Unrest in Ferguson: a photolog

I spent the week surrounding the indictment decision of Darren Wilson on the streets of Ferguson and South St. Louis following protesters as they moved across the city. This photolog spans a 15 hour period starting on the afternoon of  Monday, November 24th and extends well into the following morning. I currently have an article in the December 15th print issue of This Land titled “Letter from Ferguson” that looks at this night in detail, from peaceful protest to police escalation and eventual riots, I found myself in the middle of some of the most contentious actions between police and protesters in various neighborhoods around St. Louis. These pictures are meant to add some depth to this article by showing the people, the neighborhoods and the protests as I saw them that night.

– derek dyson

Mail boxes within a two block radius of the courthouse in Clayton, MO were sealed to prevent the threat of explosive devices being left inside.

Mail boxes within a two block radius of the courthouse in Clayton, MO were sealed to prevent the threat of explosive devices being left inside.

Protestors await the grand jury decision in front of the Ferguson Police Department on South Florissant Road.

Protestors await the grand jury decision in front of the Ferguson Police Department on South Florissant Road.

Police line up in full riot gear in front of the Ferguson Police Department

Police line up in full riot gear in front of the Ferguson Police Department

"Anonymous" present on the S. Florissant. This loosely knit group of internet activists have been influential in social movements all over the world. They garnered major media attention when the released pictures, names and addresses of local KKK members who had made death threats against Ferguson protesters.

“Anonymous” present on the S. Florissant. This loosely knit group of internet activists have been influential in social movements all over the world. They garnered major media attention when the released pictures, names and addresses of local KKK members who had made death threats against Ferguson protesters.

As the prosecutor began to hand down the indictment decision in Clayton, MO those of us in Ferguson huddled around cars and cell phones to listen.

As the prosecutor began to hand down the indictment decision in Clayton, MO those of us in Ferguson huddled around cars and cell phones to listen.

Protesters wait for the grand jury decision in front of the Ferguson Police Department.

Protesters wait for the grand jury decision in front of the Ferguson Police Department.

A police line forms at the south end of Florissant nearly an hour after the grand jury decision is handed down. Behind them sets two armored vehicles with spot lights shining on protesters. This was the first action by law enforcement that stirred protesters who felt they were being "flanked" or "boxed in".

A police line forms at the south end of Florissant nearly an hour after the grand jury decision is handed down. Behind them sets two armored vehicles with spot lights shining on protesters. This was the first action by law enforcement that stirred protesters who felt they were being “flanked” or “boxed in”.

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Same police line, different angle.

More than an hour after the decision was handed down militarized police units tried flanking protesters on the south end of Florissant. This lead to a surge of people meeting that line in defiance, pushing the police line back slightly. This left a lone cruiser in the midst of us. A handful of young men tried to flip the car, leading to the tear gassing of protesters and subsequent destruction of property shortly after.

This new police line lead to a surge of protesters meeting that line in defiance, pushing the back slightly and leaving a lone cruiser in the midst of those of us on the civilian side of the police line. A handful of young men tried to flip the car, leading to the tear gassing of protesters and subsequent destruction of property shortly after.

Seconds after the first rounds of tear gas and flash bangs were deployed into the crowd.

Seconds after the first rounds of tear gas and flash bangs were deployed into the crowd.

After fleeing north from the first round of tear gas a few incited protesters began breaking windows, looting stores and setting fires.

After fleeing north from the first round of tear gas a few incited protesters began breaking windows, looting stores and setting fires.

The police cruiser that was almost flipped by protesters would later be set on fire when the riot police line advanced on protesters leaving it again unattended and vulnerable to vandalism.

The police cruiser that was almost flipped by protesters would later be set on fire when the riot police line advanced on protesters leaving it again unattended and vulnerable to vandalism.

A young women stands in front of a burning police car in the "hands up" pose reminiscent of the last seconds of Michael Browns life as described by eye-witnesses.

A young women stands in front of a burning police car in the “hands up” pose reminiscent of the last seconds of Michael Browns life as described by eye-witnesses.

Riot police stand guard as their partners detain a young white male suspected of setting two police cruisers on fire minutes before.

Riot police stand guard as their partners detain a young white male suspected of setting two police cruisers on fire minutes before.

Shaw protests on Grand in south St. Louis shortly after 11pm. Relatively peaceful at this point with very little police presence. 15 minutes after this photo was taken, myself and some 200 Shaw protesters were tear gassed by armored vehicles after a plain uniformed officer was assaulted.

Shaw protests on Grand in south St. Louis shortly after 11pm. Relatively peaceful at this point with very little police presence. 15 minutes after this photo was taken, myself and some 200 Shaw protesters were tear gassed by armored vehicles after a plain uniformed officer was assaulted.

The officer in the yellow jacket will eventually be walled off from his partners by protesters. He was pushed twice before armored vehicles deployed tear gas into the crowd.

The officer in the yellow jacket will eventually be walled off from his partners by protesters. He was pushed twice before armored vehicles deployed tear gas into the crowd.

Shaw protesters flee into surrounding neighborhoods in an attempt to escape the gas. As we ran the armored vehicles deployed gas and flash bangs into the residential areas we had ran to for refuge. Homeowners on the street I ended up brought out bottled water and towels to aid people gagging in the street.

