to the St. Louis County Prosecutor's office.

Two days later, Williams was arrested by St. Louis County police. The protest community was shocked, and a group immediately showed up outside the Justice Center in Clayton. At first, they didn't believe the police statement or news reports claiming that Williams had confessed in a videotaped interrogation.

But he had. According to a transcript of the interrogation, Williams initially claimed he'd given his distinctive red sweatshirt to different man, but detectives pressed him. They had extensive video and photographs of the scene, they told him. One detective, Rob Keithley, played the good cop.

"Everybody does something stupid, OK?" Keithley told Williams. "You seem like a good kid to me. I see no reason why we can't get this resolved, OK?"

Under Keithley's gentle pressure, Williams confessed.

Eleven months later, he pleaded guilty to felony charges of arson and burglary connected to items he'd taken from inside the gas station — a lighter, a pack of gum and some money from the cash register.

His sentencing hearing, however, didn't follow the conciliatory tone of the interrogation room. Supporters left the room on December 10, 2015, outraged and heartbroken.

Kayla Reed, a Ferguson activist, tweeted after the hearing that the prosecutor had asked the judge "to make an example of him so others know we won't tolerate this behavior." In another tweet, she noted that Williams "will spend more time in prison than any of the killer cops."

Williams' lawyer, too, claimed that his client had been unfairly branded as representative of all the violence that had broken out in the past year of demonstrations and protests.

"I think Josh wound up paying a price for a lot of things going on in Ferguson that he was not responsible for," the attorney, Nick Zotos, told RFT shortly after the sentencing hearing. "He did attempt to light a fire, but his sentence is completely disproportionate to the conduct." While Williams wasn't the only front-line protester to face criminal charges, his was the longest sentence by far.

As the years have passed, his supporters tried to bolster his spirits with postcards, letters and phone calls. On TV, he watched the images of subsequent protests and additional police shootings. He watched people filling the streets in St. Louis last summer, as a collection of new and veteran activists called for justice after the acquittal of former St. Louis cop Jason Stockley.

Williams hasn't been forgotten. Even as protesters who'd risen in Ferguson turned to political activism, they have repeatedly raised Williams' name, calling attention to the outspoken youth they'd known and cared for. They peppered protest chants with "Free Josh!" and "Justice for Josh Williams!"

In the last month, those calls have grown louder still.

Supporters of Josh Williams pose for a photo after a press conference on August 3. - LEXIE MILLER
  • Supporters of Josh Williams pose for a photo after a press conference on August 3.

On August 3, protesters returned to the Justice Center in Clayton. They came with demands.

"Joshua Williams is a community activist whose life was snatched after one bad decision," Ebony Williams (no relation) said during a press conference, reading a statement off her phone. "We're asking Governor Mike Parson to pardon Joshua and to release him to the many supporters and family who love and care about him as a civilian and dedicated community member."

It wasn't just protesters at the press conference, either. A representative from the ACLU of Missouri told the crowd that the civil rights organization stood with the effort, and that Williams "is a young man who should be heading for college, not prison." Heather Taylor, the president of the Ethical Society for Police, noted that Williams was part of a long trend of "examples."

"The truth is that black, brown and poor people are always the examples," she said. "It's ridiculous."

Next to speak was state Representative Bruce Franks (D-St. Louis). He'd known Williams personally — both were protesters in Ferguson, and Franks was at the December 23, 2014, protest in Berkeley. Franks was among those arrested that night, his face pressed into the concrete of the gas station parking lot.

Franks said he'd already had preliminary meetings with Governor Parson, and that he was "cautiously optimistic" about efforts to seek clemency or pardon for Williams.

"This kid should not be in jail," Franks said. "Josh was amazing, bubbly, a goofy kid that had a lot of energy who was angry at the things that he saw."

Franks added, "He'll be a Ferguson protester forever, so will all of us."

The state rep concluded his remarks, and then led the crowd in a call-and-response chant that Williams would have found familiar.

"I — Believe — That We Will Win!"

Protester Josh Williams' portrait had a place at Michael Brown's memorial. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Protester Josh Williams' portrait had a place at Michael Brown's memorial.

Four days after the August 3 press conference at the Justice Center, voters in St. Louis County stunned conventional wisdom by delivering defeat to Bob McCulloch.

In an interview days after the election, Williams is elated. After all, McCulloch wasn't just the prosecutor behind Darren Wilson's non-indictment; he also presided over the office that made Williams an "example."

"It feels like a great victory," Williams says of the election. "It's gives a chance for other people that go through the court system."

Indeed, the incoming prosecutor, Wesley Bell, has vowed to shake up the office that's been portrayed as combining the worst elements of the criminal justice system. Bell is already fielding requests to reopen the investigation into Michael Brown's death. Some activists are hoping Bell could also intervene on Williams' behalf.

At present, though, Williams is likely facing at least three more years in prison before parole becomes a possibility, and he knows that a Ferguson protester convicted of arson isn't going to look sympathetic to a parole board.

"I did what I did, and it's wrong what I did," he says. Still, he argues that he's tried to better himself. He's attended anger management classes and tried to stay out of trouble with the guards. By now, he's seen what prison is really like, that it can break "even the strongest people." He's trying not to be broken by it.

On the fourth anniversary of Michael Brown's death, Williams watched TV coverage of the memorial service on Canfield Drive. The old emotions of protest, the energy, the anger, came rushing back.

"It felt like I was there too, replaying my life again," he says.

This year, the memorial built to honor Brown included a framed picture of Williams. The photo was placed in a line of roses and stuffed animals marking the spot where Brown died — and a movement took flight.

In the top-right corner of a Williams' photo is a hashtag: #FreeJosh.

"I will be back on the street, regardless of what happens," he promises. "I'll be back in the movement. There's more I can do out there."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]

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