Ferguson, Missouri. It’s been all over the news the past couple of weeks and for good reasons. It’s an extremely complex situation that cannot be easily reduced to a single headline or soundbite despite everyone attempting to do so. The roots of many of the issues on both sides run so deep that it is nearly impossible to truly understand it.
The job of a Photojournalist is to be the eyes of history. To explore and explain stories through compelling images. Photojournalists have the ability to convey a story that even the best writers can only attempt to do. This goes to the old saying that a photograph is worth a thousand words but I like to believe a good photograph is worth a thousand words, in a thousand languages. This is because raw visual emotion does not need to be translated.
This is why I wanted to go to Ferguson myself. I want to visually tell the story of what was going on. I had originally made the decision on Thursday the 14th to waited and see how things transpired over night and make the final decision Friday morning. That was the one night of peace in the middle of days of chaos. I eventually made the decision to go the following Monday. I made some calls to rearrange some prior commitments and started the 13 hour drive from the DC metro area to St. Louis that afternoon. I arrived in St. Louis at 4:30 am local time and met up with a colleague at her hotel room for a few hours of sleep before heading out. I wouldn’t return to my home until after Michael Browns funeral on Monday the 25th.
What follows in this post will mostly be my personal experiences and observations while in Ferguson. I’m going to be breaking things into sections so I can more easily and clearly address each topic.
Tuesday, August 19th, 2014: Battle of the Opportunists
Tuesday night was the first night I was in Ferguson. I had come prepared for tense conflict based on reports of prior nights. It was the first time I had the need to use my old flak jacket from the Marines and I never thought I would need it in the States. As I was gearing up in the Target parking lot up the hill from the protest sites it really started to hit me what was going on. After putting a strip of duct tape with PRESS scribbled on the front I strapped on my cameras and headed down. As I walked down West Florissant Ave. to the designated protest area I passed Missouri National Guardsmen blocking entrances to the Target parking lot where the larger press area and and Police Command Centers were located. At the bottom of the hill I came to the intersection of West Florissant Ave. and Ferguson Ave. which had been designated by Police as the Designated Protest Area. Some say restricting protests to a single area was a violation of the 1st Amendment but it was legal under the State of Emergency imposed by the Missouri Governor.
That is where I first encountered the demonstrators and Police. The road had been sectioned off by Officers and groups of protestors were marching up and down the block with signs and chanting various things like “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” and “No Justice! No Peace!”. It was hot and humid and while things seemed energetic and loud, they were peaceful.
As the night progressed things stayed pretty calm even when it got to around the time things had reached the boiling point in prior nights. Eventually people began to tire out in the heat and started sitting in front of shops and in the parking lots to rest and drink water. Police did not like this because technically large groups of people staying in one place needed a permit or else it became an unlawful assembly. To bypass this technicality the demonstrators needed to keep moving. To help facilitate this, the Police began to form a line stretching across the street and parking lots and marched forward, ordering people to keep moving.
It was at this point where I equated the situation to being similar to, when growing up, poking at your siblings and annoying them until they lashed out but they were the ones to get in trouble. Everything was peaceful until this moment. This is when things began to escalate. This is also where the title of this section, Battle of the Opportunists, comes into play. This night the media probably equaled the demonstrators in numbers. When speaking with many of the demonstrators it was difficult to identify who was actually from Ferguson. This was a problem starting a few days after the the death of Michael Brown. Individuals and groups from around the area and country came to Ferguson not with the intention to stand with the family and residents of Ferguson but to simply confront Police. As the crowd of demonstrators grew, these antagonizers were able to incite the situation and then disappear into the crowd which made it difficult for Police to deal with them and forced them to deal with the larger crowd instead.
The next group of Opportunists was amongst the Media themselves. You can dub some of them as Bullet Chasers or activists disguised as journalists. Some might even classify the entire Media, even myself, as Opportunists because at times the Media can be seen as vultures sweeping in only at the peak of situations and then leaving dust in their wake. I don’t believe this because true Journalism digs deep and exposes what normally lies in the shadows.
There were also Opportunists amongst the Police. While many of them had no choice whether or not they were there, some saw it as an opportunity to scratch their itchy trigger finger and exhort their need for power.
All of these of Opportunists were pivotal in how the night unfolded. They all worked off each other. Protestors intermingled with the Media, Media intermingled with the protestors, Media mixed with the Police. The presence of all three pushed each other to do things they normally wouldn’t as well as held their actions in check.
