A St. Louis Suburb Is America's Latest Racial Hotspot

The police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked looting and riots Sunday night and clashes with police on Monday.

Justin Glawe

Police guard a destroyed gas station in Ferguson, Missouri early Monday. All photos by the author

Last night, I walked out of the Target in Ferguson, Missouri, to find my car behind police tape. Cops in riot gear were extending their security perimeter around West Florissant Avenue, where protests over the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown turned into looting and riots Sunday night and clashes with police on Monday.

“You better hurry up and go get it,” a man in a group parked near me said. The cops let me retrieve my vehicle after a stern warning (complete with a rifle being waved around) to go left and not right when I reached the edge of the lot. Five minutes later I heard four tear gas canister volleys. Ten seconds after that a 20-something black man in a caravan of Ferguson residents came over.

“We going,” he said. “You coming?”

What followed was a raucous four-hour stretch marked by smoked out streets and rage. By midnight, West Florissant was littered with rocks, broken glass, spent tear gas canisters and pepper balls. As we approached the police line from the north, cops were flying everywhere and people were honking and and screaming. After hearing the canisters fly, people were angry enough to run stoplights, ignore cop cars and speed across town to make it to ground zero and figure out what was happening.

Brown, as you may have heard, was killed Saturday by a St. Louis County police officer. One protestor told me his death was the “spark that lit the fire,” one that’s been long smoldering in this St. Louis suburb, where relations between residents and police aren’t so hot. The details surrounding the 18-year-old's death have been the subject of much contention, but whether Brown was shot between seven and ten times, as his cousin Sabrina Webb and many others claimed Monday, or whether it was less than that doesn't really matter here. Nor does the fact that police maintain Brown struggled with the as-of-yet unnamed officer. What is gnawing at emotions and bubbling up at protests where many chanted "black power" Monday is the fact that Brown was unarmed and was apparently approached by the officer for jaywalking.

"They thought he was somebody else," Webb told me after pleading through a bullhorn that protestors not resort to the looting that resulted in damage to several businesses Sunday night. "It was racial profiling."

Webb stood on a concrete barricade as she spoke Monday. In front of was her a crowd of mostly young, black men; behind her, a wall of police from multiple agencies, ostensibly there to protect the remnants of the QuikTrip station that had been gutted and torched the night before.

The looting was fairly contained, and the gas station that was decimated, not far from the apartment complex where Brown lived, was the only building actually destroyed as a result of Sunday’s initial uproar. It has become a gathering point for those who continue to express equal parts anger, sadness and disbelief over Brown's death. On a bridge over a creek nearby, tags read "KILL COPS" and "FUCK THE POLICE." “Fuck 12” and “Fuck the police” chants carried on throughout the night once the shit hit the fan.

But over and over again Monday I heard people deriding violence and looting, even if they had mixed feelings about its impact.

One man outside the gas station, sweating profusely under heavy dreadlocks drenched in 90 degree sunlight, spoke with a particularly enraged tone.

"If this shit didn't happen last night," he said of the looting, "the whole world wouldn't know shit about that boy getting shot."

But Carissa McGraw, standing not far from the makeshift memorial on Canfield Drive that marks the bloody section of asphalt where Brown went down, refuted the claim that looting was necessary to bring attention to this awful situation.

"It's got to do with the fact that his body stayed out here for 4.5 hours and (the pictures) went out on social media," McGraw said. "It took the community to cover him up."

McGraw, a 26-year-old with family in Ferguson who travelled from Colorado to join the protests, said in her mind the imagery of Brown's corpse laying in the street meant only one thing.

"The symbolism of that is a body hanging from a tree after a lynching," she said.

By the time I reached the protest zone just after 8 pm, smoke was filling the air. I hopped the curb behind a local TV news reporter and ran toward the police line. You couldn’t see the QuikTrip through the haze and beyond the wall of police, walking in lockstep with that apocalyptic riot gear and armored vehicles that have been made more available to law enforcement than ever before as they’ve become increasingly militarized. You also couldn’t see the street that leads to Brown’s memorial, where wax from candles burned in his memory stain the road (and where it was apparently too dangerous for reporters to go even after the last of the protestors went home). For hours cars approached the line, mainly to taunt police, before being turning away and flying north.

It was the reverse of what had been a mostly peaceful day, with gatherings at churches where Brown’s mother and step-father spoke to the press standing next to Benjamin Crump, the attorney who represented Trayvon Martin’s family. Crump and Anthony Gray, a St. Louis lawyer, are the parents’ counsel. At another church across town, elders in the black community met at a town hall event, where NAACP national director Cornell Williams Brooks spoke, among others. So many wished to attend that the doors had to be locked and a crowd carried on their own town hall on the steps of the Murchison Tabernacle CME Church. But there was a noticeable lack of young people inside.

As I left, a young man with a beret, black military vest and Black Panther pins was telling someone behind me, “They’ve got tanks over there. We need to be with our people!” He may have been referring to the tank-like SWAT team transports that the St. Louis Metro Police had sent to the area to assist local cops. In the smoky street, there was a noticeable lack of elders to talk people down from the ledge.

After midnight, I was stopped by police pointing flashlight and assault rifles. They asked for identification and credentials. “Hey, who the fuck is this?” an especially jacked and on-edge cop with cocaine eyes said to another. I answered, and told him I wanted to get through the line to lead a Reuters photographer to the memorial.

“You can’t get down Canfield. It’s blocked,” he told me with unblinking intensity.

“What do you mean, it’s blocked? It’s a public street.”

“There is no way to get down Canfield.”

Shoulder tick. Rifle adjustment.

“Got it?”

Prior to Sunday night's eye-stinging chaos, the anger of many protestors was explained, if not justified, by Justin Brown (of no relation to Michael). He said it was "anger used in the wrong way. It was just people getting steamed up, but we're not going to be intimidated by police."

Those statements reflect a pattern here in Ferguson. Protestors gather, police respond in significant number, and someone fires an insult or, in the case that seems to have initiated Sunday night's looting, a police flare. At this moment Ferguson is like a lot of hot spots around the world, this one with a specifically American brand of conflict between blacks and whites. And it appears the good intentions of peaceful protestors were overshadowed by Sunday's ominous turn.

If the older members of the black community who gathered to hear NAACP director Brooks speak represented Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of civil dispbedience through non-violence, the crowds that jeered at police and defiantly breathed in tear gas smoke recall the approach of Malcolm X.

McGraw, the activist visiting from Colorado, told me, "I came out here for a purpose, but I feel like that purpose is being diluted."

Justin Glawe is a freelance journalist based in Peoria, Illinois. He writes about crime there, and recently launched a reporting project that will address issues of child welfare on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.