Live From Ferguson: The Calm Before the Storm

Photos: Chez Pazienza, The Daily Banter

What you see within the confines of a camera shot on TV or online — or within the 140 characters of a tweet — is inherently tiny. Even with images being beamed in to you from all directions, you still can’t get a real feel for what it’s like on the ground in a place where a big news event is happening. We see entire towns obliterated by tornadoes without ever really understanding what was lost because we’re unable to fully comprehend what things were like before disaster struck. We don’t know what exists just outside the frame and that means we’re never getting the whole story.

In the case of Ferguson, Missouri, you probably don’t know that it’s a beautiful little town populated by warm, friendly people — that if you walk just a couple of blocks off of West Florissant, where by day protesters gather and by night police engage in violent confrontations with those protestors and the handful of agitators among them, what you find are quiet tree-lined streets and appealing wood-framed homes. In fact, the place where Mike Brown was killed looks like a college quad; it’s not at all the kind of place you’d imagine someone being gunned down by police in the middle of the street. That knowledge is what lends extra heft to the anger you now find here: everyone I’ve talked to today is outraged not only at the injustice of Mike Brown’s death, as it’s the latest in a long history of blue-on-black violence, but at what it means for the place they and their children call home. “It ain’t safe here,” one young woman told me as she clutched her baby girl, “And it’s not the criminals we worry about.”

For most of the morning it’s been a handful of protesters marching up and down the street chanting, among other things, “What do we want? A murder charge! When do we want it? Now!” It’s that particular sentiment that hangs like ominous approaching clouds over this whole place because everyone seems to know that the situation here can go from bad to explosive should the grand jury not come back with charges against Ferguson police-officer-in-hiding Darren Wilson in the next couple of days. Almost no one taking to the streets right now wants to see more violence; they’re looking for a measure of satisfaction but most refuse to achieve it any way other than peacefully. But day and night here are literal and figurative. Once the sun goes down and the police become a heavily armed occupying force, squaring off against a handful of instigators with rocks and bottles, a lot of good people retreat to let the war in the streets begin. And it’s going to get worse if Wilson gets off clean. I’ve heard several times today, “This city’s gonna burn — burn to the ground.”

As I sit here in the McDonalds that was cleared out by police SWAT teams five days ago, leading to the arrest of reporters from the Huffington Post and the Washington Post, I’m listening to a young girl freestyle rapping about life and death as a black teenager and I can see more and more people streaming from the side-streets onto West Florissant. These are the folks who will take part in the tenth day of protests here this afternoon. The sat trucks and media encampments line this part of the street and in a few hours the police will create an impenetrable barrier of armor and military weaponry about 50 yards from where I am. We’ll see what the night brings.

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