I’m writing this post on Sunday night as chaos has just erupted once again in Ferguson, Missouri. And I’m sick to my stomach because I spent most of Saturday afternoon and evening in the town, joining the protestors, and my heart goes out to the community who are trying to keep it together while the world watches their town turn into a war zone every night.
You’ve probably been following the story, so I won’t go into the details. Mike Brown, and unarmed 18-year-old young black man, was killed by a police officer on Saturday, August 9 in the town of Ferguson, MO, a mostly black suburban neighborhood northwest of St. Louis. Every day and every night since the killing, citizens have taken to the streets in protest of this latest act of police brutality. The situations gets worse every night after dark as a highly militarized police force squares off against residents and protesters with tanks, riot gear, tear gas, rubber bullets, and sniper rifles, while looting and alleged gun violence have also erupted along the main strip.
That’s a very condensed version of the story, obviously. I live in Edwardsville, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. I’ve been watching the story unfold through our local NPR station and Twitter with horror. Our university community responded with a Town Hall to address the situation and its effects on our incoming students, young men and women, boys and girls, just like Mike Brown. On Saturday morning, I hit a bottom point of despair and, just then, I saw an email from Color of Change.org. It said to come march in Ferguson at 1pm. Not quite knowing what I was doing, having never taken part in a mass demonstration before, I packed a few boxes of granola bars to help give out to protesters and I went.
I arrived at 1pm to see smoke coming from the now infamous Quik Trip that had been looted and burned. There was a crowd there, and smoke coming from it. “Oh crap,” I thought. “What am I getting into?” As I got closer, I realized that the source of the smoke was several large barbecues. There was a huge operation going, with people making and handing out hamburgers, snacks, and bottles of water. I gave them my granola bars to add to the pile and went to find the march that was already underway.
The planned march was HUGE, peaceful, passioned, and full of people from all walks of life, as far as I could tell. People were clearly upset at the situation, as we chanted “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” and “No Justice, No Peace!” Volunteers were out along the march route directing traffic, handing out water and snacks, and there was just a sense of… togetherness. I don’t know quite how to describe it all, but I took lots and lots of photos and Vines along the way and posted to Twitter.
Later in the day, after some spontaneous direct action training with observers from Amnesty International and Organize MO, I went back to the Quik Trip where protesters were continuing to gather, eat, chant, waves signs, and even march up and down West Florissant. I joined in for a while, getting to listen to conversations and chat a bit with residents who were impassioned about the every day problem of racism, of the lack of justice for Mike Brown, and saddened by the situation unfolding in their community.
As evening approached, the police started to arrive en masse. Lines of officers, some in riot gear, lined up in front of the businesses on West. Florissant, and were treated to cries of “Is my son next?!” by the protesters. Some officers, however, walked in the impromptu march, chatting with protesters and trying to answer their questions. Soon, it was announced that a curfew was being put into effect in Ferguson from 12am-5am as a state of emergency was declared. Community leaders such as Antonio French and an organizer from the New Black Panthers made it clear over social media and with megaphones that they wanted everyone off the streets at midnight.
Meanwhile some of the Amnesty and OrganizeMO people met back at the church they were using as their headquarters to strategize how to deal with the curfew. The original plan was to start at the Quik Trip at 11pm and march down to street to the town of Dellwood, where the church was located, and continue protesting there. It made sense, since Ferguson itself is a small township that melds in with several other townships such as Dellwood. The protests would continue and not trespass on the curfew. Unfortunately, just as this was getting started, we got word that Dellwood was imposing a 10pm curfew. As the plan shifted to march towards another adjacent township, Jennings, we soon got word that it, too, had imposed a 10pm curfew. Ferguson was going to be boxed in so that by midnight, there would be nowhere else to go. After a quick training session on the role of observer and how to deal with tear gas and rubber bullets, the organizers decided their only choice was to stay in Ferguson and help whoever did decide to try and break the curfew. They were there to monitor police actions and provide assistance to those who needed it, physical, legal, emotional, mental, etc. Right at that moment, I realized that these people were heroes.
I managed to head back into Florissant before the neighboring curfews were instituted, and there was a sense of waiting all around the protest area. No one was quite sure how the curfew would go down. Again local community leaders (more heroes, IMO) like Antonio French worked hard to convince as many of their neighbors as possible that it was not worth a confrontation with the police to stay past the curfew. They wanted their neighbors SAFE. After all, it could all get started all over again at 5am as soon as the curfew broke.
I decided then that I would leave by the curfew, as the community leaders asked. After all, it was THEIR community and not mine, and the last thing I wanted was to be in the way. I had enough trouble earlier in the day deciding whether my presence was even appropriate, but the many thanks you’s from random citizens just for coming and taking part in the protests had already dispelled that. One more body in the crowd may not make a huge difference, but it is something. One more body helping to escalate tensions, however, would do no good.
I spent as much time as I could before I had to get out. Police were advancing, arguments among protesters were started and being diffused by designated peacekeepers and de-escalators, and several people said to me, with concern in their voice, “Go home. You don’t want to be here when it gets bad.”
I left finally at 11:30 feeling a bit guilty for doing so. Maybe I should pass myself off as media and stay in the “media pen”? But then am I condoning the restriction of the press? Would my presence help at all? Probably not, but my heart still broke when I watched the situation turn back to tear gas, rubber bullets, and even gunfire over the various livestreams, just as we’re watching again tonight.
I spent this morning looking back over my Twitter stream and photos and tried to process what went down. But I’m still not sure I can in any coherent way. That’s why this blog post has come off more like a report than I really wanted it to be. During the marches, during the protests, and even walking around the neighborhood, I felt empowered and I felt the power and frustration of the resident who were standing up to DO SOMETHING. I was warmed by the obvious dedication of the community leaders who are working day and night to unify their neighbors into positive action. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to get through to every single person, and they haven’t been able to stop the flux of incoming troublemakers who appear not to even be from the town. But they are there and they ARE heroes in my eyes, as are the observers and volunteers and even random protestors who came from all over the country to try and restore justice to Ferguson.
I don’t know how this is going to play out in the long run. Will there be more injuries and deaths? Will justice ever be found for Mike Brown? Will this affect long-term, positive change in communities across the US, or is it only going to make racial tensions worse?
I got a glimpse at a community fighting back against tyranny and the effects of centuries of oppression. But it was only a glimpse. If you are interested in learning the real story of what is happening down in Ferguson, I can point you to two sources in particular whose reporting of the situation closely matches what I saw there. Of course, there is the aforementioned Antonio French, who is fighting day in and day out for his community. There is also the liveblog and Twitter stream from St. Louis Public Radio who are really doing a great job at providing non-hysterical and well-rounded reporting.
If you are in the St. Louis are and you care about this at all, GO TO FERGUSON. Join the protestors and march. No, it’s not always pretty to see the lines of riot geared officers, the smashed windows, the anger and frustration on the faces of the people. But when I was marching, I felt welcomed. You will be, too, if you are there to listen, help, and stand in solidarity. You can also help Ferguson, and other communities in St. Louis, but donating a few hours to the St. Louis Food Bank. And, like I mentioned earlier, the protestors could always use more food and bottled water for the long days at nights.
If you are watching from afar, listen to the story, and be sure to spread the word about this situation as accurately as possible. Be careful what you retweet. You can also help the Brown family’s legal fund financially and the St. Louis Area Food Banks replenish the raided food pantries and replace the school lunches that children won’t be getting.
My thoughts to all in Ferguson. Please stay safe tonight and all nights to come. We’re thinking of you.