Bassem Masri, whose powerful personality was on full display in live-stream broadcasts during the Ferguson protests, died Tuesday morning after being found unconscious and unresponsive on a bus in suburban St. Louis. He was 31.
Masri made a name for himself as an accidental social activist who took to the streets to thrust the plight of black Americans into the view of a reluctant public following protests in the wake of the August, 2014 police shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Those protest marches launched Masri, a Muslim Palestinian-American who closely identified with international liberation struggles, into a career of activism. He livestreamed the daily Ferguson protests, drawing world-wide attention to police abuses in the U.S. and garnering support for the Black Lives Matter movement. During one of those protests, police arrested him, claiming that he was wanted in nearby St. Louis for unpaid traffic fines. Earlier this year, Masri announced his intention to run for state representative.
This summer I invited @bassem_masri over to my house to chat about his interest in running for state representative. He was a very loyal friend & ally. He was my favorite freedom fighter in Ferguson. https://t.co/4GpNweXhb7
— MariaChappelleNadal (@MariaChappelleN) November 27, 2018
But more than the silencing of Masri’s full-throated activism, his death also serves as a stark and disturbing reminder that the activist community is made up disproportionately of poor, black, and minority Americans who seemingly have shorter lives than other Americans.
And in death, Masri joins a sad coterie of fellow activists who have recently died, often in sudden and mysterious ways:
- Deandre Joshua, 20, was shot once in the head and then set on fire inside his car as a Ferguson protest raged in November 2014, in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Brown. Police said at the time it was “unclear” when Joshua was killed or why his body was burned.
- Darren Seals, 26, one of the more prominent anti-violence activists in St. Louis and a co-founder of Hands Up United, a group that formed in the wake of Brown’s death. His body was found, like Joshua’s, inside his car which had been set aflame. Police haven’t charged anyone in the September 2016 death, but say it was a homicide, according to The Washington Post.
- Ed Crawford, 27, who was the subject of an iconic photo showing him tossing a smoking tear gas canister back toward police during a Ferguson protest, was found shot to death last year in the back seat of his car. Police reports say he shot himself either in an attempted suicide or by accident.
- Danye Jones, 24, was found by his mother — Melissa McKinnies, a prominent black activist in Ferguson — hanging from a tree by a bed sheet in her backyard in October. While police said they are investigating Jones’s death as a suicide, McKinnies is certain that her son was lynched.
These deaths, all befalling members of the same loose community of activists, have given rise to troubled speculation as to whether they truly are a disconnected set of coincidences or unfortunate accidents. Without more concrete evidence, it’s impossible to know for sure. Understandably, many within the activist community harbor darker doubts.
I don’t discount the possibility of foul play in some of these, but deaths of well-known Ferguson activists every few months underscores two realities: the protests were led by poor black and brown people. In America, poor black and brown people die young https://t.co/Q2lLEbOpOi
— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) November 28, 2018
But what is unmistakably clear is that death stalks black bodies at a greater rate than other Americans. Federal statistics say as much, revealing the disheartening fact that a life-long struggle against racism is killing black Americans.
According to a 17-year (from 1999 to 2015) study of racial disparities in health and mortality trends released last year by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, black Americans are far more likely than white Americans to live in poverty, be unemployed, and have inadequate housing. What’s more, the CDC reported that African-Americans are more likely not to be able to afford medical care and that their obesity rate is higher than the national average. All of these disturbing trends are bright-line markers for higher mortality rates among black Americans.
As the CDC report grimly notes:
For example, blacks in age groups 18-34 and 35-49 were nearly twice as likely to die from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes as whites. These findings are generally consistent with previous reports that use the term ‘weathering’ to suggest that blacks experience premature aging and earlier health decline than whites, and that this decline in health accumulates across the entire life span and potentially across generations, as a consequence of psychosocial, economic, and environmental stressors.
Odds are high that few Americans outside of the nation’s tight-knit activist and social-justice communities knew Masri well enough to reflect on his grossly premature death. Similarly, it’s just as likely most people proceed through their daily routines, blithely ignorant of the health and mortal dangers that too many black Americans confront as they struggle in this nation.
Yet, in his life and his death, Masri’s story is ironically remarkable and tragic. In life, he strove to make other people see and understand things that they didn’t want to comprehend; his passing represents a terminal view into the fragility of black life in America.