In the protests that swept St. Louis last year after a judge acquitted former city cop Jason Stockley of murder in the line of duty, it was impossible to ignore Lashell Eikerenkoetter. Along with a core group of organizers, she was at the front of the crowd day after day, refusing to let the not-guilty verdict go by unopposed or unmourned.
Demonstrators looked to the 28-year-old St. Louis native for news of the next action via the striking invites she created for social media. But even more than that, it was her voice — sometimes projected through air, sometimes magnified by a bullhorn, and sometimes by the mic on her smartphone as she broadcast the activities of a movement on the march to people around the world. A police line. A new protest chant. A cloud of pepper spray. Each moment was captured with Eikerenkoetter's running commentary.
But Eikerenkoetter wasn't always on the frontlines of that movement. "This has been a long progress for me to get comfortable with my own voice," she says.
In fact, when she first showed up to a protest, she wasn't there to organize, but to help clean up the damage wrought by rioters. Having grown up in Jennings, right next to Ferguson, Eikerenkoetter was shocked when people burned her neighborhood QuikTrip after the August 2014 death of Michael Brown.
At first, she says she was mad — at the community. "Y'all burned up my QuikTrip!" she remembers thinking. "That's my area that I walked up and down since I was a little kid."
But the longer she spent watching the crowds gathering alongside the wreckage, the more she saw beyond the destruction, noticing how the police responded to a peaceful gathering with force. A recent college graduate working a corporate job as a videographer, she suddenly she found herself reevaluating the world around her, and her place in it.
She began showing up to protest. Even then, she was taking short videos and uploading them to Instagram (a much more cumbersome process than would be possible three years later). Four days in, she experienced her first arrest.
"The treatment in jail, it was the first time I was opened up to this system," she says. "I knew from that moment I had to keep coming out, and keep recording, keep supporting and keep broadcasting these things."
After near-daily protests in Ferguson became less frequent actions, she found herself connecting with activists who weren't ready to meld back into everyday life. Eikerenkoetter began streaming subsequent protests, town hall meetings and political debates. Her Facebook Live videos garnered thousands of shares.
Still, she saw herself as a participant-observer, not among those shaping the burgeoning movement. "I didn't feel like I was important enough or that I was knowledgeable enough, or that I had something to offer to the conversation," she says.
That reticence changed, however, around the time she learned about the impending trial for the cop accused of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011.
Smith, she says, was portrayed as "somebody insignificant, a thug, a drug dealer." In the established media narrative, Officer Stockley had chased a drug dealer, the criminal pulled a gun and the cop fired back. The truth, of course, was much more complicated.
"I knew that it was time for me to do more than just stand behind the camera. I had to be a voice for him," she says. "So many wanted to throw him away already, because of the picture they painted of him. That kind of pushed me more into organizing."
In the weeks that followed the verdict, Eikerenkoetter pulled double duty, assisting in organizing protests even while broadcasting from the streets, explaining to her audience why Smith's death should never have happened, and why his life mattered.
No longer just a livestreamer, no longer just a protester, Eikerenkoetter embraced the fullness of her roles, and more than that. She found her voice as a leader.
"This movement — it's not about me or any one of us, it's about liberation as a whole, and what that realistically looks like," she says. "That means being able to stretch and be whatever that somebody needs at the moment. Support, participation, leading protests, photography, videography. No matter what is needed in this movement, I'm there."Lashell Eikerenkoetter is profiled as part of our Change Issue. Check out all the great profiles online here.