I’d like to make this point ahead of time: this post neither affirms the position of the police nor those accusing them of misconduct. It will not hurl accusations, nor will it provide excuses. This post is not meant to justify anything, nor is it meant to condemn. This post is meant to give you a look at the night through my eyes, to inform and allow you the chance to come to your own conclusions.
If I’m honest, I’ve been running away from my keyboard ever since I heard about the rioting and looting in Ferguson, MO while driving on August 11th. Since then, protests around the country have called for “Justice for Mike Brown.” My Facebook news feed seems to come up with two or three new posts every day on the subject, shares from either left-wingers or right-wingers who say “Too bad the other guys will never listen.” My sister called me, saying that I needed to write something about the incident so friends would have some insight. One person even posted an article directly to my wall, saying “we have the right to protest not ‘act a fool.'” He’s white, by the way, in case that changes your reading of the sentence.
I’ve posted links to certain articles since the shooting (fact, satire, op-ed), but otherwise I haven’t commented myself. And it’s because I’m a journalist.
Let me clarify: I’m a freelance game journalist. I have no expensive camera. My credentials likely don’t carry me to places like this. My credentials are the ones that get me into comic book conventions. And I love it.
That said, it’s taken me five years to start introducing myself as a journalist of any kind, in part because people give me the look you probably just gave the screen you’re reading this on. Freelance journalist, game journalist, or otherwise, I take the “journalist” part of that title seriously. So that’s why, a few nights ago, against the better-judgement of friends and family (had I asked any of them), I drove the half-hour from my current residence to Ferguson, MO.
On August 18, 2014, I thought the whole city would be a war zone, that streets would be empty, that people would be fighting to get out. A bit scared and unprepared, I took most of the items out of my wallet, just keeping my driver’s license, state ID, a small amount of cash and my debit card. I packed a cheap backpack with a notebook and pens, a long-sleeve shirt, my tablet computer and wireless keyboard, and my cell phone’s backup battery pack. I tried to look up locations for Ferguson-area protests online, but strangely couldn’t come up with any results. An article talked about an interview taking place outside of the Ferguson police station, so I decided that would be a good place to start.
The 30-minute drive to the police station actually took 40, not because of anything tragic, but because I drove right past it. I arrived around 4:30, expecting to see hundreds of people outside, holding up signs, marching, and demanding blood. Instead, outside was this:
Cars drove by in both directions, some honking their horns in support, others flipping off the protesters while rounding the corner. One man, a large black man with an over-sized white t-shirt, black shorts, and a friendly smile, brought his little girl to the protest; no older than three, her face was covered in Chee-tos dust. I talked to the man about the weather, we agreed that it was hot. Another protestor, a skinny black man with gold fronts on his teeth, was particularly agitated that Nelly hadn’t made an appearance at the scene.
“After all the support we gave him, he ain’t even gonna show up? He should have been the first one here, the first one offering to pay for the funeral. What’s ten grand to him? What’s twenty grand? [If] He really care about the community, why don’t he pay for all that stuff we took? Just write a check and replace all that–”
A white man sitting on a box with a scruffy face and blue cap (who affectionately dubbed the little girl the “Cheeto Queen” with a grin) cuts in: “Hey, man, don’t ever, ever admit to doing something like that. Unless the cops have you and they force you, don’t admit to that kind of thing. It just makes it worse for you.”
“But I’m just sayin’ tho. What’s fifty grand to him, what after all the support we gave him?”
The protestors are peaceful, even enjoying each others company as they debate current events. Then, a squawk from a nearby police band radio perks up the ears of a woman wearing a baggy white t-shirt and sunglasses. Her long braids swish to the side as she turns to listen.
“50 cops cars being dispatched over to Lucas and Hunt,” she says. “We gotta send some people over there!”
“Yeah!” an older black woman says, sitting under an umbrella. “They need backup!”
The talk continues, but I jump into my car and GPS my way there.
