Well, another young, unarmed black teenager (his name was Antwon Rose II) was shot in the back running for his life from police again. The outrage is dulled somewhat by the frequency of this type of event. I’m almost as desensitized to it as I am to seeing dead kids being wheeled out of schools on hospital gurneys. And I suppose that is part of the problem. But I was reminded of this story I wrote in college not long after the Ferguson riots over the shooting of Michael Brown, another young, unarmed black teen. I think perhaps I was trying to come to my own understanding of the events. Maybe I was just trying to get an A on an assignment. Either way it seems to be relevant again. And surely, in the coming days and weeks as the fires of the outrage grows, it will become even more so.
The story’s structure is based on Canto III of Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno
Welcome to Ferguson
“WARNING. Ferguson, MO has been closed off to non-residents due to recent violent activity. Anyone attempting to enter must prove residency or will be subject to arrest per Governor Jay Nixon’s orders. No exceptions will be given.”
The words flashed in a bright yellow neon light emanating from a large, twelve by twelve road sign. Similar postings had been put up all along I-70 and along the bridge over the Mississippi River that led to West St. Louis. I turned to Missouri State Police officer Chris Langston as he coolly guided the police cruiser over the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge,
“A little harsh, don’t ya think? No one allowed in Ferguson? I think they’re just asking for trouble by trying to keep people out. Most people want what they know they can’t have.”
“Don’t worry about that,” he said, gesturing with his thumb back at the sign, long past, “An exception will be given to you. After all you’re a journalist, and we can’t be restricting your first amendment rights now can we? I said I’d take you to Ferguson, so I’m taking you to Ferguson. I think we need someone like you over here, someone with journalistic integrity, not just someone who’s going to twist and bend the story to fit his personal or political leanings. I suspect you’ll write this all up and someone will read it and get the real picture of this place. Maybe then they won’t think all of us cops are just killers, or all young black men are thugs. Either way you’re gonna see some shit tonight. I told you before there are some lawless people here, even with the town closed off. Its like they completely forgot law and order. Proper social behavior. It wasn’t like this six months ago. Sure there was some racial tension; all the white people on South Florissant Road, the black people on the east side down West Florissant. But not like this. Never like this.”
“What do you think about all this? I mean, you’re black and a cop. Ever get the feeling you’re gonna shoot yourself?”
The officer laughed as he took the exit for Lucas and Hunt Road and turned north towards Ferguson. “Look, its not about black and white for me. Hell its not even about police officer and civilian. Its about the law. Now I don’t think anyone should kill someone else and not have to face some kind of consequence. Especially when that someone killed is unarmed. I mean he was an eighteen year old kid for Christ’s sake. I know I would be pretty upset if my kid was shot and his killer walked away. But when that Grand Jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson, I have to accept that. That’s my job. And as much as it sucks, everyone else has to accept it too. Now I’m not saying you can’t be mad, that you can’t get out on the street and scream your fucking lungs out in anger, but the minute you start breaking the law, its over. You have no place to stand and no credibility behind you. You’re a criminal. You know what I mean, David?”
“Yeah, I think I know exactly what you mean.”
“But let’s keep that between you and me, huh?”
Just then we turned a corner and I looked up to see the street sign for West Florissant, one of the main thoroughfares in Ferguson. I saw the shotgun houses, the empty lots, the boarded up fast food restaurants. Only McDonalds was still open. I could tell this was not the best part of town.
Not even ten feet down the street we hit a road block. Multiple police cars with bright, flashing red and blue lights sat blocking the streets. The officers sat on and stood around their vehicles, most in the black and blue garb of patrolmen, but some wore Kevlar vests, riot helmets and carried MGL-140s—automatic grenade launchers that were capable of firing tear gas grenades and other non-lethal projectiles. As we approached the road block, Langston rolled down the window and handed one of the officers a form. As the two spoke, I rolled down my own window and looked out onto Ferguson. There was a faint orange glow in the distance, rising over the houses and tree tops like the very edge of the rising sun, so bright that it drowned out the stars high above it. I heard from all directions the screams, shouts and chants of protesters. There was a total clamor of noise, both human and non-human, that absolutely drowned out all other noise. I knew Officer Langston was still talking with the roadblock officer, but I hadn’t heard a word they said. I could only hear a rhythmic chanting, a call and response between a loud speaker and a crowd of people, all in time; “HANDS UP! Don’t shoot! HANDS UP! Don’t shoot! HANDS UP! Don’t Shoot!” the chanting was accompanied by the occasional pop and bang sounds that I assumed were some type of tear gas or smoke grenades, meant to clear the crowd. The officer that was holding us released us, and we drove north along West Florissant, lights above flashing so as not to confuse us with a civilian vehicle. We pulled into a shopping center parking lot and parked the car near the Target that the police were using as a staging area. I stepped out of the car and turned to Officer Langston, “Hey, what’s up with these people?”
