by: derek dyson
Early Thursday morning I found myself glued to the live streams coming from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the shooting death of 18 year old Michael Brown at the hand of a local police officer. As I watched militarized police units reign down on protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, I was shook to the core. I became physically sick to my stomach and unable to sleep. By 4am I gave up on trying to sleep and instead loaded up my car and embarked on the six hour trek from Tulsa to this now infamous St. Louis suburb. As I drove, scanning the radio between a few college run NPR stations and the Right Wing radio talk shows that seem to dominate the area, I imagined what it was going to be like on the streets of Ferguson. I pictured militant protesters clashing with with police in riot gear. Barricades and the beginnings of martial law. Essentially I assumed the worst. In reality, that assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth.
On the surface Ferguson is not unlike any other American suburb. Red brick houses with manicured lawns, strip malls, a quaint downtown district full of locally owned bars, restaurants and boutique shops. I couldn’t help but think that this could be the town I grew up in and this idea only solidified as the day went on. Across from the police station stood a diverse group of protesters holding signs and handing out food and water while they periodically chanted “hands up, don’t shoot”, a line reminiscent of eye-witness accounts depicting the last seconds of Michael Brown’s life. There were children playing tag, twenty-to-thirty somethings discussing Syria and Palestine, grandmothers picking up trash and handing out informative flyers. Every age, race and socioeconomic background was present. Not only were they present, but they were actively coming together as a community and literally embracing each other on sidewalks that only hours before were teeming with police officers dressed as if they were in a war zone.
Less than a mile away was a similar situation, but the backdrop was a bit more ominous. A burnt out gas station lingered behind large crowds on either side of the street. The atmosphere was visibly charged, but the sentiment the same. An elderly man’s placard seemed astonishingly poignant. “Fighting For Justice…Not Just Us”. By chance I caught his eye’s from behind my lens and I was struck with the feeling that he had probably seen all of this before. The lump in my throat a testament to how far removed I have been from this situation and those like it. The pain and disgust, the fear, at this point all seemed foreign to me. Like I’ve never really felt it. Two blocks away sat a makeshift memorial in the middle of the street. Flowers and teddy bears scattered across the blood stained pavement where a teenage boy took his last breath. A vivid reminder of why these streets are, and have been for a week now, lined with outraged citizens, concerned bystanders and journalists from Al-Jazeera to Univison.
For the first hour I paced back and forth through the crowds on either side of Florissant Avenue trying to take it all in. I had participated in protests during Occupy and in college staged a protest at a local religious University that had been meddling in local politics back home, but I had never been around anything like this. I know I was originally drawn here by this fact, but it soon became obvious that this was not the Ferguson I had seen on the news. It was a far cry from the live stream I had watched the night before, all but forcing me to go see it for myself. Where were the militant youth that had supposedly hurled molotov cocktails at police? Where were the tanks? The riot shields? What had changed? As it turns out, on this day everything had changed.
Early Thursday morning Missouri Governor Jay Nixon had recused local law enforcement of their role in crowd control, putting an African-American State Trooper in charge. This was a man that had grown up in this very neighborhood and it showed. By all accounts the mood on Florissant had spun 180 degrees. There were no longer snipers perched on tanks. To the contrary, there were only a handful of officers in sight. At most I counted 5 black officers from various law enforcement agencies all in their day-to-day uniforms intermingling with those in the crowd. Hugging protesters. Spending hours shaking hands and answering questions from any and all that approached them. It was beautiful. A crowd that only hours before had been dispersed by means of rubber bullets and tear gas was now completely in control of the situation. The officers were mere bystanders as if their only role was that of support. They were just another face in the crowd.
Live broadcasts from the scene consisted of journalist after journalist praising the move by the governor and praising Captain Johnson. While I was instantly a fan of Johnson and his demeanor towards the crowd, to me the praise seemed forced. Misaligned even. It seemed fairly obvious who was keeping order in this massive crowd of people. It wasn’t law enforcement and it certainly wasn’t the governor. These streets were controlled, from the protesters to the traffic, by the passionate people of this community. College students, local leaders, political activists all took control of the situation and made every effort to ensure a peaceful protest. Essentially, the people were proving that local law enforcement were not needed on the scene at all. Not only were they not needed, but it was starting to look like they might have been at least part of the reason for disorder in the first place. This was the sentiment of nearly everyone I spoke with throughout the day. Something was different, and that something was the lack of police presence.
As the sun set Thursday night the protest shifted into what could accurately be described as a street party. Thousands lined the sidewalks chanting, clapping, celebrating as cars passed with their horns blaring. This lasted well into Friday morning and if you were to have asked me at the time I would have said the violence was likely over. The community had suffered enormously, yes, but maybe allowing this community to control their own destiny was just the kind of healing they needed. Maybe treating people as equals as opposed to criminals was the key. Or maybe just removing a militarized force of officers was what turned the tide. Either way, what happened on Thursday was a rare glimpse of humanity that everyone in this country needed to see and I’m honored to have been a part of it, if only for a short time.
Sadly, sometime after midnight on Saturday morning the party was over. A handful of militant youth were said to have broken in and set fire to a convenient store that was the alleged scene of a video that earlier in the day Ferguson police had released (against the wishes of the Department of Justice) depicting Michael Brown presumably stealing cigars minutes before he was shot. I’ll admit that I can’t speak to that video or how the citizens of Ferguson responded to it. I can’t speak to the motives of the few young people who turned to violence Saturday morning or to how the State Troopers handled the situation. I can’t speak to these things because I was no longer there. What I can speak to is what I witnessed on Thursday night. Masked youth taking orders from leaders of the National Black Panther movement in a pure show of respect. Local church leaders directing congested traffic that could rival that of Times Square. Young college students handing out food and water to their peers and playing with children as their parents looked on without fear. Cars full of people driving up and down that road in righteous jubilee. That night I saw a thousand people in mourning turn a street plagued with violence on one day into a celebration the next. This wasn’t the work of the local police. This wasn’t the work of politicians or presidents. And although he played an important role, this wasn’t the work of Captain Johnson. No, this was a celebration for and by the people of Ferguson and no one was going to take that away from them. The world knows they deserved every minute of it.
All pictures owned via copyright by Derek Dyson and Project Freethought.