“Lucas and Hunt” is the name of a single road, an exit right off of the highway. Traffic flows relatively freely on the highway, but hits a virtual standstill once I make it to the exit. Ahead of me, I see 5 military vehicles posted at a stoplight. I pull out my phone, tweeting the sight. Seconds later, a notification:
For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that someone would pick up on that, retweet it as “real” news. I get off of the ramp, slowly advance forward on the street, when I’m passed by 8 speeding cop cars with flashing lights and sirens. I fire off another tweet. Soon after, a notification:
I start to feel guilty, wondering if I’ve pulled the trigger too soon, if I’ve ruined a planned situation. As traffic creeps forward, I see where the cops are rushing to: a large shopping center parking lot.
Law enforcement vehicles cover the terrain, with news crews parked and their vans using gigantic towers to send signals through the sky. Business continues as usual around them; the Target, Schnucks grocery store, and more are still open, though traffic creeps by the storefronts as people watch the shuffling around the lot. I park my car and walk around, feebly attempting to investigate, but can’t deduce much other than there being a large, police-taped off area in the center of the zone. While circling the outside, I see two guys talking to a girl right on the edge of the tape line.
“Damn, this must be one hell of a tea party these guys are about to have, huh?” I interject. The girl, a white brunette with a small purse and shorts, laughs, the two guys snicker a bit. Since I’m successful, I fire off another couple of jokes, both with similar responses. “So,” I venture, with the ice broken, “what’s everyone here for?”
Now one of the guys genuinely laughs at me, hands folded across his black shirt. “Are you for real?” He shrugs me off and looks back towards the squad cars in front of us.
“No, seriously,” I say. “What’s going on here?”
“Are you not from around here?” he asks.
“No, I’m actually from the other side of the river. I’m originally from up north, but just seemed dumb for me to be this close to what’s going on and not see it for myself.”
“Oh. Well, this is what they call the police staging area,” he tells me. “This is where they dispatch all the cops from to whatever’s going on at night.” His counterpart stands silently, gaunt face towards the cars.
I mentally turn a shade of red as I remember the tweets picked up as if they were some sort of serious news, an incident about a breaking event. Turns out it was just cops going back to base. Sheepish, I shut up a bit.
“Well, I’m going to head to Florissant,” the speaking guy says. The girl says she was just on her way there, too. They break apart soon after, and I pull out my phone to tweet again, to clarify that my earlier post wasn’t a breaking event, but was likely just cops coming back to the staging area. I look up from my phone, and see officers donning riot gear. For some reason, I turn around, look further up, and see two members of the National Guard on the Schnucks’ rooftop, camping a sniper position.
The post to clarify the cops were going to the staging area never received a response.
Around the news crews, the feeling is almost positive. Though they’re out for a serious situation, they’re also doing their jobs, removed from the actual protesting, still seeing co-workers while getting powdered for on-screen time. It reminds me of going to E3, the large video game convention that takes place out in LA every year. Attendees need to be credentialed to gain admittance out there, so even though most everyone is there with a job to do, there’s a certain feeling of camaraderie that comes from being surrounded by like-minded individuals. Still, I can’t get over the sense that this is just the calm before the storm, and I can’t stop thinking about what will happen when the sun goes down.
I completely circle the staging area, but realize I’m not going to get any information. There’s a massive crowd of police, local and state alike, gathered for a pow-wow in the center of the staging area, and there’s no way in hell I’ll get close enough to hear any of it. I walk back to my car, unsure of where to go next, until I overhear a member of a news crew talking about sending people down to the Quick Trip, the gas station burned almost to the ground during the first Ferguson riot. I look for Quick Trip on my phone using the Maps program, and I see there was one located on Florissant, not even a mile away from me. Shutting my car door and throwing my backpack back on, I hike towards the direction of the Quick Trip.
