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Targeted in a Ferguson FBI Sting, Olajuwon Davis Eyes His Next Act 

Olajuwon Davis is entering his next act.

PAUL NORDMANN

Olajuwon Davis is entering his next act.

From the roof of his downtown apartment building, Olajuwon Davis is surrounded by his past. In front of him curves the Gateway Arch, which was once widely reported to be among his potential bombing targets before his arrest in an FBI sting operation in 2014. To his right looms the dome of the federal courthouse where, several months later, he pleaded guilty to weapons and explosives charges.

More than six years have passed since that hearing, and Davis is out of prison. The former member of the New Black Panther Party and an FBI-cited example of "Black Identity Extremism" has returned to St. Louis — but not as he was before, as a militant, activist or would-be rebel trying to live outside the legal system.

Today, Davis says he only wants to be himself. He'd like to return to what was once a promising acting career, to leave his past behind and to again feel the lights of a camera, the eyes of an audience following him onstage.

But Davis can't escape the events that changed him. In his first post-prison interview, he describes the impact of his unwitting role as a leading man in an FBI sting operation as "a mind-shaking experience."

Davis was arrested on November 21, 2014 — three days before the announcement of a grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. The U.S. Attorney's Office summarized the allegations against Davis in a press release: "Planning and conspiring to ignite explosive devices during the Ferguson protests."

The accusations shocked those who had only known him as a gifted activist and rising young actor. Still, in some ways, he now sees his imprisonment as a blessing.

"It gave me an opportunity to shed a lot of the beliefs that I had taken on," he says. "I was young and on fire — looking for something to empower me, be a part of, identify with. All of that has changed greatly for me. It took for me to be isolated, and for me to go through what I went through, in order to realize that."

Davis' unusual path, from the Ferguson protests to federal prison, was extensively detailed in a Riverfront Times cover story in August 2019. Based on prison interviews with Davis, the story chronicled how he arrived at the growing protest against the police shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 — and how the sight of the bloodstained pavement shook him to the core, and made him wonder, "Am I next?"

Days later, on August 14, police forces temporarily pulled back from the main area of the demonstrations near a burned QuikTrip in Ferguson. In response, a stretch of West Florissant Avenue became a rolling, protester-controlled parade of blasting music, honking car horns and dancing crowds.

"It was beautiful, incredible," Davis says, reflecting on that day's heady combination of protests and celebration. That same day, the RFT photographed Davis and his fellow Black Panther members peacefully directing traffic. At one point, the black-clad group even acted as a buffer for police officers as they escorted emergency workers to an injured protester who had fallen from a vehicle.

At the time, Davis' life was at a crossroads. He had recently completed acting work for a feature-length independent film, his first major role. But outside the set, he had grown increasingly attached to a web of beliefs that injected conspiracy logic into his worldview. He adopted the quasi-legal language of the "sovereign" citizen movement and identified as an "aboriginal Moor." The beliefs alienated him from his family and supporters.

Soon after, though, he made new friends. At the protests, he connected with two men who quickly became solid members of the New Black Panther Party — a loosely organized Black power movement that borrows the name and look of the original group from the 1960s. The St. Louis chapter contained a handful of active members, including Davis. He had appointed himself the group's "Minister of Justice and Law."

The new recruits were enthusiastic about supporting the struggle. They were also confidential informants working for the FBI.

Davis trusted them completely, and, with their guidance, he would ultimately attempt to purchase what he thought was a pipe bomb — after which Davis was immediately swarmed by federal law enforcement.

"I remember seeing myself on the news when I was in county jail, maybe another day or so after being arrested," Davis says. "They had me on Channel 5 news, that I was going to blow up the Arch."

Davis maintains that he intended to buy the explosives as a middleman and never considered using the pipe bombs to attack a landmark or target a protest. But that's what the post-arrest headlines blared — with the reports citing "unnamed law enforcement sources" with inside information about the foiled attempt at domestic terrorism.