In front of us was a large group of people milling about within the confines of an enclosed chain link fence. They looked like dogs who had become bored after being left in their run for too long. Most had their heads down; eyes not looking up, with blank, almost empty looks on their faces. They were all on their cell phones. I looked through the chain link and saw a couple phones, and every single one was Facebook. They all just stood there endlessly refreshing their home pages only to find nothing new to look at, just refresh, after refresh, after refresh.
“Those people?” Officer Langston said, pointing, “these are the kinda jerks that just make our jobs suck a lot more.”
“Na, I wish. Looters are easy; ya just throw ’em in jail. I like to call these people the ‘Instagramers’.”
“They didn’t come here to protest the Grand Jury decision. Nor did they come here to support the decision and the police enforcing. Hell they aren’t even here to riot or loot.”
“Then why are they here?”
“They just came to take pictures. They don’t give a shit about the case or situation one way or another. Most aren’t from around here but rather came in from surrounding states. They come here to take pictures with their stupid little smart phones and upload them to the internet.”
“But why? Why to just take pictures?”
“I think they get a jolly out of the controversy. Or maybe they wanna get some cops fired or get a little famous, maybe make a little money. Either way their fucking despicable, I mean god damn, at least take a fucking stand one way or another.”
“So what’s gonna happen to them?”
“Are you writing this stuff down? Don’t. These people don’t deserve recognition. Save your ink for the important stories. But these folks are just gonna hang out here for a while. We’re not gonna arrest ’em and fill up the jail with a bunch of ‘instagramers’ when we have real criminals out there, and we don’t wanna let them go just to see them down the block in ten minutes. So they’re just gonna stay here as long as we can hold ’em. Only about 24 hours. Until then they can fiddle on their phones, wasting their time away on Facebook or some other utterly fucking useless website.” He then turned to me with a grin on his face, lowering his voice, “There’s only one outlet for them to charge their phones with,” barely controlling a chuckle, “but it doesn’t work. Its not hooked up. So these idiots have been standing around, lining up and taking turns trying to charge their phones without any power. Its fucking hilarious!” he said, laughing, and I saw then the outlet they were all after. There was a line of about a dozen people waiting to plug in their phones, while one man who seemed strangely familiar to me fruitlessly jammed his phone charger in and out of the outlet, trying desperately in vain to make his phone charge,
“God Dammit! Why won’t it charge?! I need to check my Facebook!”
Only then did I remember where I had seen him. He witnessed the killing of Michael Brown and then appeared on CNN claiming he wasn’t going to testify to the Grand Jury because of the threats on his life. Suddenly I lost what little remorse I had for him in that pathetic situation.
We left the parking lot and took West Florissant north, walking, as we weren’t taking the car for fear of it being targeted by rioters. As we approached Ferguson avenue intersecting West Florissant from the west, we noticed a large chain link fence running across the street and adjacent sidewalks. All around it were police officers in riot gear, holding large clear shields, knocking back a huge crowd of protesters. Just behind them all was the source of light I saw earlier; it was a gas station, the same gas station where Michael Brown had allegedly stolen cigars from. It was set ablaze. The flames shot up towards the sky, sending bright fireflies up towards the stars as if the fingers of flame were trying to reach up towards a place they will never know. I turned towards Officer Langston and pointed to the fence-line, “What’s going on here? Why can’t these people go through?”
“What do I look like? An encyclopedia? You’re the reporter, go report.”
“I’m just trying to do my job, officer. It’s not like you brought me here for this reason exactly.”
“Oh, just shut up and keep moving, the other officers don’t like seeing people just stand around. It makes ’em nervous.”
Just then a large police van pulled out and a heavy-set police officer stepped out. He was an older man, white of hair with at least two extra chins. He hiked up his pants and walked over to us, holding his hands out in front of him like he was pushing a large, invisible box, “Woah, woah, woah. Where do ya think you folks are going? If you want into town you’ll have to wait in line with the rest of the group, just like everyone else.” He scratched his forehead just above his eyes and looked over at the crowd, unsure. I didn’t move as Officer Langston stepped forward, showing his badge,
“Alright, calm down Sheriff Pepper,” he said quickly enough to be misunderstood in his reference to the bumbling James Bond character, “we’ve got orders from the Governor. He’s a reporter. We need to get through.”
The large officer turned bright red in the face, like a flush baboon’s ass he fumed with anger, “What the hell did you just call me?!”
“What? Nothing. I just said we need to get through–”
“I’m the god damn police chief here! See this badge?” thrusting it into Langston’s face, “that badge says Thomas Jackson. Chief of Police. Ferguson Missouri. So you will show me some god damned respect! Or I can throw your friend’s ass here in a holding cell. How about that? Mhmm?”
