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Tough Talk

The Front Lines of Ferguson

The death of Michael Brown and 48 hours at the center of an American crisis in Ferguson, Missouri

I don’t know what made me buy a plane ticket to St. Louis at 1:15 a.m. on Tuesday.

Maybe it was remembering that feeling of helplessness and guilt after learning of the Trayvon Martin verdict while embarking on a carefree cross-country road trip. Maybe it was Eric Garner, who died only weeks ago in New York, after a police officer wrestled him to the ground and choked him. Maybe it was going to the south side of Chicago last month, stepping into Trinity United Church of Christ, made famous by the union of Barack Obama and now–pastor emeritus Jeremiah Wright in 2008. Maybe it was hearing the church’s announcements about the shooting and murder of kids from its congregation that I’d later read about in the news that evening.

But perhaps it was just me. A black boy turned black man who finds it increasingly miraculous that I made it to 27. A black man with a black mother who was alive in the South for the final push of Jim Crow. And a black man with a black mother with black parents who would have done anything so that their children and grandchildren wouldn’t have to live a life in fear of the dogs. And the hoses. And the bombs.

Either way, learning that an 18-year-old named Michael Brown had been shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and left in the street to die, pushed me to a breaking point.

It felt like I had to come to Ferguson. Not as a journalist, but as a black man fed up with the idea of black boys who are unable to become black men.

I knew I couldn’t tell my mom. She’d be proud I was here, but it would also worry her to no end. And it would be unnecessary worry. Because I’d be fine.

“Be careful out there — it’s a war zone.”

Stephanie at the Holiday Inn Express looked up and said this to me as I told her I was taking a cab to Ferguson on Tuesday afternoon.

After hours of trying and failing to locate the next pop-up protest in St. Louis proper, I found myself just outside Ferguson, at the Greater St. Mark Family Church.

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My phone was telling me an ominous story about what was happening just a few miles away:

But inside the church, away from the tension gathering outside, the tone was upbeat and positive, like a temporary cease-fire. The mood turned somber when Brown’s family arrived, and much of the joy in the room gave way to pain.

Leaders from the community and afar — the church’s pastor, as well as people like Akbar Muhammad of the Nation of Islam and Reverend Al Sharpton — took turns addressing the crowd. The messages vacillated between what the people wanted to hear and what they needed to hear. But one thing was consistent: advising, pleading with, and begging the community not to turn to violence once they left through the church doors. Not to repeat the rioting and looting of Saturday night. One of Michael Brown’s cousins addressed the congregation, and while justice for his family member was at the forefront of his speech, his purpose was also to remind those in attendance that if they needed a reason to remain peaceful, they should do so for Brown’s family.

As I looked through the stained-glass windows while the speeches and sermons continued, day turned to night. This was the time of worry. This was when “peaceful protest” could become a subjective term.

With the service still pushing on, a crowd of more than 100 had trickled out of the church onto its front lawn. The “hands up, don’t shoot” chant — an allusion to what witnesses said were Brown’s last action and words — could be heard, loud and unified. I could feel the shared anger among the congregation’s members, united by the wrongdoings of their police department.

But eventually, different factions with different agendas formed.

“Don’t shoot”

“Shoot back.”

“Black power.”

“Fuck the police.”

“Fuck that, we don’t shoot back. We don’t shoot shit. Don’t y’all listen to that rhetoric.”

“Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”

“Hands up, don’t shoot.”

“We been protesting for 400 years, shoot the fuck back.”

“We don’t need to be fighting each other.”

The history of being black in America is the history of nonviolence versus “fight back.” Of wait versus now. Of a turned cheek versus self-defense. Suddenly, this was becoming the latest chapter in black America’s “what next?” history. And on the steps outside of the church, each group had its Martin and its Malcolm. They all wanted the same thing, but the answers provided in the church weren’t enough for a consensus.

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For almost an hour, I watched agreements and disagreements. It was tense but peaceful. There wasn’t a sense that anything terrible was going to happen. But it was clear the breaking point was approaching. And if another day came and went without the police releasing the shooter’s name, that breaking point would arrive.

