Ferguson, Mo. — I can still hardly believe what happened just a few hours ago. I was scrambling to outrun a cloud of tear gas as it moved into a well-manicured subdivision in America’s heartland, while my friend and fellow journalist, Wesley Lowery, was being slammed up against a soda machine by police and detained nearby.
I came to Ferguson on assignment for Fusion to find answers in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a local police officer. Since arriving here, I’ve sought to gain an understanding of the dynamics between the community and local authorities, hoping any insights might help explain the tragedy.
Tonight, I witnessed those dynamics firsthand.
A source invited me to join him in his neighborhood, a short walk from a burned-out and looted QuikTrip where scores of mostly black youth have gathered nightly to peacefully protest Michael Brown Jr.’s death. The spot is not far from where Brown was gunned down last Saturday night. Clashes with the police have occurred nightly in the surrounding area.
An hour earlier, I’d texted Wesley, who works at the Washington Post, to make sure he was okay. He wrote back to tell me he was at a nearby McDonald’s. I joked with him briefly, then head into Ferguson.
My experience covering breaking news over the past 12 years has taught me to never park close to the action. I parked a few blocks away and walked up to the protest. I was met with a surreal scene: gospel music blaring from a loudspeaker near a group of women who were praying; a group of youth dancing and chanting; and a very angry crowd of mostly young black men and women taunting police who were blocking the other end of the street.
Photo by Errin Whack.
The image of any black person challenging law enforcement is rare. Stranger yet is the sight of a police force wearing helmets, carrying semi-automatic weapons and shields, standing in front of armored vehicles. All of this was happening just yards away from a tidy subdivision that is a postcard for the American heartland.
“What y’all stand for?” one protester demanded.
“They don’t wanna fight; they wanna shoot,” another said.
“That’s some punk-ass shit,” said a third.
The police stood silent while the crowd unleashed their frustrated tirade. But their actions would soon speak loudly enough.
As sundown approached, a helicopter appeared overhead and the atmosphere became more increasingly tense. Police barked into a megaphone, ordering protesters to: “Please step away from the vehicles. Maintain a peaceful protest. You must be 25 feet away from the vehicle. Move back, NOW!”
One officer perched atop one of the two armored vehicles and pointed his rifle in the direction of the crowd, taking sight of the group through the scope. I snapped a picture with my iPhone and shuddered at the thought that he might actually fire on someone later.
Photo by Etefia Umana.
Of the dozens of police lined up against the protesters, only three were black.
The rest appeared white behind their riot gear. One of the officers held the leash of a German Shepherd.
In Ferguson, nearly 70 percent of residents are African-American, and about 30 percent are white, according to the most recent Census data. The racial makeup of the crowd was more like 9:1 black to white. But the police force is just 6 percent black.
After a few minutes, the sun sank behind the trees and I braced myself for an impending clash. Local police had been discouraging protests after dark, and I knew a showdown would be likely.
I have spent much of my career as a journalist writing about civil rights; I’ve written often about the events of the 1950s and ‘60s. Some of the scenes I witnessed last night were not unlike things I have described in stories from that era. I felt like I was in a movie.
As if timed to the sunset, a bottle crashed into the crowd. Moments later, police boomed: “This is no longer a peaceful protest. You must disperse now.” Almost simultaneously and before anyone could leave the area, police lobbed canisters of tear gas into the crowd.
We started running. I’ve been pepper-sprayed before, and I was not eager to repeat the experience. The gas was moving quickly, quicker than we could run. My eyes and nose began to sting; my throat started to burn. I moved faster.
Dispersing proved a much more difficult task than I expected. With very few options for an escape route, we cut through a park to get into the neighborhood where my source lives. We walked back to his house and waited there for the unrest to subside.
After more than an hour, we ventured out to try to get back to the car. The smell of tear gas was faint in the neighborhood, but not far off. But before we could even get out of the neighborhood, the smell grew stronger. A canister had landed on the street inside the subdivision — removed from any protest. The sky was still bright with smoke. Tear gas flares and flash grenades were going off in the near distance. We headed back towards the house.
Earlier in the evening, before heading to this neighborhood, I’d attended a press conference with St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar. When asked about his officers’ use of tear gas on protesters, Belmar told reporters that he hadn’t “found other means to disperse people that’s effective.”
He dismissed the idea of a curfew, saying that lawless people “are not going to pay attention to that.”
But this was clearly a de facto curfew that made no distinction between those who are lawless and residents who are law-abiding. It felt like the police had the neighborhood under siege and I couldn’t leave.
But I knew that eventually I would be able to leave, unlike the residents of this community who have endured these conditions for the past four days. It was becoming easier to see why residents are distrustful of the police officers charged with serving and protecting their community. There was no goodwill here.
As I sat and stewed, waiting to escape the neighborhood, I learned that things were going even worse for Wesley. He had been detained at that McDonald’s; though he was released soon afterward, the incident seemed to be further proof of a police department operating recklessly and unfairly. In the process, two journalists were unjustly detained, along with other citizens who failed to exit the restaurant quickly enough for officers.
After another hour, we decided to make another attempt to leave the neighborhood. As we neared the entrance of the subdivision, a wall of blue lights blocked our exit. When we attempted to pass, police told us to wait while they dealt with a situation. After 15 minutes or so, the intersection was cleared and we were able to finally get to the car and leave.
I wondered how Americans could be treated like this, and what a gut punch such treatment must be to a community still raw from the death of one of their own. I sped away from the neighborhood, eager to distance myself from the ugliness I’d just encountered.