Shaw protesters flee into surrounding neighborhoods in an attempt to escape the gas. As we ran the armored vehicles deployed gas and flash bangs into the residential areas we had ran to for refuge. Homeowners on the street I ended up brought out bottled water and towels to aid people gagging in the street.

50 Hours of Peace: what I saw in Ferguson.

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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.

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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.

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All pictures owned via copyright by Derek Dyson and Project Freethought.

 

Death and Justice in a State of Decay.

 by: derek dyson 

Oklahoma and it’s predisposition for capital punishment have recently come under scrutiny after a series of events spanning the State Supreme Court, a stay of execution, a Governor’s veto, and eventually the injection of an untested drug cocktail lead to the prolonged and seemingly excruciating death of a convicted murderer. While the specifics of this case will undoubtedly have Constitutional ramifications on how a state can administer the death penalty while staying in compliance with the 8th Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, in the paragraphs below I will be dealing solely with the moral question at hand. If a society places human life at the top of its moral hierarchy, can a state purposefully end a life as a means of social control and still be considered just?

The oldest and most common argument for capital punishment is it’s use as a deterrent. The line of thinking goes that any given human will value his or her own life to the degree that the fear of losing that life in retribution of a crime committed will prevent them from committing said crime. Although there are centuries of statistical data that refute this assumption, for the purpose of this argument I am going to focus solely on the flawed reasoning at the heart of this theory.

If the primary rationale for capital punishment is as a deterrent, it’s reasonable to assume that displaying death as a public spectacle is the most effective way to maximize its potential. The more people exposed to the horrors of the hangmans noose, the more people dissuaded from committing crime. This was the norm for most of human existence and early on it may have been effective to some degree, but as humanity progressed so did our collective moral compass. Public executions slowly came to be considered inhuman for a civilized society and are now unheard of in the West. Today executions (in what few Industrialized Nations still allow them) are carried out in closed rooms, viewed only by small groups consisting of family members, legal representatives, government officials etc. This is because modern executions are no longer a viable deterrent, but instead act as a simple act of revenge carried out by the state in an attempt to right a wrong in the hearts and minds of a select few. Revenge is merely an emotion, a violent natural instinct, and the antithesis of modern laws which lay their foundations in reason above all else. By in large the propensity of vengeance is not considered a positive attribute, but even if we were to relegate some moral capital to vengeance, it would never outweigh the virtue placed on human life itself. This means that a widows quest to avenge the murder of her husband cannot justly end with another act of killing. It may have taken us thousands of years to get to this point, but eventually the Bronze Aged idea of an “eye for an eye” gave way to a more compassionate, more egalitarian “turn the other cheek” mantra. Ironically, those who believe most deeply in one of the original sources of that mantra also tend to support the death penalty.

The next issue focuses on the premium that we as a society place on human life. If we collectively hold human life sacrosanct, reserving our most strict punishments for those who deprive a fellow man of that right, how then can we justify allowing the state to freely commit this most heinous of crimes against humanity and do so in our name? States have throughout history been governed by flawed men with a predisposition to corruption, greed and injustice. Are we somehow expected to blindly trust these men to be flawless in their rationale, in their prejudice, in their constitution when considering this most important of issues…who lives and who dies? What reasonable person would willingly put this decision in the hands of the state? Under what moral authority is the state suddenly immune to guilt if it were to take the life of a citizen?

If we are to accept human life as the most supreme of the rights of man, then no man can justly deprive another of this right. If we accept this notion, the only person that can justly end a human life, is a person that ends his or her own. No state, no vengeful party, no wronged neighbor and no aggressor can justly end a mans life. This leaves us with only one acceptable option as punishment for heinous crimes. Confinement of guilty parties is both humane and effective. Indefinite imprisonment for the most serious offenders acts as a deterrent to crime, provides the endless possibility of justice for those who may have been wrongly accused and most importantly, preserves the most basic of rights, the right to life, to even our most wicked of citizens if they are indeed guilty. This right is not dependent on class or color or past aggression. It is inalienable.

Simply put, the state has no more right to end a life than an individual actor has. Either may choose to do so, but it is impossible to do so justly. This philosophical outlook has nothing to do with constitutional law or real world statistics that may or may not refute the use of capital punishment as an applicable response to crime. It only assumes that the preservation of all human life is paramount. Any argument for capital punishment must make the same assumption but it will fail miserably in it’s application. While it’s possible that public executions were an effective form of social control in early human history, this possibility was quickly vanquished by our post-Enlightenment sensibilities. If no longer a viable form of social control, capital punishment is reduced to pure vengeance, which by definition is unjust if it leads to the taking of another mans life.

This line of thinking is largely a simplified synopsis of 20th century French Philosopher Albert Camus’ treatise titled Reflections on the Guillotine in which he lays out his case against capital punishment in post World-War I France. Despite his best efforts, the last French execution by guillotine was in 1977. Capital punishment was abolished under French Law in 1981. Although the political and social climate of postwar France in Camus’ time is by no means identical to that of modern day America, his philosophy on the death penalty and justice still stands.

In a time of partisan divides, rogue Governors and undermined Supreme Courts; all residing in a State where the “value of human life” is an impassioned Right-Wing battle-cry in one instance, then ignored in a complete lapse of reason in the next, we as a society must fight against this moral hypocrisy with our dying breath. If for nothing else, to ensure that that final breath can be drawn freely by all men equally. Free of gurneys. Free of experimental drug cocktails. Free of governments that will take a life before considering the possibility of saving one.