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Live from Ferguson: Peace and Pepper Spray

It all went from calm to chaos in a matter of a few seconds.
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All Photos: Chez Pazienza/The Daily Banter


It all went from calm to chaos in a few seconds. For most of the day and night, the protesters who gathered and marched along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri weren't simply peaceful, they were almost celebratory in their righteousness, if that makes any sense. Kids were there; community leaders were there; people were handing out water and food and taking care of each other as a steady stream of local residents flowed into a growing organism that moved up and down the street, chanting, "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, these killer cops, they got to go!" There were one or two minor flash-points -- a fight broke out at the far end of the avenue around 9:30pm -- but really for the most part everybody kept their cool, maybe due to the herculean efforts of those community leaders and the presence of those kids. The police managed to keep their distance and the protesters didn't try to confront them and so everything went off without a hitch.

That said, it's very much worth bringing up how noticeably the mood had changed for a time earlier in the evening when the SWAT teams arrived. The feeling of celebration and community, coming even in the midst of tragedy, darkened dramatically the moment the MRAPs rolled by carrying police officers armed to the teeth and looking every bit like soldiers. One CNN reporter I was talking to -- an old friend of mine -- said that he had been trying to sum that feeling up for everyone he spoke to not currently in Ferguson: "Everything changes as soon as they show up." One woman went to the end of the street where SWAT mustered and shouted, "Tell them to go home!" before turning around and crying out about the "intimidation tactics" the police were displaying. Eventually, though, the will to protest peacefully returned for most -- and that protest went well into the night, past the point in previous evenings where everything had descended into madness and violence.

In fact, by around midnight most news crews were dismantling their setups at the media staging area and getting ready to go home, believing that finally a night would end in calm. We'd had an evening of outrage, yes, but it was one tempered by such incredible sights and sounds as a motorized kids' train ride that moved alongside protesters blasting Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues and What's Going On and one local preacher in particular who never stopped shouting directions aimed at keeping the crowd peaceful, if only to thwart the designs of the police, who many believed wanted a confrontation. (Again, though, the police were consistently hands-off throughout most of the evening.) It looked as if everything was going to be alright.

But as the very end of protest approached, there were lingering young men, some of whom had their faces covered or who had gas masks ready -- and not only were they apparently not ready to go home, some seemed furious that they were conceding that kind of ground. Someone with a bullhorn told them to leave and regroup tomorrow to continue making their voices heard, but no one moved. Finally, I saw a plastic water bottle arc high across the black sky and the white spotlight from the circling police chopper above suddenly illuminate the entire area as the bottle came down next to the police line. Still, the line held in place. But then there was movement in the crowd and the police rushed forward. And that was it. The calm was gone.

Police chased someone up the street to the bridge on West Florissant just beyond Canfield Drive, were Mike Brown was killed in the event that started all of this. Angry protesters followed, surrounding the police as they took someone down. The dogs came out and it was then that I looked up and realized that there, looming right in front of us, were the two SWAT armored vehicles. Those trying to keep peace among the crowd formed a human chain between police and protesters, but it wasn't holding. People were furious. Police lined up and began pushing forward. Someone in one of the SWAT vehicles, over a PA that sounded like the voice of God, announced, "If you're in the middle of the street you are gathering here illegally." He told the press to move back into the media staging area immediately. So that's what I did. I ran backward but kept shooting video and snapping pictures as police and protesters scuffled and pushed forward across the bridge.

One of the last things I remember seeing was a group of cops taking down someone just a few feet in front of me as I retreated quickly to what I thought was the relative safety of the media staging area, which had been specifically cordoned off for us. Then one of the officers reached for his belt, turned and sprayed me directly in the face with a deep orange liquid that created spots all over my camera. I blinked a few times -- kept shooting. And then it hit me. If you've never been shot with law enforcement-grade oleoresin capsicum, trust me when I tell you you never want to. It's excruciating. My eyes slammed shut and I doubled over, grunting. "Motherfucker!" I said more than once to no one. From then on, all I could do was hear what was going on rather than see it. I know it was protesters who attended to me at first, giving me milk for my eyes and water for my burning mouth and skin and telling me to hold still so I wouldn't run into anyone. That should give you some idea of what most of the residents of Ferguson, Missouri -- those people furious about the death of Mike Brown -- are really like. I have no idea how much time went by. I heard the police chopper. I heard the police order the media back to the press command post up the street and that everyone would be arrested if they didn't vacate the area. I heard fights, yelling, cops shouting. I eventually fell over in pain then got back up.

