special report: rallying in ferguson

August 19, 2014

I am not from Ferguson. I’m from a suburb of Boston originally. Prior to Monday, I’d never been to Ferguson, though I’ve been to St. Louis a number of times. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the specific tensions in the area. But I do understand police brutality. The first time I was beaten by the cops was after having had the good fortune to watch the Red Sox win the World Series from a bar under Fenway Park. My fellow revelers and I didn’t quite disperse quickly enough and I took a night stick to the kidney. It hurt like hell for a day or so and I pissed blood a little, but mostly I laughed it off as a souvenir from one of the greatest baseball series in history. The second time wasn’t so funny. I made the mistake of trying to help re-occupy Zuccotti Park on #M17 and as the line guarding a tent with a sleeping man inside was broken up, the NYPD grabbed me and manhandled me before letting me go. I wasn’t arrested. My right lung collapsed shortly thereafter. I won’t make any apologies for that experience coloring my experiences in Ferguson. I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the shooting death by a cop of an unarmed teenager in a way that’s unbiased anyway.

Words & Photos by Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor

All of my contacts in the area were working, or in school, or otherwise preoccupied so I set off semi-blindly in search of people to talk to. This trip was a little impromptu, I was on my way to Nashville, and decided to cancel my show there and spend a day in Ferguson. I don’t have a smart phone. I’d heard the street name “Florissant” a lot, so that’s where I started. South Florissant. There was a small demonstration outside the police station, maybe 40 or 50 people. I was honestly surprised at both how small a crowd there was, but also how friendly and peaceful the whole thing was. This wasn’t a war zone. There were no visible police. They had sandwiches. This was a suburb. I’d heard on the radio that the police had declared that you couldn’t stand in one place and protest, you had to keep moving. They were standing in one place, waving signs as cars honked in support.

Mothers and grandmothers shared their stories with me. Most people had small children with them. And each story was largely the same: “what if this had been my kid?” One woman cried at the thought of losing her children. Many of the other people I spoke to were simply fed up. Unsurprisingly, people were more candid when the camera was off. I’d ask how they felt comfortable bringing their children to a demonstration where tear gas might be used. A school teacher told me that while she kept her smaller children at home, she felt it was important for her older children to understand what was really happening in their community. A few others brought their children out as a sign of defiance. As if to say: are peaceful, we are families, you’re the ones tear gassing children, you’re the aggressors.

I kept hearing folks talk about the big rally and all the chaos on Florissant. “I thought this is Florissant?” “West Florissant is where Michael Brown was murdered and where the Quick Trip is. This is South Florissant” “How do I get there?” As I walked down the hill on Ferguson Ave that spills out into West Florissant, it was clear that there was a different tone here. Thousands of people gathered, marching in a futile circle. The police cordoned off the block between Ferguson Ave and Canfield Drive, where Michael Brown was shot to death by Darren Wilson. Hundreds of cops stood in body armor, but not riot gear. I didn’t see any armored vehicles.

Though the tone was different on West Florissant, the goal of a peaceful protest was the same. The attitude that the police were the aggressors here was more pronounced. I heard a lot of people allege that the rioting and looting was from outside provocateurs. I also heard a lot of people suggest that maybe in the long run, the rioting and looting wasn’t so bad since it galvanized media attention on this case that might otherwise have been ignored. But here again were mothers and children, grandmothers and infants. I couldn’t help but wonder if the tone of this demonstration would be different if the cops had kept a more hands-off approach like on South Florissant. At least call off the constantly circling helicopters.

As the sun began to set, and my camera’s battery died, Nelly showed up with a stunningly tone-deaf police escort. If there was crowd excitement, it was because this was finally something to do. Let’s go hear the famous guy talk at us! The excitement from the press was palpable. I wonder how many of them had shown up hoping to grab their Pulizer-winning still of a cop chucking a can of tear gas at a grandmother. Maybe Nelly would say something inspiring and iconic, and they’d catch it on video, and this would be that moment when the protests transformed. Excuse my cynicism.

It didn’t take long before the crowd turned on Nelly. His ambivalent calls to “do something,” and “get organized” were mixed with a lot of blaming the victim. It’s very easy for a millionaire who hasn’t actually witnessed any of the events in Ferguson firsthand to Monday morning quarterback. It’s very easy for all of us, myself included, to Monday morning quarterback. Shouts of “where have you been?” drowned out his speech. Nelly couldn’t really figure out how to use the megaphone. The crowd split between people appreciative that one of St. Louis’ most famous residents came out to support them, and folks who felt like the class divide and empty platitudes made Nelly as much of a problem as anything. Shades of “go slow” from Nina Simone’s legendary “Mississippi Goddam.”