"I remember just feeling so defeated," Davis says now. "It was like, 'Oh, my God, my life is over.'"

click to enlarge In this image from August 14, 2014, Davis and other members of the New Black Panthers helps direct traffic during a demonstration. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • In this image from August 14, 2014, Davis and other members of the New Black Panthers helps direct traffic during a demonstration.

In early January 2018, a new student walked into a prison classroom in a federal corrections facility in Milan, Michigan. It was the semester's third theater workshop for the instructor, Sergio Barrera, a graduate student with the University of Michigan's Prison Creative Arts Project. Each week, Barrera spent 90 minutes leading some twenty inmates in improvised theater scenes and preparations for the semester's performances.

It was Davis' mustache that caught Barrera's attention first. Wide as his face and styled to points, Davis' facial hair wasn't the only thing that set him apart from the other inmates.

"One of the great things that I appreciated from him was his vulnerability," Barrera recalls. "The fact that he was willing to just display his authentic self in front of men he knew nothing about."

Davis stayed in Barrera's theater classes through two semesters. As an instructor, the program barred Barrera from asking his students about the reason for their incarceration. But while on a long drive to prison one week, Barrera says one of the other college-aged instructors caved to curiosity and Googled Davis' name.

Barrera says he was initially frightened by the results. The reports described a violent bombing campaign thwarted by the FBI.

Over time, however, Barrera says he came to see something different in Davis, a presence the young actor used to command attention, deliver a monologue or launch into song from a "stage" made from nothing but a few chairs pushed next to the wall in a multi-tiered cellblock.

"I just remember him standing there, and everybody just stepping aside," Barrera says. "He was in the center of that open space, and all eyes were on him."

Looking back on what he knows about Davis' past, Barrera wonders if those same talents made him the perfect casting choice to star in the FBI's stage-managed bomb plot.

"He's essentially being targeted for being good at who he is, right? These are qualities that have potential to move the masses," Barrera points out. "He's so likable, so relatable, and there's charisma behind it. For an intelligence agency, maybe these are the types of people that you fear — because you don't know how much power they hold."

Perhaps. Ron Himes has a slightly different theory. The founder of St. Louis' Black Rep, Himes had directed a fifteen-year-old Davis in a 2008 stage production of the anti-Apartheid musical Sarafina.

He had followed the young actor's career from then on — until it was halted by Davis' other endeavors.

"He was serious and committed to the work," Himes recalls of Davis' role in the musical. "It was shock and disbelief for me when he was arrested. None of that seemed to fit the character of the person that I knew. None of it seemed to be feasible."

Himes lived through the civil rights era of the 1960s. He had experienced the rise and fall of the original Black Panthers, their ranks cut away by FBI infiltration.

In these movements for civil rights, Himes reflects, it always seems to be the young, the most idealistic, who pay the steepest price.

"This has been a continuous fight since the time Black people landed in America," he says. "Each generation of young people picks up the mantle, and when you are in that phase of life, in that phase of the movement, what you see is the need to be totally committed to effecting a change. You believe there are righteous people who believe like you believe."

And in that moment, Himes cautions, "that has the capacity to make you vulnerable to manipulation."

That's what the FBI was looking for, Himes concludes.

"They needed to find a pawn," he says. "They needed to find someone that they could manipulate. And unfortunately, in this instance, it was Olajuwon."

click to enlarge Davis wasn't able to attend the premiere of his first full-length feature Palacios, but he got a private screening after his release. - BOBBY HERRERA
  • BOBBY HERRERA
  • Davis wasn't able to attend the premiere of his first full-length feature Palacios, but he got a private screening after his release.

In early February 2020, just a few days before his release from federal prison, Davis says he was summoned to a meeting with an investigator from the FBI.

He was already looking forward to a different life, reconnecting with his family and friends, maybe even returning to the acting career he had left behind. But the FBI wanted to talk first.

It was a kind of exit interview. As a convicted domestic terrorist, Davis had spent most of the last decade assuming everything he did, said and wrote was being monitored and logged somewhere.

The FBI, he says now, "wanted to feel me out, to check my temperature."

