Letter from Ferguson

by Derek Dyson


By sundown Monday evening, November 24, the scene in front of the Ferguson Police Department was nothing short of dystopian. A metal barricade that stretched nearly a block was flanked on one side by citizens, protesters, and journalists and on the other by scores of police officers outfitted head to toe in riot gear—all awaiting the grand jury decision. The police beat batons against their shin guards, an apparent show of anticipation that bordered on intimidation. If the batons weren’t intimidating, the armored vehicles at the south end of the street and the multiple helicopters circling overhead certainly were. It was a scene just like this that first brought me to Ferguson back in August. If the shooting of Michael Brown inspired us to ask why so many young black males are dying on American streets, its aftermath has forced us to question much more: the rights of protesters and journalists, the media’s role, civic responsibility, militarized police units and their unchecked challenges to a wide array of free speech principles. These issues made this protest relatable to people in nearly every neighborhood in the country. I knew this, and I was in Ferguson to make sure that, at the very least, my readers did as well.

The police presence probably seemed justified to those watching from home. For weeks, the national media had hyped this moment with headlines like “Ferguson Braces for War” and “State of Emergency Declared in Anticipation of Grand Jury Decision.” Justified or not, the police presence on South Florissant Road that night was really nothing new. Even the most mundane nights of completely peaceful protest often included officers standing guard in full riot gear, despite the relatively nonviolent atmosphere from mid-August until the announcement that there would not be an indictment against Darren Wilson. It became commonplace to assume that when policemen in armored vehicles started shouting over the bullhorn, “You are participating in an unlawful assembly,” it was time to put on the gas mask if you had one and get ready to run. In Ferguson, the definition of “unlawful assembly” has been very broad, if defined at all.

Silence washed over the crowd when St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch approached the stage. Protesters huddled around cell phones and car stereos. Within seconds of the “no indictment” decision, the crowd began to rumble and stir. A handful of teenagers started running south down Florissant screaming for justice, for violence, for anything really. Clergy members and community leaders in the crowd rallied these young people back into the fold and demanded a peaceful response to this devastating news. We shared a collective sigh of relief, but the peace would be short-lived.

About an hour later, a new line of riot police emerged just south of the main protest site, flanking those on the civilian side of the barricades. Behind the new police line sat two armored vehicles with spotlights aimed in our direction. People began to shout, “They’re boxing us in,” and a large group surged to meet the police line, forcing it back slightly, which left an unattended police cruiser stranded in the sea of protesters. No one knew it at the time, but this lone cruiser would serve as an accelerator for riots, fires, and looting throughout the city of Ferguson.

It started with two men rocking the cruiser back and forth. More joined in until the car was on its side and on the brink of tipping. But then the momentum shifted and the car crashed back down on all four tires, nearly trapping one of the guys underneath it. Frustrated by their failure, some of the men tried to break the cruiser’s windows with their elbows, then with rocks from the garden behind us.

Within seconds of the first crash of broken glass, police shot multiple canisters of tear gas at us. The crowd dispersed instantly, fleeing north, away from the armored vehicles, which were indiscriminately deploying flash bangs and round after round of noxious smoke and gas into the crowd. As we ran past the protesters and journalists who remained in front of the police department, the canisters continued to rain down from blocks away, forcing those folks to disperse as well. People were screaming, crouching in alleyways, coughing, vomiting, running. Everyone was running, covering for safety.

The gas began to subside about three blocks north of the police department, and this is where I witnessed the first signs of any real property damage. The farther north we ran, the more the crowd thinned. We began to pass businesses with busted windows. We saw a handful of people looting and setting trash cans on fire. Many more were trying to stop looters, guarding buildings, or pouring bottled water on the small fires. Women were on the ground crying; a little kid screamed, “It burns!” A car full of people crashed into the curb in front of me, doors already slung open and it’s passengers, gagging and coughing, spilled out on the street before the car could roll to a stop. People from the apartments above began throwing down jugs of milk and towels to aid those below. Though chaos began to emerge around us, the show of humanity by those I shared this moment with, complete strangers helping one another in every way possible, seemed to overshadow much of it.