I left the church, and the crowds, and went back to my hotel.

“I would bet anything that this soul food restaurant would be open on Wednesday, simply because it was open on Tuesday. And I would lose everything.”

Andre, the cab driver dispatched to my Holiday Inn Express, said this as we arrived at Celebrity Soul Food in Ferguson, to find that it was closed on Wednesdays. “Our people, man,” he said. “I love us.”

Since eating yams and greens was no longer in the cards, I asked if he’d take me to the mall. And unlike with other cabdrivers on this trip, Andre and I just bonded. The tragedy was visibly affecting him. He has a son. And he couldn’t help but think about his son whenever he thought about Mike Brown.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Ferguson Police Department released a statement that many in the community hoped would include the name of the officer who killed Michael Brown. But instead of closure, the statement — dripping with insincerity, condescension, and authoritarianism — only made things worse to the aggrieved people of Ferguson.

“The City of Ferguson mourns the loss of Michael Brown’s life that occurred this past Saturday.”

That occurred.

“We ask that any groups wishing to assemble in prayer or in protest do so only during the daylight hours.”

Only during the daylight hours.

“We further ask all those wishing to demonstrate or assemble to disperse well before the evening hours.”

Disperse well before the evening hours.

This felt like an invitation — a dare, even — for the citizens of Ferguson to disobey this thinly veiled curfew masked as a suggestion. From the moment I read it, I knew something bad would happen.

“My youngest nephew, he’s gonna be a big guy, he’s a big kid already. And he’s just — he’s a teddy bear. You know … I’m overwhelmed.”

My cabdriver Lisa said this as she dropped me off at my hotel around 5 p.m. I needed to grab my phone chargers and change clothes, and then I was going to head to Ferguson, with the intention of staying — until. Within minutes of being back in my room, the tweets started filling up my timeline. There was talk of tanks near the QuikTrip, the convenience store near where Brown was killed, which was later burned and looted on Saturday night.

As I considered my next move, I looked down at myself: scuffed-up Jordans, black socks, shorts, tank top, oversize denim button-down, a hat atop my head. And brown skin. I looked like I was from Ferguson.

Once I arrived, I had the cab drop me off away from the major hub of protests, West Florissant Avenue. Because I wanted to walk around and feel out Ferguson during the daytime.

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My stroll was cut short, however, when I received a text.

“They got Wesley. They arrested Wesley.”

This appeared to be true, but I still tried to call Wesley Lowery, a reporter for the Washington Post. No response. So I immediately called a cab. No response. I called another cab. No response. I called two more cabs. No response.

Then I called Andre. He picked up, but he wasn’t close enough to get me any time soon.

I was three miles away from the QuikTrip with the tanks on West Florissant and had run out of options. I had no choice but to walk. Because, with darkness rapidly approaching, no cab was coming to my part of Ferguson in the near future.

When you make that long walk down West Florissant, eventually you get to the top of a hill. I don’t know what’s usually on the horizon, but on Wednesday it was the faint glimmer of police lights. Even in the light of day, the sight was ominous. Because there was already a feeling that beyond those lights sat a battlefield.

When I showed up, it was anything but. The police had blocked car traffic, giving pedestrians an “enter at your own risk” look as they moved forward. I expected to walk in and see protesters and police officers inches away from each other’s faces, screaming. Instead I heard gospel music blaring from a flatbed truck. This wasn’t war. This was a post-funeral barbecue … that just happened to have tanks and a small army standing before it.

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I’d never had an assault rifle pointed at me before. I’d never locked eyes with a man holding an assault rifle atop a tank. But this was reality in Ferguson — those who’d been protesting for hours in front of these tanks had long passed the point of being scared of these soldiers.

As darkness fell, the crowd was growing, in number and volume. I wasn’t sure which side was going to back down, voluntarily or forcibly. Or when.

At one point, one of the cops appeared to smile. It ignited the crowd, which had made a habit of focusing on specific cops, either in an attempt to rattle them, to draw out any sign of humanity, or simply to shame them.

Then there was the helicopter, circling the crowd with a spotlight shining down. Most of the front line of protesters threw the middle finger whenever the light zeroed in on them.

