Monday, August 18, 2014

What I Saw in Ferguson

I live in St Louis, on the edge of what is considered north county.  Ferguson is about 5 miles north of my little burg.  I grew up close to that area and know the area of Ferguson, Dellwood, Jennings and Florissant quite well.  In fact, my two childhood homes are quite close to streets that have been mentioned in the news a lot- Chambers and West Florissant.  If you take those roads towards the edge of St Louis County from Ferguson you'd pass through the neighborhoods where I spent most of my years until I was 19 and got my own place.  I know that area well.

I'm not surprised by the racial tension, that's an area that has been in transition my whole life.  Section by section black people have moved in and white people have moved out to either west St Louis County or adjacent St Charles county.  Hell, my family was one of those- we moved from Bellefountaine Neighbors to lily white (at the time) Florissant when my dad noticed the first black family on our street.  When my mom moved from that house in Florissant a couple years ago that neighborhood was occupied by black folks in majority numbers.  Anytime you get one demographic displacing another there is going to be more tension.  I've heard it mentioned that St Louis is one of the most segregated urban areas in the nation.
That's one reason I chose my neighborhood when buying a home.  It was full of black folks and white folks and nobody cared.  It was stably integrated.  Now my area seems to be about 1/3 white, 1/3 black and 1/3 Hispanic.  It's great.  But even in my area I'm sure there is lots of racial tension.  So I wasn't surprised by the anger in the community.

Sadly, I wasn't surprised by the police response either.  I mean, if you've even skimmed this blog you know I've written a lot about the encroaching police state.  It's a serious problem that threatens us all.  I am glad that it's at least finally getting some attention.  I'm not pleased that it took such a tragedy in a nearby community to get it any attention.

The initial police response was over the top.  In fact, I think a person can assert the police response on Sunday night actually turned the crowd violent due to their methods.  I've been in an instance before where exactly the same thing happened.  The cops want to disperse a crowd, so they start at either ends of a street and work towards the middle.  That's a terrible tactic.  You compress the crowd and try to squirt them out of side streets.  Meanwhile, people can't go the way they want to leave the area, at the edges, because cops are pushing them towards the middle.  About 10 years ago in St Louis City I was at a Mardi Gras parade where the cops used the same methods and people got violent.  Tell people to go home, but then push them into an ever smaller space away from the exits and they are going to get irritated.  And that's exactly what happened in Ferguson Sunday night with the same result.

When that happens, the cops are trained for only one play- escalation of force.  They keep stepping up the force until their target submits, it's ingrained in all their training.  Sadly, this approach can turn peaceful crowds into rowdy crowds and rowdy crowds into riots.  It's not the right approach for crowd control.  Escalation of force works well with individuals, but not big crowds.

After Sunday, the police kept bringing out heavier gear.  We've all seen the pictures of the guy with the rifle with all the goodies (many that don't make sense) bolted on his rifle in overwatch position on top of an armored vehicle.  WITH HIS RIFLE POINTED AT THE CROWD.  That's a problem.  Fat cops in camo and body armor sweeping peaceful demonstrators with their carbines and assault rifles.  That's a problem.  Shooting tear gas canisters into people's yards.  That's a problem.  After Wednesday night my mind was heavy with the situation and I felt I needed to do something.

Thursday night I got some people to go out for peaceful demonstration, to urge both the police and the crowds to non violence.  I took signs and flowers and most importantly went unarmed.  I didn't even take a stick for my sign.  I chose to go in peace, because escalating violence was what was creating the problems.  I didn't bring any protest gear or riot gear, other than some small goggles and a bandana should tear gas come out again, but those fit easily in my pockets. 

We were there from 7 until somewhere shy of 11.  We left as the crowd was getting more aggressive.  The people I were with were mostly white and the crowd of maybe 3,000 people were very welcoming early on.  But as the night wore on our group got smaller, and by the time 10p rolled around it was just me and a couple women and we started hearing things like "white people go home".  We decided to heed that suggestion after a time.