As the night went on people began to become more agitated on both sides. You could tell certain Officers were on a razors edge, not because they wanted a fight but because they were scared. Protestors were getting fed up with being herded around like sheep. Eventually a few minor incidents happened like water bottles being thrown and arrests being made. I witnessed a photographer with the Anadolu Agency being arrested because he was half turned to the Police line taking a photo and he was caught in a surge forward. The groups of protestors and media eventually became so mixed that the police were unable to separate the groups. Despite orders for media to go into the designated Media Area and the protestors to disperse. Nether wanted to do it because they knew what would happen. They stayed together for safety. I had a very strong feeling that if the Media wasn’t there then the protestors, even the peaceful ones, would have been gassed.
Something interesting that I did witness that night was somewhat of an evolution to what I had heard about from the previous nights. Both the protestors and the Police realized that it was a small minority amongst the protestors that were actually the antagonizers. I witnessed both the protestors and the Police try to isolate and deal with them. At times strings of protestors would form a line between the groups with their backs to the Police and plead for calm amongst the crowd. The Police used SWAT teams to identify single targets amongst the crowd of Media and protestors and then execute tactical extractions of those individuals.
The Stories All Line Up
Now I’m going to talk about the shooting itself. I’m not going to pass judgement on anyone because it is not my place to do so. Right now it’s still a “He said. She said.” situation but one thing I’ve come to understand that among the majority of reports from eye witnesses and Police is that the basic stories line up. What it really comes down to is the motivations and intentions of either side.
The order of events that line up are:
- Michael Brown and his friend were walking back from the Quick Trip convenience store along Canfield Dr. in Ferguson. It is agreed that they were walking in the road.
- Officer Wilson came upon the two and spoke to them about walking on the sidewalk rather than the road and Michael Brown responds to Officer Wilson. (Both sides disagree whether who was overly aggressive in the conversation. One side says Officer Wilson was out of line, the other says Michael Brown was.)
- Officer Wilson then stopped next to them and attempted to open his door. (One side says the car was so close to Michael Brown that it bounced off him and closed. The other side says he slammed the door closed on Officer Wilson.)
- There was a struggle in the vehicle through the window. (One side says Michael Brown reached through the window and attempted to take Officer Wilson’s gun. The other side says Officer Wilson reached out and tried to aggressively pull Michael Brown through the window.)
- Michael Brown then got away from Officer Wilson in the car and attempted to flee and Officer Wilson fired shots at him. After the first shots we know Michael Brown turned toward Officer Wilson. (One side says Michael Brown turned with his hands in the air saying “Don’t Shoot.” The other side says he charged back at Officer Wilson.)
- More shots were fired after Michael Brown turned towards Officer Wilson. 10 shots in total were fired with 6 striking Michael Brown along the right side of his body and head.
I want to emphasize how important intentions were to all of these situations and until things are clearer, we cannot make a definitive judgement on who was at fault. We also have to remember that hindsight is always 20/20. Both parties need to be given the benefit of the doubt because both were in extremely stressful situations. Both can claim they were in fear for their lives and that can drastically affect anyones decisions in the heat of the moment. It all depends on who was the aggressor and that may always be in the eye of the beholder.
Two Thirds of the Population, Near Zero Representation
Ferguson is a suburb of St. Louis with a population of 20,000 people. Two Thirds of the residents are black but five out of the six council members are white. The Mayor is white and the vast majority of the Police Department is white. The only true explanation for this is simply the lack of people turing out to vote in the local elections. This is a common problem of localities that hold their election in years between Presidential Elections. During the last Presidential Election voter turnout in Ferguson is over 70% but in last elections of local officials voter turnout was 12%.
Community activism also seemed to be much lower among the black residents than the white. When I attended the first public community meeting to discuss how to address issues among the community in the wake of the unrest there were over 100 people in attendance but I counted only 17 black people by the time I left more than halfway through the meeting. Much of what the white residents said when they spoke was obviously well intentioned but simply uninformed. They had no idea how to really address some of the problems that were deeply rooted in their community but that is what happens when the groups don’t mix. Parts of Ferguson were very nice but the neighborhood where Michael Brown was shot was a pocket of poverty in the middle of it all. Voter turnout is the key to making Democracy work. If people don’t vote then they are not properly represented. This is why any movement to restrict the amount of time people have to vote is a move against Democracy. Reduction of voting times and early voting opportunities adversely affects those of the lower economic class because they are the ones that cannot afford to take time off from work to vote. When someone making $10 an hour or less has to miss a few hours of work to vote that $20-$30 can be what feeds their family for a day.
What I saw towards the end of my time in the area was a big push to get people out to vote. There were tables at the protest areas where people could register to vote. Speakers constantly voiced the need for people to vote. Residents of Ferguson began to realize that the true way for them to enact change was to vote for it.