I really thought that despite the fact that they'd blinded me and rendered me immobile, the police were going to arrest me for not leaving the media area. And then I heard a woman's voice next to me ask if I was okay. She turned out to be Amanda Wills from Mashable and she eventually led my blind ass back to our rental cars across the streets, navigating a police blockade apparently, and leaned me back across the hood of her car and poured Mylanta in my eyes to stop the burning. She and Ashley Codianni, also from Mashable, planted me in their car and drove me back to my hotel where the guy behind the desk led me the rest of the way to my room. It took about another 20 minutes before I could finally open my eyes. All I could think was: I get that there was chaos, certainly, but I was in the press safety zone and I had a giant fucking tag around my neck that said "MEDIA." And yet I got pepper sprayed anyway. That and, I really hope my car doesn't get towed.

It almost goes without saying that I owe Amanda and Ashley a huge debt of gratitude and I'm sure I'll tell them that (again) when I see them later today (although who knows whether I'll recognize them given that I never actually saw them, even for a second, during my little ordeal last night). I was warned that I'd have a hell of a headache in the morning and I definitely do; also, my skin still feels like it's on fire. I wouldn't wish pepper spray on anybody -- it's like acid melting your eyes -- and it puts into perspective the kinds of "less lethal" weapons used to control crowds like the ones that have been gathering in Ferguson. Last night was considered a victory by some because police didn't break out the tear gas; that's not exactly reassuring. There were still quite a few arrests and accounts by protesters of having guns pointed at them by angry cops. But what last night shows is that in a situation as tense as the one that exists right now on the streets of Ferguson, anything can set off a chain reaction that leads to chaos.

And we're now waiting on a grand jury to decide whether it will indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Mike Brown. If that indictment doesn't happen, everyone here understands that what we saw last night -- hell, what we've seen any night so far -- will look like an evening at the theater compared to what's probably coming.

Below: Photos From Yesterday in Ferguson, MO

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A memorial on the side of the street where Mike Brown was killed

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At the exact spot in the middle of the street where Mike Brown died

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Police reportedly placed these K-rail barricades at the end of the street where Mike Brown was killed to control traffic and presumably to prevent people from finding back roads onto West Florissant once the police blockade of that area begins each day. You find these in several places. "They herding us like cattle," one local resident told me.

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On West Florissant Avenue

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The protest begins in earnest in the afternoon.

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I came across these kids standing in front of a truck that had the words "No Shoot, No Loot" written on the side of it. When she saw me, the mother with them told them to look at the camera and give the peace sign.

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The SWAT teams and their armored vehicles

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The protest, now made up of a few hundred people -- with others lining the street -- continues into the night

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Missouri State Attorney General Chris Koster arrives and meets with protesters

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At around 11pm, police begin clearing parking lots off the main street

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Chaos erupts as police chase someone down West Florissant Avenue and onto the bridge just past Canfield Drive

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See the officer off to the right going for something on his belt? About 10 seconds after this was taken he shot pepper spray directly into my face from about three feet away.

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You know, you don't normally think of somebody pouring Mylanta in your eyes as doing you a favor, but, man, Mashable's Amanda Wills was my savior last night. I've certainly looked better.

(Photo: Ashley Codianni)

UPDATE FROM THE EDITORS: From today's Reid Report on MSNBC, you can clearly see Chez being hit with pepper-spray. Edit via Tommy Christopher.



Please help support Chez while he reports from Ferguson. Donations are greatly appreciated.