FERGUSON, Missouri — It was a little after 9 p.m., and I was in the McDonald’s parking lot, standing by my car. A police helicopter circled overhead, its spotlight sweeping back and forth.
Then I heard the sound of shattering glass: A rubber bullet had been fired through a window of McDonald’s, which until then, had been one of the few sanctuaries on West Florissant Avenue.
Now I didn’t feel safe anywhere.
State troopers in riot gear and armored trucks moved south on West Florissant, firing flash grenades and tear gas canisters at a crowd of protesters who only minutes before had been chanting, “Fuck the police.”
In a panic, I turned to the crowd of officers behind me — some with arms folded, others holding batons — and sought an explanation: The state-imposed curfew wasn’t set to begin for another three hours. Where were we supposed to go?
The response: “You better get the fuck out of here.”
I’m a reporter, not a revolutionary, so I fumbled around for my car keys, yelled out to my friend and former colleague Justin, and we hopped into my rental car. Leaving through the front entrance wasn’t going to work: The streets were roiling with hundreds of panicked people and the flash bombs were even closer now. So I tried an escape route behind the restaurant, hoping I could slip down a back street that would lead us away. But a dumpster prevented our exit. We would have to get out of this on foot.
In the parking lot, a teenage boy in a white T-shirt and long black sweatpants was writhing around in pain. He screamed that he was on fire. A woman tried pouring water on his face, but it didn’t work. A smell like a fevered man’s sweat hung in the air — tear gas.
An older black man, probably in his fifties, a hat somehow still perched on his head, protested to no one in particular: “They didn’t give us no warning. They just started shooting. There’s babies in the street.”
It was true: Families and older protesters, who usually left around this time on previous nights, were caught in the crossfire. No longer were the police making a distinction between peaceful protesters and the younger, rowdier mobs that took over the street after nightfall. We were all potential anarchists and hooligans.
Days earlier, Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald Johnson, a black native of Ferguson who had been put in charge of the police response, promised to enforce the curfew without trucks and tear gas. And even though police had broken that promise on Saturday night, Johnson remained popular on these streets. Sunday morning, he had apologized to the family of Michael Brown, the black teenager who was fatally shot last week by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. It was a moving speech that earned him widespread praise. Even in this community, grown so cynical about the police, Johnson was credibly selling himself as an agent of change. What had happened?
I fell into the teeming mass of people, most of them black, all of them confused. We were being flash-bombed and teargassed back to the south on West Florissant, giving us few options for escape. The most hotly contested sections of the street — in and around the QuikTrip that was burned down during a riot here last week — have no side streets and have been lined with metal gates that penned us in like cattle.
Most of us continued our retreat on West Florissant, the bombs and gas chasing us to some undetermined location. Some peeled off and ran to their homes in the neighborhoods that line the street. A relative handful — teenagers hopped up on adrenaline and hatred for cops — advanced forward. “We ready!” one yelled, “I’m gonna shoot one of these motherfuckers.”
In the commotion, I was separated from all of my friends and colleagues, and my phone ran out of power (I had gone to McDonald’s to recharge it). The streets seemed unusually dark, the lights coming mostly from car headlights. It had been an awfully long time since I felt that vulnerable.
By now, no one cared that I was a member of the media. I was just a black man among hundreds of them. I looked at their faces, scanning for anyone I might know. Some of them had tattoos, or gold teeth, or extravagantly manicured beards. They reminded me of my cousins or friends that I lost touch with. I wondered what police saw when they looked these men in their faces? Did they bother to look them in their faces? I wondered if the police could tell any of us apart.
Ahead of us (or behind us, as it were) was Chambers Road. At the intersection, I could see the flashing lights of police vehicles — another group of officers were, as Johnson would later say, acting to “protect lives and property.”
Just then, Justin tapped me on the shoulder, and, for a moment, I felt relief. We spotted a middle-aged white man with glasses and a notepad — a member of the media. I told Justin we should stick close to him. Our proximity to his whiteness might get us out of this, safely. I asked him where he worked. He offered a curt response then assiduously avoided us.
We were almost at Chambers. The officers who were stationed at a nearby convenience store were yelling at us. “Stop running or we will shoot you!” They pointed their guns. I slowed down and raised my arms. “I’m with the media!” I yelled. “What do you want us to do?”
Justin and I crossed to the far side of the street — to make it harder for them to shoot us if they got an itchy trigger finger. I grew increasingly desperate as I realized that nothing could protect me, not even those sworn to do so.
Alongside us was a black couple, likely in their forties. The man led the woman by the arm and made panicked arrangements for a ride. “Please, Jesus, come get us. Now!” Behind us was a group of boys, none older than 18, who took the opportunity to smash the glass of an auto parts store.
“Damn!” I yelled at them. “Don’t do that shit. They’re going to shoot us.” The officers kept their guns on us as we walked briskly into the parking lot of a large grocery store. People were hurriedly getting into their cars, skidding their tires to get the hell out of there. I realized then that we didn’t have a way to escape. Or even a way to call someone for help — Justin’s cell was also out of juice.
I saw a blonde white woman getting into a minivan. Something about her — the well-worn sweatsuit? the lack of makeup? — made me think she was a mother. I approached: “Can you please help us?” She didn’t even hesitate: “Get on in.”
Her name is Stacy Graham. She and her three children — ages 14, 9, and 7 — live 35 miles away in Jerseyville, Ill. “So much for the curfew, bitches,” she joked when we got into the car.
Stacy had come to Ferguson to visit her family and show her support for the Brown family. She was wearing a T-shirt that had Brown’s face on the front and the slogan “Murder is murder” on the back. Her support comes by blood: A black man, currently serving a nine-year prison sentence, is the father of her three children. “I worry that society has already deemed them doomed because of the color of their skin,” she said.
When we arrived in front of the hotel, I offered Stacy $10 for gas and for all the trouble. “It’s not about that,” she told me. I insisted and put the money in her ashtray. She got out of her minivan and hugged us long and hard. “If you need anything, call me.” We said that to each other.
About an hour later, Justin and I caught the end of Johnson’s press conference on cable news. He offered thanks to his troops for a job well done. Then he read from a script and rarely looked into the cameras.