Aug. 17 started out as a relatively normal Sunday for me, but would later turn into one I’ll never forget. It was the day I spent some time on the ground during the height of the protests taking place in Ferguson, Mo.
“Surreal” is the strongest word I can think of when asked about my experience there, but even that doesn’t seem like an adequate description.
It was no accident that I would end up walking down West Florissant Avenue that day. To be quite honest, I was (and still am) highly engrossed in the Ferguson situation, and though we don’t cover St. Louis news, I felt drawn to the scene, if for nothing else, to be able to speak freely about this historic event without feeling like an armchair analyst.
I wanted to get a real feel for what was taking place, so I could have some kind of reference point in my mind as to how I look at the entire picture. I think many would agree with me when I say that this was much bigger than just a single event. This was a combination of emotions, uncertainty and mass confusion that quickly reached a boiling point. The entire community has a lot to work on – both residents and law enforcement alike. I suspect a great deal of lessons were learned on both sides.
Perhaps Ferguson was a catalyst for future change, or so we can hope.
Anyway, on that Sunday, a trusted friend of mine, who was as curious as I was, gave me a call and asked if I’d like to take a trip to the area just to check out the scene. Up until that point, all we knew was what we saw on local and cable TV news networks. Like myself, he also wanted to be able to speak with a little more authority on the subject. Obviously, I agreed, and off to Ferguson we went.
Our primary destination was West Florissant Avenue, the site of previous nights of protesting and looting of local businesses. As we approached the epicenter of activity, the first thing we witnessed was a large, multi-jurisdiction police presence. There were dozens, if not hundreds of officers blocking the road to traffic for roughly a half-mile stretch. After we tried several routes of approach, we ended up driving to the end of Ferguson Avenue, which intersects with West Florissant. There was a blockade there, as well, but I decided to go ahead on foot and have my friend pick me up later.
My goal at that point was to reach the QuikTrip, snap some photos and shoot video, due to it acting as the rally point for protesters and media in the aftermath of the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.Rioters burned down this Ferguson, Mo., QuikTrip gas station on the first night of protests. It served as a rally point for protesters for several days until police later sealed it off. (Ryan Ledendecker photo)
As I made my way through a very large crowd of protesters and scattered media from what seemed like every organization on the planet, I immediately saw that most of the protesters were doing just that – protesting. That’s OK, as the right to protest is contained in both the freedom of speech and freedom to assemble parts of the Constitution. What stunned America, and the rest of the world, is when splinter groups of agitators, a majority of whom were not Ferguson residents, turned the situation sour as night fell and begin looting local businesses. I point that out because, truly, 95 percent of the people on the streets were holding homemade signs and expressing their feelings in a peaceful manner and doing what they are allowed to do.
I never really felt threatened during my entire walk down to the QuikTrip station and back.
I saw plenty of positive interactions between protesters and police. I also witnessed several police officers talking to young children and smiling. I also saw protesters yelling at other protesters, local community leaders wearing “peacekeeper” shirts in an effort to keep the peace between police and protesters.
When I did finally arrive at the QuikTrip, which turned out to be the last day it was open before police fenced it off, there were volunteers handing out food and water to protesters, media and police. There were a lot of folks legitimately trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Unfortunately, that would be overlooked thanks to the bad apples who decided violence was the best answer.
I believe it’s very important, no matter what side you’re on, to know that what you saw on TV in 24-hour cycles was mostly the bad — looting, tear gas and smoke grenades. Why? Because it’s hot news. Local and cable news ratings from last week skyrocketed during the live shots of police versus protesters. So, of course they’re going to show it whenever they can – that’s how the business works. You have to understand and know that, most unfortunately, good news doesn’t do well in the ratings department.
To say my experience on the ground in Ferguson was unforgettable would be a huge understatement. There was a lot of energy there that day, both good and bad, and to experience it firsthand was pretty intense. This was an historic event, and I’m certainly glad I was able to see it with my own eyes.
Have friends and family called me crazy? Sure, but given the chance, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.