Before Mike Brown was shot, I had never been to Ferguson. In fact, I had never even been to Missouri. I’m originally from Venezuela, but immigrated to the U.S. six years ago. After a few hours on the ground in Ferguson, I felt like I'd been here before.
Standing in front of the QuickTrip convenience store last Thursday, the story swirled and developed quickly. For a few hours, we followed the media pack, going from impromptu press conference to predictable marches with the same old faces. After a brief interview with Rev. Jesse Jackson, I found myself sucked into the crowd of protesters chanting "Hands up! Don't Shoot!" as they moved up the boulevard.
And then something hit me. A familiar feeling, like I had been here before.
The looted QuickTrip made the connection for me. It reminded me of Venezuelans looting electrical supply stores earlier this year during that country's turmoil. There's an atavism to looting, something primitive and barbaric. Whether I see it in Caracas or Ferguson, it fills me with a heavy sense of shame, like we’ve failed as a society.
The crowd, fueled by outrage, continued chanting—much like the deadly protests in my own country last February. The grist for each movement was different; in Ferguson racial tension was set off by one inflammatory incident. In Venezuela, it’s political and economic. Those differences are lost, however, amid tanks, rifles, and images of chaos. Tear gas smells the same in both countries.
Like the residents of Ferguson, Venezuelan student activists put their hands up in the air, too. They chanted, “we are students…students…” It was a signal that they posed no threat, but still, they stood defiantly against authority.
In Venezuela, there was a dearth of new leadership. The old guard sought to remain relevant, no matter the cost. In Ferguson, we asked young people what they thought of veteran civil rights leaders, such as Jackson and Al Sharpton, who invariably show up after tragedies like this. Eric Latham, a 23-year-old protester who has lived in Ferguson since he was a child, shared his take.
He was furious.
“We need our young leaders to be leading this type of thing. We don't need a 60-year-old man leading us through our own streets,” he said.
Eric's biting honesty evoked those of my peers in Venezuela, following the same leaders they'd followed for decades. In Eric I saw their angst, their frustration with inadequate leadership.
“Jesse Jackson should have a young person from here with him up there,” Eric said. "Because when he leaves, I gotta stay here … I live up the street!"
Asked why he doesn't go to the front and step up into the leadership vacuum, Eric responded “This ain't my show.”
Eric’s friend John joined my search for answers. John is 20 and has lived around Ferguson half his life. I asked him who was in charge.
“[N]o one knows what to do; not Jesse Jackson, not Nelly, not J Cole, not you, not me….no one has the answers,” he said. “But Twitter allows everyone to have an opinion, it’s like a forum.”
Eric agreed that Twitter was essential to making the community aware of the Mike Brown shooting.
“Everyone knew what was happening because of twitter, because a lot of times the media was getting the story wrong. Twitter became our news, our CNN, our FOX.”
Eric and John said new leaders were emerging from social media.
“A man named 'The Pharaoh,' he showed chronologically what happened as an eye witness on his Twitter account. How can you refute that?” John asked.
It became clear to me that Twitter users like @TheePharaoh were leading the news cycle. In Venezuela, this happened because the government of Hugo Chavez — and his successor Nicolas Maduro — has imposed a systematic crackdown on media for more than a decade. Television stations were shut down, news channels were bought-off and journalists were yanked off the air.
Ferguson wasn’t quite like that. But still, the day before I arrived in St Louis, police arrested two journalists at a local McDonald's. Since then, police actions against journalists in Ferguson escalated. A team from Al-Jaazera was tear-gassed, their cameras and lights taken down. Others were shot with rubber bullets. A 17 total have been arrested.
I’m always paranoid that I could get deported if I get arrested in a scenario like Ferguson. My peers kept reminding me that there’s something here called the First Amendment. In Venezuela, the fear is that I’ll get killed.
As night fell, the block party atmosphere unraveled into chaos. The lack of leadership from both sides escalated the situation. I wondered if this social media movement could really translate into concrete actions.
A car driving in the opposite direction honked at us. The driver was an African American woman holding a banner that read: “Obama, please come to Ferguson!”. As she passed us, she cried: "Where is our president? We want our president to come and protect the United States of America … we need you president Obama, right now."
Eric rolled his eyes.
“The problem with a black president fixing everything is that you need to realize this system is set up as is. It's not made for us to advance but for us to get by,” he said. “A black man in a suit or basketball shorts. At the end of a day you are still a negro to them.”
If Mike Brown was not a recent high school grad when he was shot, the media wouldn’t even be in Ferguson, Eric explained.
“It would have just been ‘a thug was killed,’" he said. “In order for your life to matter, you have to be in school or you have to be working. It just can’t be, ‘an unarmed black man was killed.’ You have to go out of your way to make yourself worthy of life.”
I tried to remain stoic. But in truth that last part broke me.
Venezuela has become one of the murder capitals of the world. More than 40 people die violently every weekend. Life has also becomes worthless. I felt that devaluing of life for the first time in Caracas a couple of years ago when I was held at gunpoint over a pair of sneakers. And I realized that, for Eric, that’s what life has been like.
And there came that familiar feeling. It felt like home, but not in a good way. Ferguson, it would seem, is not so far from Caracas.
Mariana Atencio is a globetrotting host and correspondent at Fusion. She is a Peabody, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Gracie award-winning journalist covering stories that matter to real people.