And then there was the first request, which felt more like a demand.

“PLEASE STEP AWAY. TWENTY-FIVE FEET.”

Begrudgingly, we moved back, but it only made us louder. And angrier. And again, as we got louder and angrier, the sky grew darker.

And then, a second time:

“PLEASE STEP AWAY. TWENTY-FIVE FEET.”

And we got even louder. And angrier. But again, we moved back.

Text after text was coming in from friends, telling me to be safe. I internalized it, without quite knowing what that meant in the moment. At this point, the only way to truly be safe was to leave Ferguson. And I couldn’t leave yet. Not when mothers had their babies out here, screaming, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” Not yet.

At that moment, I gave up on trying to be safe. All I could be was smart.

Walking back to the front lines, I overheard an argument between two women, not about the army in front of us but about Al Sharpton. One woman claimed he was a punk for not being here fighting, and the other said he was doing things behind the scenes so that we could get justice.

And then a third party chimed in: “Everybody entitled to their own opinion, this for Mike Brown right now.” It calmed the situation down briefly, and everyone turned their attention back to “hands up, don’t shoot.”

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The chant went strong for 30 seconds, until protesters grew weary of saying the same thing over and over again. And then, moments after the chant had died down, I heard glass break and the sound of a loosed gas canister.

“THIS IS NO LONGER A PEACEFUL PROTEST WHEN YOU TRY TO INJURE PEOPLE,” said the voice from the tank.

A man sitting near me was the first person I saw start to run. Then, suddenly, we were all running. I remember looking over my shoulder as my legs churned beneath me. The police were shooting flares and I didn’t want to get hit in the back. But I didn’t stop running, because I didn’t want the smoke to catch up. There was also the sound of weapons firing. And this siren. This terrible, terrible siren.

At some point, I fell. And, for a moment, I could feel the smoke in my lungs. The mix of the weapons firing and the smoke and the sirens froze me for a second, and then I got up to hide behind a tree. There were screams — “LET’S GO!” Some yelled at the cops: “Come lock me the fuck up!” “On the side of y’all car it says ‘to protect and serve’ and y’all ain’t protecting shit!” “There’s fucking kids out here and you throwing smoke bombs!”

Eventually, they’d pushed the majority of the crowd back to the nearest intersection. But most people weren’t leaving. And then the voice from the tank spoke again:

“RETURN TO YOUR VEHICLES AND RETURN TO YOUR HOMES, YOU MAY NO LONGER BE IN THE AREA. IT IS NO LONGER A PEACEFUL PROTEST. YOU ARE NOT PEACEFULLY ASSEMBLED. YOU MUST LEAVE OR BE SUBJECT TO ARREST.”

The more that voice from the tank spoke, the more agitated those that hung around became. And the less interested many were in following its orders.

“Y’all made this unpeaceful. That’s your fault. We was peaceful until y’all did that shit. Smoke bombs and people got their kids out here? Really?”

Reaching into my pocket for my phone, I realized that when I fell, I’d landed on it. It was done.

I wanted to leave, but I needed to send some type of message indicating that I was OK. I was at least an hour away from being anyplace where I could text or tweet.

As I searched for someone with a phone, everyone around me was ready to fight.

“Oh, y’all want us to shoot back. We’ll shoot back, just wait.”

“Tonight’s the last peaceful night. Know that.”

Shit, I immediately thought. Someone is going to die tonight.

Eventually, I met Michael Calhoun. He works at KMOX, the CBS radio affiliate out of St. Louis. He still had some juice in his phone and let me send a few tweets. Then we returned to the main street to see what was up. It seemed calmer than when we’d headed to the car. Smoke was in the air, but it wasn’t new smoke.

And then what felt like a bomb went off.

I don’t know what it was, but it sounded like a bomb. I don’t know what I was talking about when the explosion happened, but I ran. I caught Michael’s eye as he ran back to his car, letting him know he didn’t have to wait up.

I kept running. I didn’t know where I was running, but I was running. Now there were explosions and sirens and smoke and gunshots and a helicopter shining its light through the neighborhood. We scattered like roaches, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the cops thought of us that way.