Before the first rounds of tear gas and flash bangs were deployed there were absolutely no signs of property damage, looting, or fires on South Florissant. I had been up and down that street multiple times throughout the evening. Excessive or not, the Ferguson Police Department’s show of force in an attempt to protect a police cruiser left in the middle of a crowd of protesters was the turning point that set the course for the destruction on that street. Nothing was broken or burning until that point of escalation. While I cannot speak to minor property damage that may have already taken place on West Florissant Avenue, the side of town where dozens of buildings would eventually burn, I can say that the brunt of the destruction we saw on those two streets occurred almost simultaneously.

In a press conference the following morning, Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman would ask: “Did the authorities let Ferguson burn?” Downtown Ferguson is not unlike any suburban main street. Bars, boutiques, restaurants, wine shops, a now infamous police department, all dressed in garland and lit for the holidays—the “white” side of town. For nearly a week the stores on this street had been armed with a continual police and National Guard presence to curb any potential property damage by civil unrest. A little over a mile east, on West Florissant Avenue, the scene was entirely different. Predominantly minority-owned businesses in a low-income part of town sat completely unguarded by law enforcement. With street lights dimmed to save tax dollars—or just in disrepair for lack of tax dollars—this stretch of road sat poorly lit and vulnerable to vandalism and looting. The idea that law enforcement officials had not anticipated destruction on this side of town is unfathomable. It had happened before. It seemed this time there were just bigger priorities at stake.

I assumed the national media would have the destruction on West Florissant covered, so I took to Twitter to see what the other protest groups across town were experiencing. I had been following the “#shaw” hashtag for days and was intrigued by the differences in demographics, as well as tactics, used by protesters on this side of the movement. By 10 p.m. Monday night, it was apparent that the Shaw group had the largest presence still active on the streets, especially after the police had dispersed the crowd in Ferguson. Partly because I was looking for a change of scenery and partly because I needed to charge my phone and camera batteries, I jumped in the car and reluctantly pulled away from Ferguson, toward south St. Louis and the Shaw protests. As I watched the orange glow that filled my rearview mirror slowly fade, I had no way of knowing that what I was about to witness would be just as, if not more, shocking than the veritable war zone and media circus I was leaving behind.

On October 8, 2014, an black teenager by the name of VonDerrit Myers was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in a largely affluent St. Louis neighborhood 16 miles south of Ferguson. Although the circumstances of this shooting were different from those reported by witnesses in the shooting of Michael Brown, the similarities were disturbing enough to cause significant outrage throughout the community. This outrage led to what would come to be known locally as the Shaw protests, named after the neighborhood where Myers died. While the Shaw protests were alongside and in solidarity with the Ferguson protests happening across town, the neighborhoods and activists involved in these two movements stood in stark contrast.

The streets of Ferguson had been manned for months by a wide array of people from the neighborhood who had suddenly found themselves in the middle of a social movement. Young people from the poor side of town with no background in civic action or local politics were now becoming community organizers. These unconventional activists, armed with little more than their smartphones, started holding town hall meetings, voter registration drives, and social media campaigns that garnered much less national media attention than the few hours of violence in August had. It was a textbook example of a modern grassroots social movement.

Shaw, on the other hand, was a much more traditional scene. Born in a largely affluent neighborhood just down the street from St. Louis University and organized by students from SLU and the nearby prestigious Washington University, the Shaw protests quickly became the to go-to movement for middle-class college students in the St. Louis metro area. Centered largely in the neighborhoods these students already frequented, the Shaw protests gave them the best of both worlds: They were able to become a part of what might be the most influential social action of their generation, and they were able to do so in a part of town they were familiar with, alongside their peers.

I made my way to the part of south St. Louis where the Shaw protests were taking place. I passed no roadblocks. There were no flashing lights in the distance and no clouds of smoke rising above buildings. I parked and followed the collective roar of some 300 protesters that had gathered on South Grand Boulevard.

As I rounded the corner of Arsenal Street and South Grand, I approached a crowd of protesters blocking the intersection, holding signs and speaking in cadence. It appeared I was one of the only people on the street carrying a camera and openly wearing press credentials. I made my press credentials in a corner bar using Photoshop during my first visit to Ferguson after I witnessed the arrest of other non-traditional media types who had been caught in the middle of civil unrest. By my count, 30 minutes at a bar with my laptop and three dollars at a print shop had saved me from arrest and/or detainment at least three times up until that point.

