Elizabeth Vega isn’t afraid to walk up St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s home at the crack of dawn, place a coffin on his porch, and knock on his door to demand justice.
“This is Monday Mournings,” Vega said at a protest earlier this year (video below). “We are here because the mayor has repeatedly locked us out of City Hall. So we know need to come to his house. This is putting all people in power on notice.”
Vega is the leader of activist group Artivists STL, a collective made up of about 15 to 40 political activists of diverse races and ages in St. Louis who focus on art-based actions and were born out of the chaos that ensued as soon as Michael Brown was shot and killed on August 9, 2014. Their fearless organizer is Vega, 48, a native of New Mexico, a mother, poet, writer, and teacher.
The unrest that spawned from that day made headlines, and it didn't begin when Officer Darren Wilson shot Brown — as Vega puts it, the shooting “was the last straw.” Several reports released after Brown was killed indicated that extreme racism persisted in Missouri against black men.
Over the course of the year Vega has been arrested eight times. She said the last three or four arrests were because as a leader of a collective, she’s an easy target for police (whereas the previous arrests were warranted because she was taking part of civil disobedience protests).
“They pulled me off the sidewalk,” Vega said. “[The police] have my picture on their cell phones. They are trying to target people who are leaders. They know that I am out there and vocal.”
After she was arrested at the home of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, Vega said officers towed her car a week later. Protesters were opposing Joyce’s decision not to bring charges against a police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old VonDerrit Myers Jr., on Oct. 8, 2014.
Vega said there’s an element of fear when she confronts officials but that’s all part of the work they do.
“We don’t know how police will respond, but that’s our way of addressing the inequities in the system. They have blocked us out of City Hall and out of our own public buildings so we had no other recourse but to go to their homes. This is our way of sort of stopping that hierarchy and saying if this is attacking us in our neighborhood then we are going to attack you in your neighborhood.”
“I am a mother and grandmother. I have seen kids breakdown and cry because they’re not able to release that pain. Kids were a witness to [Brown’s] death.”
Part of Vega’s work with the community, aside from her diligence as an artivist, is doing youth outreach with Latinos En Axión, a grassroots advocacy organization created by and for Latino immigrants. Their program centers around Latino and black solidarity.
“What we’ve been doing is coming from a cultural perspective and showing how we have similarities within our struggles,” Vega said.
Vega admits they have an immense amount of work to do and are looking at ways to change their protest tactics. The collective is also looking into buying a home in St. Louis. A place where they can all live inexpensively, share ideas, and create art.
But for now Vega is on her way to see her grandchildren, and then later attend another vigil.