And I kept running.

I can’t believe I didn’t call my mom.

After weaving through the streets, realizing that I’d gone in some sort of circle, I ran into a camera crew. One of the men let me attempt to charge my phone in his car. I laid down on the grass briefly, but then propped myself up because I couldn’t get the smoke out of my throat. A man walking down the street stopped and we stood there, coughing and spitting for 10 seconds.

And then what sounded like another bomb went off.

As we ran across the street, away from the sound of the explosion, a helicopter shone its light on us. We instinctively ducked, as if a prison watch guard had caught us trying to break out. And I grabbed my stuff. We told each other to be safe, and I started running toward the main street. I figured if I could just get up this one block, I’d find my way to the car blockade, and then I’d be safe.

Then I froze. I could see the soldiers marching up West Florissant. They looked like monsters.

At that moment, I didn’t feel like a journalist. There was nothing about this event that I felt the need to chronicle. There was no time to find out what the bombs actually were and what was actually coming out of the guns and what type of gas was coming out of the canisters. In this moment, there was nothing I felt the need to broadcast to the world. I didn’t even have the desire to communicate my safety or lack thereof.

I was just a black man in Ferguson.

So I ran into the darkness. Every 10 to 15 seconds, I’d hear a shot. Or another bomb. Or I’d duck into someone’s yard as the light from the helicopter found me. When it disappeared, I’d run again.

As I took my first turn right — knowing that, eventually, there had to be a major road to the right — I ran past three kids no more than 16 years old. They had bandannas around their mouths and were running back into the melee. “You running the wrong way,” one of them said to me, without breaking his stride. And then they disappeared into a different darkness.

Shit. Someone is going to die tonight.

I stopped for a moment, and then a few more shots went off and I kept running, eyes full of tears.

I knew I was far away enough from it all that I’d probably be fine. But those kids, I didn’t know. Those were the same kind of black boys I worry about daily, who brought me to Ferguson in the first place. It was seeing those kids running toward the monsters that ultimately made me break down.

But I kept running. And even though I got farther and farther away, each sound reminded me of what had just happened, and what was still happening. I don’t know how long I ran. Eventually, I saw a car with red lights. It was the road. Chambers Road.

I felt like I’d entered a different universe. Like I was the character in the movie who didn’t know what year it was. And like no one had any idea what was happening only blocks away. Why I was so sweaty. Why I was breathing so heavily. Why my voice was rattling. Why I was so terrified.

I didn’t know what to do. And my phone was dead. So I walked up the street to London’s Wing House and told them I’d order a three-piece if they let me make one call. They obliged.

I called Andre because his card was sitting in my wallet, and it was the only number I had.

When he answered, he immediately asked, “You good?” He suspected I’d been down there and said he’d be to me in 10 minutes.

For a while, I sat outside the Wing House, stunned. Then it began to sink in. I needed to get out of here. I wished every single car that drove by was Andre’s black car. They all looked black until they got close. And it was never Andre behind the wheel. As I waited for that black car to pull up, a yellow cab pulled alongside me and the driver looked at me. It was Andre. Why did I think his car was black? Where did that thought even come from?

He got out of the car and we shook hands. He asked if I was OK. I told him not really, but that I was here and that I appreciated him coming. And then I gave him the address of where he was taking me, the Holiday Inn Express. 10000 Natural Bridge Road.

“Rem, I picked you up from there. Remember?”

“Oh yeah.”

I was rattled. And he knew it. And he let me explain everything that happened. As badly as I wanted out of this area, I couldn’t stop talking to him. We stood outside his taxi for 10 minutes before we even entertained leaving. Once I was done detailing what I’d seen, Andre told me he’d been watching the news with his mother when I called.

“I thought this was over,” Andre’s mom had said, referring to the days of the dogs and the hoses and the bombs and all the other forms of police brutality and intimidation that marked her life.

He said he didn’t have an answer for her. And I shook my head, because I didn’t have an answer for him. So we just got into the car and drove away. 

Filed Under: Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown

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Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert