Former state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr.: "I woke up" after Michael Brown Jr. was murdered

"I need to fight and I need to figure it out": Franks Jr. on why he got in — and got out — of politics

By Nicole Karlis
Published October 14, 2019 2:00PM (EDT)
Bruce Frank JR. (Headshot provided by publicist/AP Photo)
Bruce Frank JR. (Headshot provided by publicist/AP Photo)

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown Jr., a black 18-year-old, was fatally shot by a white police officer in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis — about eight or nine miles from where Bruce Franks Jr. grew up. Franks was no stranger to violence in his community. He had, at that point in his life, already attended over one hundred funerals, many of whom were victims of gun violence. The senseless shooting, which exposed a deep racial divide in the U.S. and sparked a national movement for police accountability, drove Franks to the streets to protest. “My son turned one the day Michael Brown was killed, and something went off in me when I saw it,” he told Salon at Original Thinkers.

“I went out there, I didn't know why I was going out there, I didn’t know how to protest, how to organize. I didn't know nothing, right?” he said. “And I get out there and it was all basically trial by error, just trying to drink from the fire hydrant.

"Had we not been out there, or did a lot of those things, nobody would know who Michael Brown was, nobody would know how important it was to start to shift when we talk about police brutality and gun violence in the sense of police violence, as well as predatory policing and for our communities,” he continued.

At Original Thinkers, the documentary St. Louis Superman was screened — a film following Franks' political journey after he unseated Missouri state Rep. Penny Hubbard and went to the Republican Missouri House of Representatives. Yet that  story leaves out is his resignation in 2019, to focus on his mental health.

What happened for you on  August 9, 2014?

That was my wake up. When they say people can't change overnight, I absolutely changed overnight. On August 8 I went to sleep owning two businesses, a nice house, family, not too many worries — so I thought. And when that happened — when Michael Brown was killed the next day — it's like my whole world shifted. I was out there like I didn't have a family to go home to, a house, a car. I was out there like everybody else. Living in America, being in the system, being black, you don't know what your life expectancy is. So, it hit me then. It was like I need to fight and I just need to figure it out.

And what did that look like for you?

I stayed out there 400 days straight, getting pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed, but we figured it out. Still got lots more to figure out, but we definitely started a conversation and started some changes.

Would you say that Michael Brown's death was a catalyst for the community, a collective wake-up call?

Absolutely.  I think about a few of the activists who ran for office who are now [in office]. One, the guy who's coming behind me, Rasheen [Aldridge], who's in the streets with me, now he's going to be the State Representative. Fran Griffith, she's a councilwoman now in Ferguson. She's lived in Ferguson, she's raised her family in Ferguson.

And not just in politics, but we have folks that became police officers. We have folks that started organizations or started working with bigger organizations. And so it was really that kick in the ass for everybody to do something. 

Of all the routes you could have taken, why you decided to run for office after Michael Brown was killed?

I was pushed to run for office by the community. I really didn't care. I didn't give a damn about politics or politicians and, realistically, I still don't. It's about the people. And a lot of politics and politicians aren't about the people, so we have nothing in common. But I saw it as an opportunity to not only create effective change, but just give the community hope too, because they gave me hope. Believing in me — believing that I could be the kid from the south side with tattoos on his face, that had these raps in his past with all this crazy stuff in it, and my family background, and where I come from — they still believe in me. So, it was like, they give me hope. It was like, "I got to return the favor, but genuinely." Because I actually believe in them, and I believe in the people in my community, just not the system.

I was okay with operating in a system that I didn't believe or trust, because it was easy to know exactly where I'm at. You never had to wonder what I was going to support, what I wasn't going to support, what I would fight for and what I wasn't going to fight for. And so, by me getting in politics, it showed the community like, "You can really get in here — you can get in here and still be a rapper, have tattoos, still protest and shut down the highway and get locked up and whatever else. As long as it's righteous, right, as long as you're doing it for the right reason."

When you were in office, what would you say was your number one priority?  

