One year ago, the St. Louis region burned in the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown. I was back in the area as a result of the turmoil in my own life, triggered by the implosion of a 14-year relationship which spurred me to leave my home and career in the Bay Area for a failed reboot in New York, and then decide to downshift and return to St. Louis to finish my book, Delusions of Grandeur.
Following is the excerpt from my book regarding the events of that night.
Over a hundred days passed since unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, and as the region braced for the grand jury’s decision on whether to indict Wilson, it became popular to speculate about the coming storm. The public was whipped into a frenzy by the media, particularly the false reports from local right wing blowhards like “The Arch City Pundit,” who circulated a fake list claiming the protesters planned to shut down the region’s hospitals.
I’m not scared of much. I’ve walked from San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin to the pre-gentrified Mission drunk, many times. I’ve wandered alone all over NYC at fifteen, back before Manhattan turned into Disneyland. I’ve strolled past ruins in Detroit. I’ve climbed through the pitch black basements of abandoned buildings and have been to the East St. Louis projects at two in the morning.
When something is perceived to be scary I often make a beeline to check it out. That’s also how I’ve made some great friends.
I wasn’t going to hide from protests. This was my city, and I wanted to see what was happening and talk to the people. My cosmopolitan friend Karen, a professor who divided her time between her hometown of St. Louis and her husband’s hometown of Milan, Italy, had been reading and offering feedback on this book. I invited her to join me in going up to meet the Ferguson demonstrators who’d been camped out along New Florissant Road around the clock for months.
It was a drizzly night, and we first went to dinner at the Ferguson Brewing Company, a microbrewery a few blocks from the encampment, and then drove up to find a group of about a dozen holding down the corner. Florence, a heavy Black woman in her sixties, sat on a cooler wearing a disposable poncho while commiserating with Dan, a white man also in his sixties, about eyesight problems, particularly when driving at night. Behind the cooler was a bottle of Orange Crush and a bucket of soup.
“Would you like some soup?” a young man offered.
We’d just pissed away a chunk of money on dinner and drinks, and it was humbling that this scrappy group of people, who were feared and vilified in the media, were offering to feed us.
“How does it feel to be the most feared group of people in the country right now?” I asked Florence and Ed, while a diverse cluster of twenty-somethings stood behind them.
“The media needs a villain,” Florence replied.
We then drove to Canfield Green, where Mike Brown was shot and a memorial was set up in the middle of the road. We passed boarded up businesses where artist Damon Davis plastered posters of raised hands, images that were being shown in galleries as far away as Boston.
The creativity coming out of the region was getting national and international attention. London’s Daily Mail marveled at the elegant protest of song that interrupted the St. Louis Symphony, with protesters singing “Which side are you on?” as banners demanding justice for Mike Brown unfurled from the balcony. Chalk outlines symbolizing unarmed black men shot by police, a concept created by St. Louis artist Mallory Nezam, had spread around the world. The cutting edge .Mic proclaimed, “Ferguson Now Has the Most Powerful Street Art in America” and the Ferguson Protesters were in the running for Time’s Person of the Year.
There was no bigger critic of the city than my estranged husband Damon, who was raised within a mile of Ferguson, and even he gave a nod. “There’s a lot of good work happening in St. Louis right now.”
On a Monday afternoon it was announced that the Grand Jury reached their verdict, and the announcement would be delivered at eight that evening.
Businesses around the region that hadn’t done so already boarded up their windows, especially in Ferguson and in Clayton, the county seat. Local governments and businesses closed early. My dog groomer and several others I knew fled for the countryside.
I knew I had to be in Ferguson.
I called John Aravosis to let him know I would cover the events for AMERICAblog, and then asked Karen, who was preparing to return to Milan, if she’d like to join me.
Hundreds of protesters shut down New Florissant Road through the heart of Ferguson while reporters from around the world mingled. Chants included, “We’ve got nothing to lose but our chains,” and, “Stop killing our kids.”
I sent photos to Aravosis, but he asked for video. My phone didn’t have enough memory, so I had to decide right then whether to delete hundreds of photos from the past year or two. Photos from the California coast, from my cross country trip, from my time in New York. All pictures symbolizing past lives and what I’d traded to be where I was standing.
I was near a beat up, graffiti covered car in the middle of the street that was serving as a stage for several protest leaders who stood in anticipation of the verdict. Quiet fell over the crowd as Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, climbed atop the car to stand with half a dozen others as the Prosecuting Attorney read his long, meandering statement, which was broadcast over loudspeakers. Before most of us heard it, she shook her head as tears rolled down her face.
“Defend himself from what? From what? Tell me that!” she yelled in response to the assertion that the officer acted in self-defense.
“That’s right, sista” said a soulful woman standing next to me. “We with you, baby. It’s ain’t over. It ain’t over.”
“Everyone wants me to be calm. Do you know how those bullets ripped through my son’s body? What they did to his body?” McSpadden continued as cameras clicked and flashed in the frigid night air.
“Ain’t no peace!. Ain’t no calm!” a woman in the crowd yelled in support. “He didn’t die in peace, there ain’t gone be no peace!”
“They wrong, they wrong!” McSpadden sobbed as she doubled over in grief.
“They don’t care about us! Fuck them!” someone yelled.
Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, then shouted, “Burn this bitch down!”
The video I took was on its way to 180,000 hits, and my social media was blowing up, mostly with people telling me to get out of there.
The crowd was restless and tense, bottles and other objects were thrown at the police, who were lined up in riot gear behind barricades. I reported to John Aravosis over the phone and when the crowd began to move, I told him I was leaving. I knew chaos would break out any minute.
From Karen’s apartment we monitored the situation on television and on our computers. Several buildings in the Ferguson area were burning, looting had begun, and the FAA diverted flights from Lambert St. Louis International Airport due to machine gun fire.
In the Shaw section of South City, protesters shut down Interstate 44, and a mile away on South Grand protests turned violent as numerous windows were smashed. Hours after the violence ended police heavily tear gassed the intersection of Grand and Arsenal, where many peaceful demonstrators and brand new 15th Ward Alderwoman Megan-Ellyia Green were taking sanctuary at MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse. With nowhere to go as the tear gas seeped in, patrons and demonstrators sought refuge in a sealed basement.
The issue of police brutality was front and center on the national conscious, with tragic cases in New York, Cleveland, and other places around the country, spurring massive demonstrations, and the epicenter of it all was the great awakening in St. Louis.
The night of the verdict, as I logged off, I made one final post, making sure the pearl clutchers didn’t misunderstand where I was coming from with my coverage of the fiery mayhem. Many were looking on in horror at the images on their screens, but while I’d prefer there to have been no arson and looting, I saw it as a mere forest fire. There are pinecones that only release their seeds in fire, and I knew there would be much sprouting from the charred and storied ground.
The moment was so powerful, there was no place on Earth more relevant that evening. The change happening here would transform the dysfunctional structure of St. Louis County and the ninety municipalities/ fiefdoms that stifled regional progress, but would also impact people around the world, as we’d see from subsequent protests.
I wrote: For the record: There’s no place I’d rather be right now. I don’t want a gentrified or suburban life. I’d rather live in a passionate city in flames.