"We had a pretty good discussion," he says of the meeting with the agent. "We talked about psychology, the tactics they use to get me on."

At one point, he distinctly remembers the agent remarking that the bureau was interested in checking in on him one last time, and then adding, "We just want to make sure you're not going to get out and start a revolution."

While Davis says he was flattered — "I was really kind of shocked at how much they think of me" — it was a later question that truly caught him off guard: The agent had turned the interview around, asking for Davis' advice: "What could we have done to prevent you from going down this path of violence?"

Davis says he challenged the question. After all, weeks before his arrest in 2014, the FBI's confidential informants, both with felonies on their records, had given Davis the cash to purchase several pistols on their behalf — a federal crime of "straw buying" in its own right.

The FBI could have arrested him at any time after that, long before he was approached with an opportunity to buy explosives.

"But they didn't do that, they continued to bring me along, until I broke," Davis says now. "I told him that. My exact words were, 'You were wicked for that.' You could have stopped all of it, there wouldn't have been terrorism; there wouldn't have been bomb charges. I wouldn't have been in prison all this time. But you all did that."

click to enlarge Olajuwon Davis is settling into his new life in St. Louis. - ERIN MCAFEE
  • ERIN MCAFEE
  • Olajuwon Davis is settling into his new life in St. Louis.

Davis' experience as the target of an FBI sting operation isn't an outlier. An analysis of convictions obtained through FBI sting operations between 2001 and 2011 suggests that a suspected target's total inability to supply, plan or even generate a plausible idea to carry out an attack is immaterial: In 150 sting operations evaluated by journalist and researcher Trevor Aaronson, he found that an FBI informant "provided all necessary weapons, money and transportation" in a third of all cases.

That appears to be the case with Davis, who was convicted alongside a second New Black Panther member named Brandon Baldwin. Both men pleaded guilty to identical sets of charges in 2015, but the evidence included in their pleas shows no scenes of detailed bomb planning or specific intent for destruction — and no mention of a plot to bomb the Arch.

In documents filed with the court, federal prosecutors disclosed that the FBI's informants had paid for the illegal purchases of firearms. But in previous interviews with the RFT, Davis and other family members say that the official account fails to show the lengths to which the informants won not only Davis' trust, but his financial dependence: At a time when he was unemployed and isolated by his fringe beliefs, Davis says the informants gave him an apartment, paid his rent and even supplied living expenses and transportation for his pregnant wife.

And in return for that loyalty, he had followed them on a path to becoming a domestic terrorist.

Davis doesn't dispute his role in the weapons and explosives purchases. Evidence included in the pleas depicts him as enthusiastic about obtaining the bombs. He is quoted saying that he needed the pipe bombs "ASAP," and, even more overtly, that he had "put it out there that he was a terrorist."

Meanwhile, Baldwin, the second Black Panther, was quoted in his plea as floating an idea to "knock a cop... an important cop" and naming then-Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson.

In all of this evidence, however, it's not clear where the bomb "plot" became more than just a story that two guys told each other within recording-range of FBI microphones. In a 2015 interview before Davis' sentencing, then-U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan denounced the anonymous "law enforcement sources" who had leaked the list of supposed targets to news outlets.

Callahan's explanation at the time was telling: He explained that he refused to publicly discuss details on the targets selected by Davis and Baldwin — not because of security concerns, but, Callahan said, because they were "totally unrealistic" and to talk about them at all would "almost inaccurately sensationalize these charges."

This was the wicked twist in logic beneath the FBI's sting operation, which had held the hands of its two actual targets from beginning to end: On one side, the supposed bomb targets were too sensational to treat credibly. On the other, as Callahan would later tout in a press release after the guilty pleas, the arrests of Davis and Baldwin had "undoubtedly saved lives."

As for Davis, he carried the reputation as a would-be Arch-bomber through prison. In his first years, he says, he was "very standoffish" around new acquaintances, especially "if they would hint at any type of criminal activity, or breaking the rules."

He couldn't help but wonder, "Damn, did the FBI send them at me, too?"


Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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