Daylight still covers the sky as I go down the large, paved hill on the side of the Target parking lot. Once I touch the Florissant sidewalk though, I can see the police force just a quarter of a mile from me. Police stand in the middle of the next intersection, directing traffic away from the gathered crowd. Some people are walking the same direction as me, while others walk past me in the opposite direction. Many carry red roses, a memorial of Mike Brown’s shooting. As I stop to tweet, one guy walks towards me saying, “Come on, come on…we gotta do this, come on, come on…” He’s got a certain energy about him, a positive one. He’s ready to make his voice heard, it seems. I try to start a discussion with him as we walk, but he doesn’t say much. I let him carry on without me.
Looking across the street, it seems like people are gathered at the McDonald’s on Florissant. As I approach I see more news vans and reporters, this time standing in the parking lot of Ferguson Market and Liquor, another store ransacked by looters, the site where police-delivered video footage shows accused Mike Brown taking a box of cigarillos and shoving around workers at the store. The store is boarded up now.
It’s not just local news in the parking lot. I recognize newscasters from CNN, also hear one broadcaster say he’s from BET News. Multiple faith leaders appear wearing black suits and white collars. Anderson Cooper conducts multiple interviews while guarded by a surly escort.
I wander around the press area, but then, many people are. I expected armed guards or the like to surround these celebrities, but instead I stand with neighborhood bystanders just a few feet away. Nobody particularly cares that Anderson Cooper, or any of the other news people, are here. Outside the press area, protesters march in a large, racetrack-like oval that stretches from the corner we stand at to the next stoplight, roughly 1000 feet away. A group of marchers are doing call and response:
“No justice!” the man with the bullhorn yells, wearing black aviator sunglasses and a bulletproof vest which reads “POLICE.” The word “Killer” is written above it in white marker.
“No peace!” the crowd responds. They repeat this four times.
“Justice for who?” the leader switches.
“Mike Brown!” the crowd hollers as they continue down the street.
I wonder what justice would mean to the people out here in the streets.
I’ve been to a protest before, but not of this size. Considering the news coverage, I expected the group to be much rowdier, more disorganized…a bit of me is proud to see organized, peaceful protest. Then I look down and see three elementary school children, holding roses and protest signs. They’re most preoccupied with trying to shove rocks through the holes in the drainage grate below them. I think about justice, and it’s them I want it for. I think about how I hope everyone out that night, protester, police, or otherwise, hopefully wants the same thing.
But this sign is out there, too:
In the press area, a thin black woman stands with a man in a striped-black shirt. She calls the police officers “fucking pigs,” then when they turn around she says, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m in the zone of the peaceful people. But you’re crooked, you’re murderers!” A couple officers walk over to her and escort her out of the press area. One of the police officers looks back, a bit of pain on his face. “See? This is how they–” and the rest drifts out of my earshot as he turns back around.
The sky is clear, and sunset paints beautiful reds and golds through the cloudless twilight. I walk the protest circuit once, moving too quickly to stay with any one group. Spread out around the half-mile track, large blocks of open space separate some of the roughly 300 marchers. Most businesses have windows covered with wooden boards and spray painted, some in an almost cheery fashion: “OPEN!”
Still, riot-ready police appear on the scene with shields, masks, and vests. A row of six police cars park in front of the sidewalk near the news area, effectively blocking off the area from protesters. The tone changes as night falls; new people arrive in the marching groups. On a motorized scooter, one old black man rides alongside a marching group. The group says, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” as the march is known for. In the brief pause, the scooter-rider yells: “Fuck the police!” A couple people try to convince him to stop, but he won’t listen.
Night falls on the protesters around 8:30. Many of the older folks go home, while young marchers come out and take their places. At this point, multiple groups march up and down Florissant, each with its own character and energy. Younger groups seem infused with more anger, mainly directed towards police. A new chant arises: “Hey hey, ho ho, these crooked cops, they got to go.”