Officer Langston stepped forward into Chief Jackson’s face, “Listen, Chief. I have an order from Governor Nixon himself. Essentially your fucking boss. Now it says, and I quote, ‘Freedom to tour the areas of Ferguson Missouri for the sake of an honest news report’. Now if you have a problem, Chief Jackson, you can take it up with the god damned Governor.”
I stood a few feet back saying nothing. I watched the two stare one another down as a brief moment of awkward silence crept over the scene. Chief Jackson coughed, shook his head, and thus shaking his large jowls and said, “Fine, go on through. But look out for yourself, I’m not gonna risk my officers when you’re getting jumped by a bunch of fucking scumbag rioters. Now go!”
He then grabbed a loudspeaker and pulled himself up onto the hood of his police van, not without some struggling, and pointed the loudspeaker out over the crowd, “Alright! Listen up all Ferguson Protesters! We are going to allow you through the gate and join with the other demonstrators. However, as I have already said before, by willfully entering this fence you will be subject to arrest for disturbing the peace and trespassing. Is that understood?”
Cries and shouts of anger went through the crowd. Some people threw their hands up and began chanting, “HANDS UP! Don’t Shoot! HANDS UP! Don’t shoot!”, but no one in the crowd walked away. In fact many tried even harder to push their way through the gate and into the bulk of the demonstration. Then the gate opened and the people flowed through like cattle from out of a stockade. Chief Jackson stood by the side, watching, and occasionally pushing someone back into the crowd that got pushed out. Many times he brandished his nightstick, swinging it back and forth like a flyswatter trying to swat a swarm of flies. As the crowd pushed through the gate, more and more people came streaming up behind them, forming a new crowd behind as we walked through the gate. Chief Jackson, back on the other side, stood back up on his van, once again with great trouble, and repeated his warning to the new crowd. So I said to Langston, “I don’t get it. They know they’re gonna get arrested. Why keep going in? Why are they so eager?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Justice spurs them on. They know they’re gonna get arrested. They know they’re probably gonna get hurt. But its justice that makes them march on into Ferguson. They feel that if they come into this town they can let loose a little. Ya know, scream, holler, chant and hold signs. They wholeheartedly believe that they can bring about some kind of justice in this case. They think that if enough people are on these streets, that something’s gotta change, something for the better. They keep going, knowing they will get arrested, because they believe that their arrest could lead to some kind of justice for Michael Brown.”
“Well? Can they?”
He didn’t say anything for a few minutes as we walked, as if he really had to ponder the question, when in fact he knew the answer before I could even ask it,
Then I looked out at that crowd of people. Some were holding up signs that read, “How to get away with murder. Be a cop” and “Black Lives Matter”. And a young white woman, she couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, held up a sign saying, “If Michael Brown looked like me he’d still be alive!” I couldn’t help but feel pity for these people. So many people from so many different backgrounds and places, all have come out here to try and do something. But will it do anything? Michael Brown will still be dead. Darren Wilson will still be living life as a free man. And young black men across the country will still be shot and killed by white police officers. I almost wish I could have told everyone there that they were doomed. But would that have changed their minds? Would that have saved them from what they were about to see? To experience? Or would it only dishearten them along their journey, slow them down on their trip to justice. I stood there for a while and watched the crowd circle around, looking at the stark black faces, and the white faces, and the faces I couldn’t make out at all. They all marched in line and unison, holding their banners and signs and chanting in time. Even now I can feel the stomping on the ground, the shaking, the smell of sweat and fear and anger and frustration. Even now I can feel the tension and sense the hatred.
We started to follow the crowd when we heard excessive shouting coming from the front. We looked ahead and saw a line of police officers clad in riot gear. They stood like a glass wall with mounted heads on the top, each covered in a helmet and mask—a gas mask. The crowd stopped and started jeering at the officers, throwing insults and hate, when someone finally threw a glass bottle into the line of police officers. And almost without hesitation I saw another line of officers behind the shield wall raise their grenades launchers and fire a volley of tear gas grenades. Arching through the air as if fired from a catapult, they streaked a thick, swampy green smoke behind them as they fell among the crowd. There was screaming all around us and we saw the canisters explode, shooting tear gas in all directions. Suddenly I felt the gas hit me like a cinder block dropped on my chest and I immediately started coughing. My eyes watered acid and I coughed up blood and hate as I slowly stumbled to the ground. I tried to look for Officer Langston but couldn’t turn my head for the pain the gas was causing me. As I fell on my knees my eyesight blurred and everything turned a bright white, engulfing me like a great blanket of snow. I could feel my lungs burning as I fell forward, and the last I remember my face hit the concrete, hot like a dry summer wind.
Disclaimer: Welcome to Ferguson is a work of fiction inspired by a true story. While the central events of the story took place, though not necessarily as presented, certain details such as names, places, and incidents have been added, changed or omitted for the sake of artistic and narrative integrity. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the author.
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