DAMON DAVIS : Courage is contagious

So, I'm afraid. Right now, on this stage, I feel fear. In my life, I ain't met many people that will readily admit when they are afraid. And I think that's because deep down, they know how easy it spreads. See, fear is like a disease. When it moves, it moves like wildfire. But what happens when, even in the face of that fear, you do what you've got to do? That's called courage. And just like fear, courage is contagious.

See, I'm from East St. Louis, Illinois. That's a small city across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. I have lived in and around St. Louis my entire life. When Michael Brown, Jr., an ordinary teenager, was gunned down by police in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri -- another suburb, but north of St. Louis -- I remember thinking, he ain't the first, and he won't be the last young kid to lose his life to law enforcement.

But see, his death was different. When Mike was killed, I remember the powers that be trying to use fear as a weapon. The police response to a community in mourning was to use force to impose fear: fear of militarized police, imprisonment, fines. The media even tried to make us afraid of each other by the way they spun the story. And all of these things have worked in the past. But like I said, this time it was different.

Michael Brown's death and the subsequent treatment of the community led to a string of protests in and around Ferguson and St. Louis. When I got out to those protests about the fourth or fifth day, it was not out of courage; it was out of guilt. See, I'm black. I don't know if y'all noticed that.

But I couldn't sit in St. Louis, minutes away from Ferguson, and not go see. So I got off my ass to go check it out.

02:17
When I got out there, I found something surprising. I found anger; there was a lot of that. But what I found more of was love. People with love for themselves. Love for their community. And it was beautiful -- until the police showed up. Then a new emotion was interjected into the conversation: fear.

Now, I'm not going to lie; when I saw those armored vehicles, and all that gear and all those guns and all those police I was terrified -- personally. And when I looked around that crowd, I saw a lot of people that had the same thing going on. But I also saw people with something else inside of them. That was courage. See, those people yelled, and they screamed, and they were not about to back down from the police. They were past that point. And then I could feel something in me changing, so I yelled and I screamed, and I noticed that everybody around me was doing the same thing. And there was nothing like that feeling.

So I decided I wanted to do something more. I went home, I thought: I'm an artist. I make shit. So I started making things specific to the protest, things that would be weapons in a spiritual war, things that would give people voice and things that would fortify them for the road ahead.

I did a project where I took pictures of the hands of protesters and put them up and down the boarded-up buildings and community shops. My goal was to raise awareness and to raise the morale. And I think, for a minute at least, it did just that. Then I thought, I want to uplift the stories of these people I was watching being courageous in the moment. And myself and my friend, and filmmaker and partner Sabaah Folayan did just that with our documentary, "Whose Streets?"

I kind of became a conduit for all of this courage that was given to me. And I think that's part of our job as artists. I think we should be conveyors of courage in the work that we do. And I think that we are the wall between the normal folks and the people that use their power to spread fear and hate, especially in times like these.

So I'm going to ask you. Y'all the movers and the shakers, you know, the thought leaders: What are you gonna do with the gifts that you've been given to break us from the fear the binds us every day?

Because, see, I'm afraid every day. I can't remember a time when I wasn't. But once I figured out that fear was not put in me to cripple me, it was there to protect me, and once I figured out how to use that fear, I found my power.