The demonstration was more of a celebration than a protest from my perspective.  A half mile or so of West Florissant was lined with people on both sides.  This area included the burned out Quick Trip and we were on that side, adjacent to it for much of our time there.  People were marching in the streets chanting slogans.  The most common was a mandate to the police- "Hands up?  Don't shoot!" meaning if a suspect has their hands up, you shouldn't shoot them.  The current telling on the streets is that the suspect in this case had his hands up as he was shot.  The officer involved disputes that telling, but the crowds there have embraced it.

It was already turning into a bit of a theatric ritual- the people would thrust their hands into the air with each syllable when they would shout "hands up!", then other people would respond "don't shoot!".  I'd guess that evening that phrase was uttered millions of times in the protest area.  It was constant, a cacophony.  Add to that hundreds of cars (my estimate is around 450) parading back and forth, honking horns, blaring music and people hanging out the windows shouting "hands up!!  don't shoot!!".  I predicted that night we'd hear these lyrics soon in a number 1 single before the month is out.  Which has yet to happen, but I still bet it does. 

It was more like a car cruise than a protest that night.  People were smiling and boisterous.  At either end of the half mile stretch where people were standing the line of cars waiting to parade by was so long you couldn't see the end.  The New Black Panthers did traffic control and did a bang-up job.  I was impressed with their organization and control of their duties.  Because they did this, the police were mostly vacant, they stayed outside the edge of the demonstration area.

In fact, there was a call for shots fired, (likely fireworks) and cops tried to roll down West Florissant to respond.  The crowd wouldn't let them, got agitated and started yelling "no cops" over and over.  The 4 police cruisers turned around in a parking lot and went a different way to get there.  The police conduct was the opposite of  the night before.  They let the community have it's autonomy.  I thought it was the perfect approach after the failed attempt Wednesday night to make the crowd submit with violence.  I was impressed with the conduct of the police during the time I was there.

I was dismayed by the crowd.  It reminded me of a county fair, not a protest.  In fact some locals told me they saw it as a celebration.  Which I can see, they got the world's attention and the police changed for the better.  It just wasn't what I expected, I thought it would be more somber.  Of course, after Thursday things got worse again.  It seems like that's just what kids are doing this month, going out to Ferguson to hang out and jump in if looting starts. 

I wasn't too disappointed by the aggression we saw later in the night, because you get knuckleheads in any crowd.  It doesn't matter whether it is a demonstration, a county fair or a big concert, a percentage of the crowd will be vocal assholes.  I will say that starting around 10:30 I felt less safe, between the crowd in general and seeing more people with their faces covered the smell of the demonstration changed from earlier in the day.  Another white guy we were with earlier was punched around that time by a guy yelling "Black power!" and they chose to leave as well.  But again, you get knuckleheads in every crowd, that's not a reflection of the community as a whole.

Now I'm not sure what the right approach is.  The cops stayed hands off and the crowd decided to riot anyway on subsequent nights.  I was listening to the radio chatter last night and it again turned into a riot and spread out to new areas to burn and loot.  And that's where we are today, at an impasse.  The community can't have it both ways- if they want to cops to leave them alone they have to police themselves and restore order to that neighborhood.  The cops can't just stand back night after night as the crowd parties, loots and burns until the wee hours.  That's not a society anyone wants to live in.  But standing back and not intervening led to the same sort of destruction that overwhelming force did.  Is there a "just right" in this case?  I guess we will see, as tonight the National Guard has been called in to assist, West Florissant closed off and the curfew lifted.

2 comments:

  1. Sorry it took me so long to post up. I remember that night well, we spent an hour driving down W Florissant with our windows down, enjoying the release that night really was.

    We live just off of Green Valley and Chambers. For two weeks at that point we kept careful watch of events on W Florissant both north and south of Chambers. It took another week or so after that night for the new QT on W Florissant to open.

    That night WAS a party. That was the point. No tear gas, no BearCats, no LEOs with rifles pointed at protesters or journalists. Just folks from the 63136, enjoying the night. The cops rolled in to help a girl that fell off of a (thankfully) parked car, not for the fireworks/shots fired.

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