Moments before SWAT officers swarmed our car, fixing their rifles on us.
I was as far as once can be from a conflict zone — Aspen — the nights Ferguson, Mo., first erupted over the fatal police shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown. Busy meeting about the future of the internet, the details of why the QuikTrip in a St. Louis inner suburb burned were hazy to me.
When I got home on Wednesday night, August 13, a fast-moving flood of tweets indicated police were moving in on protesters — and journalists — in a siege that seemed like something out of a wartorn nation.
I was born in St. Louis and lived there until age 13. I even moved back to Missouri for college. Ferguson is not the community I called home, but greater St. Louis certainly is, so I sent an email saying I’d be happy to help in any way. The next day my editor called. “You ready to go to Ferguson?,” he said. And, he said, buy a one-way ticket.
I got there on early Saturday morning to looted businesses. After a night of calm on Thursday, the chaos returned Friday. On my first day on the ground I found myself sitting uncomfortably on the floor of a church, surrounded by already work-weary journalists, listening to Gov. Jay Nixon announce he was imposing a curfew on the town at midnight. The curfew would be indefinite.
The curfew didn’t work. Both nights it was in place (it only lasted two nights), a curfew seemed to only increase the tensions that many young black men said had been simmering all their lives. Before I left, my next door neighbor Miss Essie, asked if I could just stay home, instead. Miss Essie, who is black, has a 24 year old son. She said she saw what happened to Brown as something that could easily happen to her own 24-year-old son, Nate.
Monday, the National Guard moved in. I never did get used to the weird juxtaposition of heavily armed military staging in a suburban shopping center full of big box stores. And Monday is when I got caught between a line of protesters and police, flames flying across the windshield of a local girl’s car I’d ducked into for safety. A series of pops — fireworks — were followed by the launching of smoke grenades. Then I saw a flame flying at the police line, which they later said was a Molotov cocktail. Then the loudest blasts I’d ever heard at close range went off. Tear gas and gunshots, fired almost simultaneously.
I was still ducking there, stunned, when suddenly an armored vehicle blasted its lights at the car where I hid. The rest of the press had gotten pushed back before the tear gassing began. But because I’d sought cover in the car wash, and then a stranger’s backseat, I got separated from my media brethren and was stuck in a dangerous zone. In a matter of seconds, the masked tactical unit — at least a dozen men — raised their rifles and pointed them at the car. The girls in the front seat had their hands up as soon as the lights blasted us. I dropped my phone and rolled down the window. “I’m press! I’m press!” I screamed. One of the armed men gestured to let us drive out of the melee, while the rest kept their guns trained on us.
But rolling down the window meant getting the worst of the gas wafting. It burns your eyes. It burns your nose. It burns your throat. It wasn’t until we were out of the most dangerous zone that other strangers could help us, handing us water and warning us not to rub or touch our eyes, or it would make it worse.
“My life just flashed before my eyes,” said Orrie, the driver who so generously gave me cover and navigated numerous police barricades to get me back to the command center, aka Target parking lot, safely.
I composed myself to file a report for our overnight newscast. Then I drove home to wash my eyes out some more and start reporting again on Tuesday. And again on Wednesday. And Thursday. Today, after a relative calm held for a few nights in a row, I got to come home. Being safely home has never felt so good.