Photo: David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
I'll make this quick and dirty for now.
I grew up in Miami during the 80's, which means that I lived through three major racial uprisings before I was 20-years-old. All were the result of police either unjustly killing black men or being acquitted of unjustly killing black men. The largest of the three, the 1980 Liberty City riot, left 18 people dead. The chaos it produced in the streets was almost impossible to describe: buildings were burned; businesses were looted; snipers fired at cars driving along I-95; the National Guard was called in. The situation was so frightening that according to Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan, at one point the staff of the paper, holed up in their downtown offices, raided the cafeteria and poured cooking oil down the building's loading ramp to prevent rioters -- and this really was a full-fledged riot -- from getting to the Herald's rear entrance.
But the entirety of Dade County, as sprawling as it was, couldn't possibly have been affected -- and it wasn't. As with the 1992 riots in my adopted home of Los Angeles, while the violence was staggering, it was mostly concentrated in one specific area. It's a grotesque irony that this area happened to be where the people rightly crying out for justice lived -- and with this in mind it occasionally felt like the goal of the police was less to put a stop to the destruction than to simply make sure it didn't spread to the areas and people across the tracks, if you get my drift.
What we're seeing here now in Ferguson, Missouri isn't like those past insurgencies. This isn't a full-on riot, although it has the potential to be. What's happening here is like nothing we've seen before in that it's felt like such a blatant abuse of authority on the part of the police responding to it. Yeah, there are some agitators among those protesting angrily but peacefully in the wake of the police shooting of 18-year-old Mike Brown, but they've been met with overwhelming force by a militarized police machine. The police have been the ones escalating the violence instead of defusing it. Things get a little tense, as you'd imagine they would be right now, and the police immediately crank the volume to 11. As someone who grew up in a law enforcement family I understand the need for police to make it clear who's got the upper hand if it comes down to a street fight, but when possible, that should be accomplished through respect and restraint rather than intimidation.
Flying in just a little while ago, I could see the chaos in Ferguson from the air: police choppers aiming bright white beams down into every corner of that area while blue and red police lights flashed at either end of West Florissant, the main drag in Ferguson and the place where police and protesters have gone head-to-head over the past several nights. Once I landed, though, there was that same feeling you had when you traveled outside the battle zones in Miami and L.A. all those years ago. It's eerily quiet and strangely surreal, with everyone you run into understanding exactly what's happening just across town even if they aren't directly impacted by it at that moment.
The woman who drove my rental car shuttle told me a story about her 60-year-old friend who she says had to sleep in her car on Sunday night because police had cordoned off Ferguson completely and wouldn't let her get to her home. The guy who checked me in to my hotel immediately asked if I was press, given that this hotel and many of them in this area are already overrun with my kind. This city, and that one particular suburb of it, are now playing host to a full-fledged media circus and when that happens, the reason that drew the media here in the first place sometimes takes a backseat to the spectacle. But the ongoing nature of this crisis -- this American nightmare -- is what will hopefully force the media into the role of doing what it's supposed to do: reporting and relaying the facts the public needs right now, minus a lot of grandstanding.
I'll know more when I get out to the media staging area in a little bit. The overnight news conference is about to begin. More to come tomorrow.