I think my number one priority was marginalized voices. Those folks who send people to the capitals and D.C., or wherever, and they expect you folks to fight for them, and they don't. My biggest thing was, "I'm going to go in there to fight. Whether I win or not, I'm going to go down fighting, clawing, biting, whatever I got to do." And that it worked that way. It proved successful. Because even when you were on the other side, and didn't necessarily agree with a lot of my stances, there were things we could agree on, and I was big on working with everybody.

I don't care who I work with, as long as we're getting something done that's going to benefit the community, and I don't have to compromise my values or my morals. And so, I was able to put a lot of money into the budget for Summer Jobs, which is a program that I heavily believe in and it speaks to getting to the root cause of violence.

What do you think the root cause of violence is in America?

The root causes of violence are a lack of jobs, education, resources. Resources is broad, and resources is in the eye of the beholder. When you look in whatever you are in, whatever is missing out of that community, that's the resource that's missing. Be it mentorship, be it strong leadership, be it whatever it is. Resources stretches far and wide. It covers everything that jobs and education doesn't.

When we talk about undiagnosed mental health issues especially in the black community, what are we doing to provide those types of resources? Yeah, having this day Black Mental Health Awareness Day is good, but once we're aware of it, what are we going to do about it? How are we going to provide these folks who are poor, with the necessary resources to get the help that they need? Those necessary conversations to even get them to understand that this is what's needed?

This ain't Einstein's Theory Of Relativity, you know what I'm saying? This is jobs and education and mental health resources. Nobody is going to use a gun that they don't think they need. So, if I'm going to work, if I'm going to school, if I'm able to make a livable wage, provide for my family, provide healthcare, that's what everybody is fighting for at the end of the day. Everybody is fighting to put food on the table, clothes on their back and their kid's back and to keep the lights on.

Now, within that fight, each one of them has different routes to getting those necessities that they think they need. Some people prefer to work, some people aren't qualified, so they feel they got to do something else. Some people go out, and rob, and steal, and do these things. 95% of folks in the hood  that are doing crime don't want to wake up every morning like, "All right, this is what I've got to do." I think the problem is we deal with the right and wrong and we don't with our reality. Everybody knows what's right and wrong, that's easy, but put anybody in a position to survive... and that's reality. And in the hood the only reality is survival.

There’s an awareness about the challenges that poor families face, but how can we really get people to care and to get legislation passed to support and lift people out of poverty?

For one, I say we forget about legislation. We forget about legislation and politics, right. We take the resources that we do have in our community, we take those folks who come from poor communities. A lot of these stars and a lot of these rich folks say they want to do stuff. The problem is they don't connect with the organizations that are rooted on crime, that are doing amazing work with nothing. These groups are doing amazing work with pennies, so imagine if they had the millions that United Way has, or some of these other big organizations that — I mean quite frankly — don't do the work that they should be doing.

If they had this, who better to fix the community than the folks that come from the communities? We don't need Duke University or UCLA or all these colleges to do these research on a community and say "blah, blah, blah." No. Put the money into the organizations that are doing to work in these communities and watch how fast, I'm talking damn near overnight, watch how fast things start to turn around, because you can only get somebody to buy-in so much.

Imagine if you go to a group of drug dealers who grew up in this community, they've been selling drugs in this community, which means a couple different things. They know their money, they know the community, they know every corner, they know every family, they know how to survive. We say, "All right, well, look. You ain't got to do this no more. I'm going to pay you 20, 25 dollars an hour. What can you do to fix what's going on?" Because everybody knows, right. Watch how fast the community gets fixed. Watch how empowered they are.

You want to talk about criminal justice reform. If you have a criminal justice reform organization and you're not hiring ex-felons, you're going to really want to talk about criminal justice reform. If you're trying to reach folks and kill poverty and make sure that folks have livable wages and are able to take care of themselves, you take some folks off the street. Take some folks out of the streets and help them. Help them get to this point where they can sustain then hire them. Hire them. They've been on the streets. They can tell you better than anybody.


We're not taking enough bold approaches and it's not going to take a whole lot of help from the outside. It's going to take a little bit of help from the outside mixed with them trusting in the people that's in these communities to do what they want to do.

