On August 9, 2014, I got a text from a friend. “A kid was shot by a cop in Ferguson,” it said.
I found out, after a few texts and a phone call, that the kid was a teenager and that police officer had killed him even though he hadn’t been armed. I learned that his body was still in the street, even though it had been well over two hours since he’d been killed.
A little while after getting off the phone with my friend, he sent another text: “You going to the vigil?”
In St. Louis, when someone is killed, there is almost always a vigil of some sort. People go to these vigils, hold a candle, sing a song or say a prayer, and go home. I have been to a few vigils, so I thought I knew what I was doing. It did not occur to me that this was not going to be a vigil. It did not cross my mind that deciding to say a few prayers for a dead teenager would lead to four months of protesting, city and county council meetings, and what is probably going to be a lifelong fear of police.
The evening of August 9, I saw a grieving community met with dogs. I saw questions met with increased police presence and an armored truck. I saw flower petals laid in the street to cover the blood of someone’s baby. It was sick.
Over the following days I continued to go back to Ferguson. I’m a shy person when in any new situation or with people I don’t know, so I usually stood off to the side and waited for someone to speak to me. Attempts at vigils continued, but always resulted in overreactions from police. We were tear gassed, shot at with rubber bullets, screamed at and called names. I saw people arrested for no reason. I saw people whose spirits seemed to be breaking right in front of me, but I also saw people whose spirits seemed to be emerging, powerful and angry and full of energy. More than once, I was helped out of clouds of tear gas or escorted to my car by groups of young black men I had never met before – the same people being referred to as violent and criminal in the media.
And me? I protested because I believed I was morally obligated to. This is MY town. I love Saint Louis. I have lived here my entire life (with the exception of two years of undergrad). I could not not protest. I could not sit at home and watch the news while people – my neighbors – were being tear gassed and shot at. So I kept going back.
The tear gas eventually stopped, and armored vehicles were no longer present, but protests continued. Sometimes police were laid back, and other times we were met with large numbers of police in riot gear. Sometimes, police would go crazy for no reason. One night, Thomas Jackson, Ferguson’s Chief of Police, agreed to march with protesters. After the march had progressed less than 100 feet, a Ferguson officer ran into the crowd of protesters and began grabbing people. Ferguson and Saint Louis County officers followed him, shoving, grabbing and beating peaceful protesters. Chief Jackson was completely unhurt; the same was not true for at least three protesters. Seeing people – people I had come to know and love – be beaten like that remains the worst thing I have seen happen since August 9th. After the people who had been arrested were taken away, the rest of us stood across the street from police officers in riot gear. We screamed at them while they laughed at us, secure in the knowledge that their behavior is accepted and will go unpunished.
At some point – I’m not exactly sure when – I realized that this was not a one-off. Police here have been covering things up for years, and have almost always gotten away with it. Local elected officials here have been ignoring the needs of their communities for years and nearly always get reelected anyway. Our state government and federal government have allowed this to happen and have often participated in the oppression of black people and the black community in Saint Louis and elsewhere. Our schools under-educate and under-prepare children for college and for life. My moral obligation has shifted a bit: while I still protest and take part in actions, I also feel compelled to facilitate changes in my community in more traditional ways. We have huge problems with racism, poverty and a lack of adequate education in Saint Louis (and while these issues are not unique to Saint Louis, this is where I can most clearly see them and am best equipped to help change things).
On November 24th, it was announced that the grand jury had opted not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown. I was in the crowd across from the Ferguson Police Department when the announcement came. The crowd was much larger than normal and full of anxiety. Mike’s mom, Lesley McSpadden was present. Almost immediately after the announcement, people took off running in different directions and glass windows were being shattered. Many people screamed – in anger and in sadness. Police looked afraid, and cameramen looked eager. Despite the months I’d spent protesting in this place, I reverted back to my habit from August. I stood off to the side, looking for someone I knew. And the police started launching tear gas. Later that night, buildings burned down and businesses were looted. A young man named DeAndre Joshua was murdered, shot in the head and his body burned. Police did little except launch tear gas and fire bean bag rounds. It was the worst night I can remember St. Louis having.
The failure of the prosecutors to secure an indictment of Darren Wilson only increased my desire for change. I realized that, if I want a better future for my potential children (and nieces, nephews, grandchildren, etc.), I have to fight for it – by protesting, by lobbying, by organizing and by doing my best to convince others to do the same.