Helicopters fly overhead, searchlights painting the crowd. Police cordon off the press area with tape, pushing even those who are peaceful non-press out of the press zone. I pull my cell phone out while it’s plugged into my external battery pack, giving the impression I’m supposed to be there. I’m ignored. To my right, a news person on the phone talks to someone, says that it’s “ten times quieter than it was on Sunday.” This comes right after a group marches by, a woman with the bullhorn echoing a call from earlier.
Most in the group are on their cell phones or talking amongst themselves.
At around 9:30 a crowd flocks outside of the Nail Trap store; a man has been taken down and arrested, cause unknown. “No justice, no peace!” rings out again from the crowd, but only briefly. A few minutes later, an impromptu press conference takes place with Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, a man originally from Ferguson speaking as the representative for the police. Though Johnson tries to address the concerns of the quickly-growing crowd, it becomes clear they won’t be satisfied with his answers. When he talks about maintaining and saving the city, he becomes impassioned:
“What I’m telling you is that I’m not going to let this community die…I want you to look back at other communities where we’ve had riots throughout this country, and these communities aren’t being rebuilt. They’re not rebuilding. You go down West Florissant right now, Quick Trip closed. It’s closed, and I’m going to tell you next it’s going to be Wal-Mart. And next it’s going to be Sam’s.
And after all this is over, we’re going to look and say, “Now where do we go? We don’t have anything.” And I’m telling you: we’re going to have a community.”
As much passion as he puts into his speech, only a couple people clap in response. Johnson says, “I’m not going to let those bent on ruining this community affect you, the peaceful protesters–” and is cut off when a man responds: “Start with your officers!” This statement gathers more crowd support.
The police form a line across Florissant Ave, blocking traffic on foot and via vehicle. The crowd grows angry. An object flies through the air, lands at the ground of the cops. Some scatter, while others recognize the object is just a water bottle. Still, this is enough to aggravate the police. They trigger a piercing noise like a car alarm that sets everyone back momentarily, but doesn’t quell the situation. Protest leaders walk around with bullhorns trying to keep the angered people from getting too close to the police.
Multiple leaders start to form a human chain. One of them with a bullhorn looks at me, says, “Come on! We have to stop this!” I join the chain, heart racing and unsure of what I just got into. We walk forward, pushing against the oncoming forces. Our chain breaks, but so does the advance. By almost 10:30, the mob at Florissant and Ferguson breaks up, with protesters still grouped on either side of the street. Once the street opens up, police vehicles drive down the center of the road down a block to the Quick Trip, where more protestors are still gathered. I hang around Ferguson and Florissant for a few minutes, then migrate down the street.
As I get closer to the new crowd, I hear police yell over bullhorns to try and get people out of the street. With every call over the PA, someone responds with “Go to hell,” or some other aggressive response. The change in tension is palpable; here, defiance hangs thick like mist as protestors sit at the Quick Trip. Many wear bandannas and masks. The police continually repeat that those who are either in the road, or aren’t moving can be subject to arrest. The police also say that those who defaced or are carrying government property are subject to arrest.
I look around and see a teenager holding a Yield/Do Not Enter sign. He walks to carry it to the middle of the road, seemingly telling the police not to enter.
His act triggers more outright defiance; others near the QuickTrip gather construction posts and create a make-shift barrier across the road at the intersection. Some start hurling rocks and other objects at the police, which garners a new response from the officer on the PA:
Police at NW Estates: “You need to stop throwing things, otherwise you may be subject to arrest or other control measures.” #Ferguson
Reporters and others on the opposite side of the street from the QuickTrip don gas masks in response. The tone of the officer on the PA is growing noticeably agitated. A nearby protester walking down the street says, “We can’t leave just because they told us to!”
Suddenly, an arching object from the police side flies out into the middle of the street. Many scatter, fearing the crack of tear gas, but this canister is just smoke. The smoke is enough to trigger the on-edge crowd, though: firecrackers fly through the air, popping and crashing to the ground. Gunshots sound from a distance through the smoke, down the road past the Quick Trip. A bright, whirling fireball-like canister arcs its way from the police side down the middle of the street, rolling its way to a man’s legs roughly 20 feet from me. He starts to dash away, and I look around and see people ducked behind the concrete barrier in front of me; instinctively, I’ve ducked as well. I peek over the barrier to see the canister whirl in place, then fizzle out.
My eyes burn, as if someone poured pepper all over my eyelids. I can feel it on my lips, and my nose starts pouring: some of the canisters amidst the smoke are tear gas. I run away from the conflict, keeping my head low as I hear more pops of fireworks go off. Some of the people knock over nearby portable toilets, pushing the telephone booth-like structures into the street to try to block vehicular advances. The gas starts to overrun my senses as I cough and drip, running just to get away from the burning. Eventually we’re out of the spread of the chemical, but a reporter trips and falls, laying on the ground. Others gather to help him up and I get behind him to make sure he doesn’t stumble backwards. Sure enough, the burning and coughing start again, though: the wind is blowing the gas back towards Ferguson Avenue.
Some may call this wind a lucky break or divine intervention, as the gas chases us constantly back towards the starting area near the press. Every few minutes the chemical would reach us again, journalist and protester alike, forcing continual migration towards police presence which hadn’t actually taken action yet. As we walk, one journalist mentions how his sinuses have never felt clearer before being gassed, to the humor of his colleagues. But as I listen to the protesters talk, they don’t share the humor. I hear anger towards the police, but also towards protestors who have left after being tear gassed, protestors who have remained peaceful amidst police antagonism, and the journalists who are getting paid to record their struggle. Many share that anger; with no leader, no focus point, people simply feel angry at seemingly everything. Florissant Road is open again; cars travel tro-and-fro sporadically in the middle of the night.
The 12am curfew was called off earlier, but around 11:45 the police presence at Florissant and Ferguson start to advance from their positions, forcing everyone to go home. They point guns at those standing idly, shining bright flashlights at them and yelling for them to go home. No supposed action seems to trigger this response. By midnight, they’ve even broken up the press area and demanded that everyone tear down and leave. As I walk away I check Twitter and see a game developer who posted that she was leaving the scene. We tweet each other briefly.
@hunicke it’s crazy… Now people are randomly finding their ways back. Horrible to see this happening.
Now I realize the police are blocking the way back to my car; unsure whether I’ll be potentially assaulted by an officer for heading back to the media zone, I walk down another road that I soon realize won’t take me back to my car. The road that I’m on is large, and mostly deserted, and since I don’t know other people in the area I decide it’s best to move to where I’m not as likely to be seen or attacked by the agitated (either police or protestor). I instead walk to the nearby railroad tracks that lead back to my car, heading along them to stay out of sight. When I near the bridge that goes over the police sitting at Florissant and Ferguson, I duck and slide down a nearby hill, landing on the sidewalk on the other side of the barricade.
I run up the grassy hill leading to the police staging area, making note of the National Guard troops positioned on the driveway. At the top of the hill a wave of tiredness washes over me and I wander my way back to my car. Once I get in and shut the car door, a calm, almost happiness, come over me. I message and tweet the parties who discovered I was out there to let them know I’m safe, then make my way back to Alton. A National Guardsman waves me goodbye as I pull out of the parking lot.
Around 2am I sit at my friend’s house in Alton, eating Taco Bell and watching CNN. Ron Johnson is on, speaking about the night’s events. 31 people were arrested, some from “as far as New York and California.” A news caster asks why the public was pushed off of the streets right around midnight if there was no curfew. Johnson points to the two pistols and the Molotov cocktail sitting on the table. According to him, those items were obtained from a car that left a shooting, was followed via aircraft, and pulled up across the street from the press zone. When the cops tried to act on the car, press rushed the scene, potentially endangering the situation.
I turn off the TV and go to bed.
—– A version of this post originally appeared on Hey, That’s My Life, the author’s blog. All pictures contained credited to the author.