‘Public safety,’ American style: A journalist and Sacramento native shares his experience covering Ferguson

West Florissant could easily be Florin Road or Arden Way

Supporters of Michael Brown protest law enforcement in Ferguson just days after police killed the unarmed teenager.

Supporters of Michael Brown protest law enforcement in Ferguson just days after police killed the unarmed teenager.

Photo By Sean Stout

Sean Stout is a Sacramento native currently residing in New York City. A photographer and video director, he was sent to Ferguson on assignment for Complex Media. Views and opinions in this essay are his own.

I arrived in Missouri around 9:30 on a Thursday night, five days after local police killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown, not knowing what to expect. My colleagues and I immediately drove from the airport to ground zero: a burned-down QuikTrip convenience store and gas station on West Florissant Avenue in the heart of Ferguson. People atop cars blared music, Brown supporters peacefully marched and chanted “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Residents hung out in parking lots, laughing, talking, smoking, drinking. It was a block party.

“I’d rather they treated us as if we didn’t exist, because they treat us like we exist and they treat us like we’re nothing,” said Jarris Williams, a resident of a neighboring town, about the police. “Look at this. This is beautiful. I’ve never seen so many black people all in one place with no violence.”

On that night, hundreds of people grieved in their own way. A stark contrast from the images I’d seen on my computer screen one night prior. No violence. No police in sight.

Fast-forward 24 hours: I’m staring into my video camera’s LCD screen, recording protesters as they are held back from police by community leaders. Facing them is a line of cops armed with assault rifles and wearing heavy riot gear, flanked by armored vehicles. Snipers rest on a roof, all in a row.

“Why not? They shoot us anyway! They shoot us any-fucking-way!” an angry protester screams at an organizer, who’s desperately trying to defuse the situation. Soon, protesters break down the glass door of a dollar store. A man runs out with three bundles of fake roses in his arms before local residents bar the entrance from further looting. The gas station across the street now becomes the target. Later, a meat market down the way. “Loot for what? A pork chop?” Jarris said later. “They’re looting because they’re angry and they don’t know what to do about it.”

This sign features the most popular phrase showing solidarity with Michael Brown.

Photo By Sean Stout

All that night, police held their position, never intervening as looters destroyed local businesses. We fled the scene after hearing reports that some people were attacking white journalists. (As a white male, I would later decide that this makes sense, given the frustration and general distrust with the predominantly white media on the scene.)

The next day, Saturday afternoon, is calm. Local community members clean the streets and board up businesses. Everyone we interview condemns the looting and thanks us for covering their positive community efforts.

The governor issues a curfew for Saturday at midnight. Community organizers urge protesters to comply, but a small number stand their ground at the QuikTrip. Police flood the streets, armed with tear gas, rubber bullets, bean bags, flash grenades, smoke bombs, wooden pellets and sonic canons as they advance up West Florissant. The press is restricted to a cordoned-off area far away and we are told that if we leave the area, we will be arrested.

On Sunday night, we’re standing around in said press area. It is dusk when I hear a loud boom, then a tear-gas canister lands right next to me. Several more small explosions can be heard, intermixed with smaller pops: rubber bullets and bean bags. Men, women, children, media—and even some police not lucky enough to be privy to their own department’s plan—scramble toward side streets in an attempt to distance themselves from a now-advancing force.

“They fired on press?!” I hear a woman yell while running, my own eyes struggling to make out her face due to the excruciating burn inflicted by the gas.

When we return to the press area, police hold assault rifles to our faces as we attempt to re-enter the scene. They claim the assault rifles are needed to ensure their safety. Safety from what? Four unarmed civilians wielding cameras and press badges?

This essay’s writer criticized law enforcement’s tactics in Ferguson.

Photo By Sean Stout

I was the only white member of our four-man crew. A white, female journalist re-enters the area without issue. I’m even given unusually kind treatment just moments after police order one of our black team members to “Back up!” guns drawn, as he attempts to negotiate re-entry. I’m let through without an ID or press badge while my fellow colleagues have to cough up their credentials.

On Monday, CNN and Fox News report that Molotov cocktails were thrown at police, which incited the “blanket treatment” response to protesters. In the words of Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald Johnson, this was to “ensure the safety of law-enforcement officials.”

I don’t buy it. I was standing there with the Brown supporters, as was a lot of other media. None of us saw any Molotov cocktails.

Things change on Monday night: The police are present, but the armored vehicles are hidden. Police deal with individual offenders on a case-by-case basis, and no excessive force is used. (Of course, I am now biased when it comes to the term “excessive force.” By this point, a cop with an assault rifle in riot gear not firing military-grade projectiles from a tank was considered peaceful.)

During my six days in Ferguson, residents kept asking for a dialogue with police. They wanted law enforcement patrolling their community to understand its culture. And, simply, they grieved for Michael Brown and asked for justice.

I didn’t feel like a journalist for a single second I was in Ferguson. I felt like a Brown supporter. I sided with the Ferguson organizers yearning for peace, racial equality and justice for the senseless murder of an unarmed youth.

And now, back in New York, I worry about a world where citizen journalism is more reliable than the news on television. And a world where “police safety” takes priority over community safety. I can’t believe how many times I heard the term “police safety” used while in Ferguson—on the news, by the designated police spokesmen. We’re talking about individuals armed to the teeth with military-grade weapons and facing unarmed and outnumbered civilians? Where were the GOP gun nuts, who seem to always be there to rally and arm the nation against government militias attempting to revoke our civil liberties?

I am still trying to wrap my head around everything. I’m mad. America needs justice for Brown and a real conversation on the role of police. This country should be very concerned by the events in Ferguson.

That strip of road in nowheresville Missouri, West Florissant, while only a few blocks long, looked just like any strip of Florin Road. It looked like any stretch of Mack Road. It looked like Arden Way. It looked like Sacramento.