Devin S. James' story is all too familiar. Raised in a single-family home with four siblings, his father spent much of James' childhood behind bars. His mother spiraled into abuse, and he recalls in his new book, Inside Ferguson: A Voice for the Voiceless, a time when he stole a garden hose from a local hardware store: "That night, I hooked it up to our neighbor's spigot and filled a bucket with water so we could wash up. I boiled whatever water we had left using a stolen kerosene heater, and that served as our water supply for the next day."
He never attended the fourth and fifth grades and viewed his opportunity to attend Ridgeway High School as a second chance. He left that school, though, after being involved in a gang-related fight.
James was homeless for a while and learned to hustle on the streets, had his heart broken when his first child was stillborn, and was falsely convicted of reckless homicide. He tells these stories, not to shift focus on himself, but to give context for the rest of his story, and to reiterate the sentiment heard around the world in the summer of 2014: I am Michael Brown.
Brown, an African American, was unarmed and shot by white, Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in August of 2014. The ensuing media coverage, show of police force, and bungled public relations by the city gave rise to the "Black Lives Matter" movement.
Ten years before the incident in Ferguson, James was shot during a robbery attempt at his place of business. He survived and would go on to graduate from Southwest Tennessee Community College summa cum laude and work in biomedical research with Dr. Paul Herron at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
He eventually founded his own consulting and PR firm, the Devin James Group (now known as DJG), and that August in 2014, he was living in St. Louis and working with the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership on research to determine how to market and put together a program to spur economic growth in an area that had been historically disenfranchised. When Brown was killed, the leaders of St. Louis County called DJG in to be paired with other firms to facilitate community engagement in Ferguson.
"There was no communication. There was a huge divide. There was a lot of distrust," James said by phone from St. Louis where he is on a speaking tour. "The community basically felt like their voice wasn't heard."
His team tried to get a consensus on the requests from the community and protesters, synthesize that message, and take it back to the city to make recommendations.
What he found was that the city leaders said they would take his recommendations into consideration, yet nothing would come of them. "But then if I would package it and send it to one of my white friends or white business owners or nonprofits, and have them send the exact same thing that I said, they [the city] would jump and do it," he said. "It was a very crazy situation, and we dealt with a lot of old mentalities and unwillingness to take my advice on reform and changes and things that needed to take place to turn things around."
As evidence of the city's unwillingness to change, the Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against Ferguson earlier this month after the city rejected an agreement to overhaul its criminal justice system and address the abuse within its police department.
After months of work, months of coming up against brick walls and institutional racism, DJG was suddenly released from its contract and his reputation, he writes, was left in tatters.
Despite what he experienced in Ferguson, James remains a positive person looking to the future and the progress to be made. "The good thing about it for me is that it brought it to life for the world to see, so now I get a chance to defeat stereotypes and all types of discrimination that devalue black men," he said.
James is on the public speaking circuit and looking to address the issues at an academic level. "We definitely have a need for more black, male role models in the community and education," he says. "I think it's a win-win for the community and me. I get a chance to inspire people and to be inspired by their stories."
James will read and sign his book at Barnes & Noble in Germantown on Thursday, February 25th.