Application of Force
During my time in the Marines we understood that in many situations our mere presence escalated the situation. This seemed to be lost to the Ferguson Police Department during the demonstrations in the first few days after Michael Browns death. The first few days after his death had a few small groups of local residents voicing their frustrations but they were met with Police in riot gear and Police Dogs. This drastically escalated the situation in the days to come.
Now I want to make it clear that I am not criticizing the average Officer but the ones making the decisions to what is deployed where and how. The men and women on the street are the ones facing the dangers day in and out and have the weight of making split second decisions on their shoulders.
There is not an absolute problem with distributing surplus military grade equipment to Police Departments because there can be legitimate needs for some of them. The problem is when departments that don’t really need things like Mine Resistant Vehicles, military fatigues, and high powered assault rifles suddenly have them they look for reasons to use them. SWAT raids have increased over 1,400 percent since the 1980′s. Looking for reasons to use something that you now have happens all the time in every profession. When I buy a new camera I look for new reasons to use that camera in order to justify the acquisition, even if I could have done it with old equipment. Rampant uses of SWAT in situations like Ferguson is like using a sledge hammer to put push pins into a wall. All of SWAT training revolves around quick explosive uses of force to subdue highly dangerous criminals in unique situations. They are not equipped or trained for crowd control. It’s similar to how the Marine Crops is an assault force, not a police force.
Eventually the Police changed tactics with the SWAT and for most of the night on Tuesday and the following nights they were used as a Quick Reaction Force, or QRF. The purpose of a QRF, which has roots in military tactics, is to have a force held in reserve that can quickly be applied to points of weakness and where they are most needed. On Tuesday night and the nights that followed there was a limited visual SWAT presence in the protest areas but that did not mean they were not there. They had three teams staged at different positions. One on either end of the protest block, out of site, and a third located in the middle that was more visible. I was describing this set up to another reporter I had spent time with on Wednesday night and without even seeing the team during the conversation I pointed out their probable location on the other side of the bridge on the north end of the protest area on West Florissant. We then verified it when we drove out of the area that night that the QRF was exactly where I expected them to be.
Fog of War
War is chaos and the most perfect plan never survives the first encounter with the enemy. The same applies to large protests and riots. Much of what goes on in these situations can only be described as near chaos. Everyone is riding the razors edge going 100 miles per hour and a small correction can throw the situation over either side.
This was a big issue for the Police. I’m not sure how many different departments were there but I counted at least five. The St. Louis region differs from many regions because of how many Police departments there are. They have State Troopers, County Police, St. Louis City Police, and each town or city has their own Police department and they rarely ever work together. Speaking with some of the Officers on the scene I learned for that some of them who had been with their respective department for over 20 years, this was the first time they had ever seen all the departments come together for anything. This led to issues with communication and threw the Chain of Command for Officers on the ground into a spin.
For example, at the end of Tuesday night the Police had corralled all the media and protestors into a very small area at the south end of West Florissant. We had a high chain link fence to one side and lines of Officers on all others. The line to the front was holding position but the lines to the left and right were both pushing the crowd away from them and into the opposite line. We had no where to go. Eventually I yelled to one of the Officers at the end of the line I was closest to the situation and she looked confused. She had to call over a supervisor to clarify what was going on and shortly after they opened that spot for people to leave.
This moment taught me that a good portion of the Officers actions that night could be attributed to simply a lack of communication and confusion. It is a situation that the various departments are probably trying to resolve now and if they aren’t, they should.
Don’t Judge the Actions of the Many by the Actions of the Few
A lesson I learned in Iraq that has stuck with me since is that the vast majority of Iraqi citizens were good people simply wanted to live their lives and raise their families. The same can be said nearly everywhere you go. I went into Ferguson with this in mind and this is what I experienced. Every group has their bad apples and the larger the group the more bad apples you experience. The problem is the bad apples are the ones that get talked about and in turn, that is who people base their impressions on. For example, say you are buying a car and want to do some research for it. You go online to owners forums and immediately you are flooded with horror stories about the car. Everyone on there seems to be complaining about one issue or another but in reality they are a small minority. I mean who would take the time to go online and post about their car if they were having no issues at all?
The same is true with everything that was going on in Ferguson. The bad apples amongst the Police and antagonizers mixed in with the protestors were the ones who got the most coverage. I didn’t want to fall into this trap. My four favorite images from the St. Louis area came from when I was scouting out the location of Michael Browns funeral the day before with a reporter and another photographer I was working with. We turned a corner behind the church and found groups of children playing in water spewing from opened fire hydrants. They were simply having fun and trying to escape the oppressive heat despite everything going on in their community.
If you’ve reached the end of this, thank you for taking the time to read it. Going to Ferguson has made a life long impression on me. I will never forget the things I witnessed or the people I met. Keep scrolling down if you would like to see more images from my time there.