There are a lot of conversations around white privilege, and people want to help with racial justice. How can white people really be allies to movements like Black Lives Matter? 

Donating to the cause and stuff — like, that is cool, that's good. If you got it, go ahead. The biggest thing you can do is use your white privilege as a superpower, right? It's like you know what you can say and the spaces that you can them in. If I got out here, right here on this road right here — I've been walking down the street, I ain't seen one black person. So, let's say something pop out here and I go out here and I'm Black Lives Matter, I got my sign and everything, they're going to expect me. But what happens when 50 white folks are out there on the street saying "black lives matter?" I mean they mean it, not just standing out there like... ready to go to war.

I tell people all the time, I don't need any more allies. I need folks who are going to stand right here. Because when I think of allies, I think of some country that I can just call when we're in a bit of a bind, right. I don't need that. I need family. Because I know nobody going to fight for you like family. When I would organize protests I would always say "Look, you're not my allies. You're my brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, some of you old enough to be grandparents, whatever you want to call it, but I need you all to be willing to die for me just like I'm willing to die for you all."

Because allies don't look at it that way. They don't need the resources that you need. They might be a surrogate to speak for you when you need them to but no, I need somebody that's ready to go to war with me, right. And that's what they can do. They can give this sense of safety out there [inaudible] because one of the biggest issues with white privilege is capability, right? But you can live in your own bubble. No matter how you feel about what you see on the news, you still get to go back to your world. So, I need you to come out of that comfort zone.

And so the biggest thing that white folks can learn from white privilege is to use it as a superpower, be willing to really put everything on the line because people are dying every day.

Michael Luther King Jr. said, "There comes a time where you do something not because it's political, not because it's popular, not because it's safe, but because your conscience says it's right." I know a lot of this stuff that they see eats at their conscience but they almost never make the right decision in fighting back. Now I need to take their white privilege, throw it out the door, use it as a superpower, climb out of that comfort zone and fight. Fight in the realm, you might not necessarily have to go out there and block the highway with me, but you can fight in your own world.

Was it a difficult decision for you to resign from your state representative post?

I got to a point where a lot of things in my life where — since Michael Brown was killed — my life was pretty stressful, and it didn't get any better. By 2018 I had been in office for my first full term. I started in '17 and I served a year. Summer of '18 I looked around and I had nothing that I came in office with. I was going through divorce, my mental state was deteriorating, my mood, my fight — I was just [running] off fumes.

And then August 20th [of that year] my best friend died. My best friend was shot. We hadn't talked for a year because I was just too busy. I was doing everything else, helping everybody else and he needed my help. So, that weighed on me. It weighed on me. He's my brother, so that was very heavy. I went to a dark place, climbed out of it at times, but always seemed to find myself sinking back there.

Then my sixteen-year old godson, the day after Thanksgiving, was shot in the head and that's when it hit me. When I went out there, my best friend Lisa, his mother, she called me when it happened, so I went out there. She called me with her daughter. My goddaughter had to tell me the location because I still didn't know what was going on. I just heard a lot of screaming and crying. So, I get out there and my godson laying out there. So, I got to go into work mode. I'm talking to the police and keeping her calm so I can't exert my emotion a lot. I'm just trying to keep everybody cool.

The thing that took me all the way out was everybody always called me Superman. Everybody always called me a superhero. And when Lisa, his mother, was crying, she was crying on me. She was yelling. She was upset. She was asking me to bring him back. She was like, "If anybody can do it, you can do it. You're a superhero." And after that I just broke. After his funeral, it was December, I had a suicide scare. I got to a point where I felt maybe I was better off not here. But fortunately that didn't happen. I was having anxiety, bad, depression, bad and I was like, "Nah, I got to get me together. I'm important."

What does healing look like for you?

Film festivals. I work out a lot. Physically and health-wise, I'm in the best shape I've ever been in. Mentally good. Now I'm battle rapping full time, so that helps. I'm exploring all these new ventures.

Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a staff writer at Salon. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

MORE FROM Nicole Karlis