A handful of community leaders took the platform behind the bank where we assembled and tried to get the crowd to show their appreciation for Nelly. It was tepid at best. We headed back on our march-in-circles. Folks from the press kept stopping the march to get in a picture or interview with Nelly. I wonder how many of them were getting interviews with regular people who live in Ferguson. Clearly they wouldn’t stop a thousands-strong march to get an interview with a 14 year old who lives down the street. Fame is weird.

I noticed that during our half hour distraction, the police presence had intensified. The helicopters flew lower, projecting search lights. The cops were 8-10 strong at every corner next to an armored SUV. The standard-issue police sedans were a thing of the past. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cop with a can of tear gas, or at least that’s what it looked like to me. Maybe it was just a bottle of water. Of course it was just a bottle of water. Don’t be crazy, Nathan. Amnesty International is here. After the events last night, the cops are going to show restraint. Right? Right.

We march in circles for an hour or so. As they always do for some reason I’ve never quite been able to define, Grandmothers seek me out and start conversations. The sadness and exhaustion from earlier is now sharp pain and frustration. This isn’t the world they want to leave to their grand kids. As the chants shift from “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” to “Hands Up, Shoot Back,” I can feel a change in the crowd’s attitude. I become painfully aware that marching in circles is nothing if not a metaphor for what this community has been through. Walking around and around in circles around a lot of pain and frustration.

The chants get less organized and more aggressive. Community leaders de-escalate instances of protesters shouting at the growing phalanx of cops. I hear rumors that the National Guard is here, but I never see them. Word is they’re here to protect the cops. Of course. Finally, we break the pen and continue up W. Florissant. I’m marching next to a reporter from CNN who uses clinical sounding euphemisms like “police over reaction” and “clashes with protesters” where “police brutality” and “aggression by the state” would be more accurate. Clearly I’m not the only one frustrated with his half-assed reporting because a number of people around me take him to task for the “violence is on both sides” ambivalent reporting. I hope it’s a live feed.

As we reach Chambers, I catch my first glimpse of the cops in full riot gear. Some of the march disperses, while others circle back towards Ferguson Ave. A handful of others decide to confront the cops who have transformed a Mobil station into an improvised military barracks. I hear a water bottle is thrown. An actual literal water bottle, not an imaginary can of tear gas. Just a water bottle. I see a gaggle of riot cops (or is it a murder, like crows?) march in formation to escalate the situation needlessly. That’s my cue to leave. I don’t need to be beaten again to prove my radical bona fides.

As I drive back to my friends’ house a few miles down the road, I listen to the radio discuss what to do. They talk a lot about the conflict between wanting Justice Now and the fact that the legal system is designed to work slowly, and escalating the process actually increases the odds of Wilson’s acquittal. Their thesis is that all the protesting might actually hinder the protester’s goals in the long run. True, but what to do with that rage in the mean time? Yes, everyone here wants Justice For Michael Brown, but what they’re really after is larger, vaguer, more systemic. They want accountability and transparency in the police force, but more than that it’s about much deeper and subtler things. Modern American racism is so ingrained that it becomes almost invisible at times. But in Ferguson, there’s a desire to take this tragedy and use it as an opportunity to shine light on the casual daily injustices that are so often ignored by the media.

When I get home, I begin to see reports on Twitter that reporters are ejected from their safe pen in the lot next to the McDonalds at gunpoint. Amnesty International is ejected from the scene at gunpoint. Accounts vary as to what happened next, but there are a number of arrests. I can’t get a straight answer about the National Guard’s involvement in any of this. I thought the curfew was lifted for tonight. Cynical me wonders if that was a trick. Is that even legal? Is any of this even legal? The half of me that wants to be involved hates that I wasn’t there. The half of me that likes being alive is relieved that I left when I did.

I’m headed out of Ferguson now with a lot of conflicted feelings. I want to blow off the rest of my tour and the rest of my obligations and stay here and help. I want to drive as far and as fast as I can from the cops decked out in full riot regalia. But I’m not conflicted about what’s happening here. Whether Michael Brown robbed a convenience store or not, he didn’t deserve to be shot and killed by those charged with serving and protecting him. No-one does. Period. Whether protesters threw things at the cops or not, they didn’t deserve to get tear gassed. The vast majority of people here want a peaceful demonstration. The press didn’t deserve to be ejected at gun point. The needlessly aggressive tactics by the police do nothing but inflame the very real tensions that have been simmering for decades. Ending the protests won’t make that anger and pain go away. Arresting a few troublemakers won’t fix the larger systemic problems. And I worry what this small suburban town, that so resembles my own, will look like if there’s an acquittal. Ferguson is a powder keg. The only question is whether it’s already started to blow, or whether these are just the tremors before it erupts.