By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – At noon on Saturday, August 9, Michael Brown, 18, and his friend, Dorian Johnson, crossed paths with Ferguson, Mo. Police Officer, Darren Wilson. By 12:04 p.m., Wilson had fatally shot Brown six times. His body was left out for hours as other officers responded to the scene.
The next evening, his family and community gathered at the site of his death for a vigil in his honor. After a while, they decided to march down West Florissant Ave. to a QuikTrip gas station/convenience store.
After that, the details of what is happening in Ferguson become murky, depending on the source.
“We are on a whole other level now, people don’t even know. Don’t believe what you’re seeing on mainstream TV. We are in a state of emergency here in Ferguson, so the government basically has the right to make the rules up as they go,” says Danie Rae, a St. Louis resident. Rae has been demonstrating on and off in Ferguson since the initial vigil.
On that day, she arrived just before sunset. Rae remembers officers were already in place in full riot gear, trying to constrain the peaceful crowd of about 2,000, by her estimate.
“The police were threatening the crowd, they wouldn’t let us move,” Rae says. “The city limit of Ferguson is Ferguson Ave. [at the intersection of West Florissant Ave.], and maybe they were trying to keep us from going into [neighboring] Jennings, is the only logic I can come up with. But who says we can’t demonstrate in Jennings?”
After nightfall, someone broke into the QuikTrip. Police grew more aggressive, directing the crowd to disperse. At this point, Rae attempted to return to her car to go home.
“When I got to my car, where the police barricade was, there were about 50 or 60 police cars blocking you in,” she says. “So you couldn’t get out.”
According to her, the police then began a methodic advance, with officers firing gas at the front, and armored, gas-masked officers bringing up the rear. No one was allowed to move in the opposite direction of police, even if that was their way home. Anyone caught between the two police groups, would be stuck in the acrid cloud.
Rae was one of those people stuck.
“[Tear gas] burns instantly. It burns your face, your eyes, and your throat when you breathe in,” she says. “You can’t get away because the cops are threatening you. There’s no choice but to go into the tear gas.”
By the end of that first night, 32 people were arrested (some for looting), two officers were injured, the QuikTrip was a charred hull, several stores in the area had been broken into, and West Florissant Ave. was strewn with debris. Starting the next morning, Monday August 11, demonstrations and gatherings resumed, most notably in front of the police department headquarters. The first day of school was postponed for the Ferguson-Florissant School District.
The schools would remain closed for the rest of the week as protests continued. Throughout the week, West Florissant Ave. in general, and the QuikTrip in particular, remained the central meeting point for demonstrations. Several blocks north, the Ferguson McDonald’s served as a relief point.
On Sunday, August, 17, Yaya Bey, an artist and teacher who lives in Alexandria, Va., and Erika Totten, a stay-at-home-mom and activist and former teacher in Washington, D.C., arrived in Ferguson. They had come with a group of three others from the D.C. metro area to help organize and agitate with Ferguson/St. Louis community leaders and social justice groups.
“When we were there, it was like a family reunion at the QuikTrip,” Bey says. “There were activities for the children, people giving away food, people asking people to register to vote…it was a really peaceful protest.”
After dark, she and Totten walked through the crowds to McDonald’s so Totten could call her mother.
“As we were on our way to McDonald’s we passed a line of police with sticks, and I walked up to one and asked, ‘What are the sticks for?’ He said, ‘To beat people.’”
Still, Totten says things at the McDonald’s were calm at that point. But around 8:30, well before the mandated midnight curfew, police attempted to disperse crowds by using force.
“This is when they say some looters smashed the windows, but…they were tear-gassing block by block,” Totten recalls. “People were so caught off guard and didn’t have anywhere to go. Someone just wanted to get in because they were choking.”
At this, she and Bey prepared themselves to leave the McDonald’s and return to the foggy streets to help the injured, “spraying them down” with a milk- or Maalox-and-water mixture said to relieve the burning.
“There were a lot of young people out there, a lot of people from the hood out there, willing to be on the front lines. Not only that, but they’re there without information…didn’t know anything about how to diffuse tear gas,” Bey says. “We ran into two kids, they were 15…[one] said, ‘I didn’t even plan to be here, I was on my way home and got trapped out here.’”
At some point, police began firing into the crowd. No one knew the bullets were rubber. People ran from the gunfire, some hiding in residential yards, garages, and sheds. In the melee, Bey was assaulted.
“I was running from gun shots…running for my life at the time. [Totten] was a few feet in front of me. A White man came in between us, and it took me a while to realize he was running toward me,” she says. “By the time I realized it was too late. He hit me in the face and told me to sit the f— down.”
She clarifies that he wasn’t an officer. Totten adds that there was a group of people down there “not down for the cause,” taking advantage of the chaos to stir trouble.
The following day, Monday the 18th, Bey and Totten attended a peaceful protest at the state building in downtown St. Louis, convened by the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS). It was also the event where 90-year-old Holocaust survivor and activist, Hedy Epstein was arrested. Totten says Epstein chose to lend herself to the front lines of this demonstration, in case police made arrests – which they did.
According to Totten, the OBS attempted to deliver a list of demands, which included: criminal charges against Officer Darren Wilson; the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson; an end to police brutality; and a more diverse police force reflective of the Ferguson community.
Later in the week, police raided St. Mark’s Missionary Church, which had been offering trainings for demonstrators, as well as food, supplies, and shelter for displaced people.
The core group of people protesting were mostly young, mostly Black but with a significant number of White people present, and mostly people from the area. There are also journalists and a handful of elected officials who have inserted themselves into the fray.
“There’s three categories of people,” says Rae. “People who maybe came out because they’ve been affected…they’re angry at how Mike Brown was killed and are sick of the treatment, but they don’t really see the full picture, the structure of racism.
“Then you have the people who are apathetic. It’s easier for them to just go about their day. Not that they don’t care, but they say things like, ‘Oh, we [Black people] are wrong, look at Black-on-Black crime.’ Then you have people like myself who are trying to organize and mobilize. We are the minority. That middle group is the majority.”
Homeowners in the neighborhoods branching off West Florissant Ave. have also been helping from the sidelines. Rae escaped on the first night because a homeowner welcomed her and a few others inside, and then drove Rae back to her car a bit later. Totten and Bey’s group slept at a “safe house” in the area, and were able to hide in yards during police action.
“What I’ve seen is people sitting on their porches telling us to keep fighting. When we had to run, we were able to go into their garages,” says Totten. “I’m proud of the people of Ferguson.”
Currently, school has begun but street blockades, traffic reroutes, and ID checkpoints continue. Rae says that people are still organizing, protesting, and trying to decide next steps; visiting activists and journalists are still in the area. Bey and Totten say they have connected with Ferguson and St. Louis groups, and will return to the area when more foot soldiers are needed to relieve those who need a break.
Trotten says, “I felt like I just came out of a war zone. I feel like I was in a different country. I couldn’t believe this was in the United States.”