It was Sunday evening and we were on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, where community members gather in mourning and protest every day, a few blocks from where Michael Brown was killed. Their demands are basic; the T-shirts simply say, “Stop killing us.” The protesters want an end to racist police practices, an end to the criminalization of being black and an end to the killing of their friends and children. They want Michael Brown’s killer indicted. And they want to be able to exercise their right to voice these demands vigorously and loudly to their government.
As I looked around, I saw people from all walks of life on the avenue; young people and elders; preachers, teachers, and veterans. While each person expressed it differently, all the protesters were unified in their anger over Brown’s death. I joined the march next to a large family in orange T-shirts. They were in Ferguson for a family reunion and decided to come out and march together. As I took out my phone and started to tweet, “Justice is a family affair,” we were tear-gassed.
There was no warning. It was three hours before the state-imposed curfew. The demonstration was peaceful, yet all of a sudden police began throwing tear-gas canisters. People scattered in different directions. I saw two young shirtless men racing a woman in a wheelchair out of the tear gas. Someone screamed, “They gassed my baby” and another exclaimed, “They’re treating us like animals.” Spots that were considered safe, like the press area, were hit repeatedly. Police threw tear-gas canisters at fleeing crowds. There was no safe place to run to. There is no safe place for the people to assemble. The town of Ferguson is under siege.
This is what is happening every night.
As I ran from the tear gas, eyes burning and throat closing, I remember desperately scanning the crowd for my coworkers. My eyes briefly connected with dozens of people. I looked into their eyes and I saw the sense of betrayal at being attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets, simply for lamenting the loss of one of their sons. I felt years of grief and trauma from being made to feel disposable and worthless. I started sobbing.
Mainstream media headlines obscure this reality. They talk of “unrest,” a nebulous term that implies some kind of wrongdoing on the part of the people protesting. In truth, thousands of people are gathering peacefully and lawfully every day and every night in the face of armored vehicles and drawn guns. The reports of violence and looting function exactly like the store surveillance video that police trotted out to smear Michael Brown. As it turns out, no one from the store ever called the cops, police issued warrants for the video days after Brown’s murder and the unedited video shows Brown at the cash register paying. There is minimal looting and provocation by the people of Ferguson. In fact, the community peacekeepers are out on the streets on a daily basis, keeping people calm and organizing youth to stand in front of stores to prevent looting. Protesters need to stop being blamed for the police’s violent response. The people in Ferguson have shown incredible restraint in the face of tremendous police provocation. The “unrest” is caused by the police.