The lack of national media seemed odd, but, considering what had been happening on the other side of town, not out of the question. What did seem completely foreign was the lack of police presence on this street. There were close to 300 protesters blocking a major intersection, an infraction that in Ferguson would be deemed “unlawful assembly” and justification for tear gas and mass arrests. Yet there were only four or five plain-uniformed St. Louis Police officers present on this street, and they were making no attempts to disperse this crowd or clear the streets. These kids weren’t less militant than those in Ferguson; they were in the middle of the street screaming and throwing things at cops. These kids weren’t less destructive; the entire block was littered with the broken glass of storefronts on either side of Grand. And there was an unmanned police cruiser in the middle of all of it, doors and body panels already dented by the feet of angry protesters.

I made my way through the crowd, asking bystanders to fill me in on what I had missed. Where are the riot police? Has anyone been arrested or tear-gassed? What was the police reaction to the obvious destruction of property all around us? What the fuck is going on here? I was met with either blank stares or adrenaline-fueled diatribes from agitated college kids eager to fill me in on the ins and outs of social justice and police brutality. These kids were passionate, mobilized, and completely unaware of how well they were being treated by the law enforcement officials standing on the street in front of them.

Just two hours prior, this same group of protesters had completely stopped traffic on Interstate 44. There was an hour-long standoff before they eventually gave way to the St. Louis Police Department when riot-equipped squads were sent in to clear the highway. Although later police reports would allude to three arrests made because of the highway closing, no activist I spoke with that night or in the following days would confirm this. There was a definite sense of accomplishment for this feat. They had disrupted the system, made their voices heard, and walked away unscathed. Shortly before 11 p.m., Shaw protesters marched from the I-44 overpass and onto South Grand Boulevard, leaving a wake of destruction in their path. This is where I would meet them minutes later.

As I watched the crowd become more agitated and brazen toward the few uniformed officers standing before them, I began to look for possible escape routes. There was no way we were leaving this situation without being tear-gassed. Somehow these people had managed to shut down major modes of transportation, vandalize private property, and loot stores with no significant police intervention, but the scene unfolding in front of me was without a doubt going to escalate.

It started with a handful of vocal protesters confronting a uniformed officer in the middle of the street. As they closed in on him, the crowd followed. Within a matter of seconds the officer was walled off from his partners and trapped in the middle of what resembled a mosh pit. Although he was pushed a couple of times, he wasn’t injured and was standing his ground the best he could in this scenario. Two armored vehicles sped into position and deployed the first rounds of tear gas into the crowd, followed by lines of riot police who were apparently waiting in the wings. This was the first show of force by law enforcement toward the Shaw protesters and, if I’m being honest, the first justified use of tear gas on protesters I had seen all night.

In the hours that followed, the police presence on South Grand rivaled that of Ferguson. We were hit with tear gas one more time that night, less than an hour after the crowd had re-emerged from the surrounding blocks where they had fled to seek shelter from the smoke and gas. Around 50 people remained on the corner of Grand and Arsenal outside of a local coffee shop that had been deemed a “safe place.” While we stood there processing what had just happened, the second round of tear gas was deployed from an armored vehicle less than 10 feet away. Later, the militarized officers who had swarmed in during the initial gassing would cite “failure to disperse” and “participation in an unlawful protest” as justification, but we were given no warnings prior to the second round of gas. If it weren’t for this coffee shop opening its doors and basement to us, with medical aid at the ready, we would have had nowhere to run. The situation was bad, but if it weren’t for the help of complete strangers in that building, it could have been much worse.

For several nights, the police presence on Grand remained heavy with multiple arrests, despite a peaceful showing by Shaw protesters. It’s as if the St. Louis PD had given them a chance, just for a few hours on Monday night, to freely exercise their rights—but that was it. Truthfully, that was more than anyone in Ferguson got, but I don’t expect those present at the Shaw protests to find solace in that statement. They were mistreated, too. They too were denied peaceful assembly and were dragged over barricades and arrested just for cussing at cops or stepping off the curb in defiance. The point is that the police had overstepped the bounds on multiple occasions in Ferguson and Shaw alike. It’s just that those college kids in Shaw really had to work for their injustice. The kids in Ferguson, however, were born into it.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 24, December 15, 2014.