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"This was the new Jim Crow": an oral history of the Ferguson protests

On August 9, 2014, two years ago, Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown's body lay on Canfield Drive in the small St. Louis suburb for nearly five hours, as crowds grew and anger magnified.

Some locals, like Ferguson City Council member Mark Byrne, say that the ensuing protests — which would spark a painful and ongoing national conversation about police violence and the value of black lives in America — were unexpected in Ferguson.

"We didn't have the racial issues," Byrne told Vox, "and there wasn't racial tension."

Others will say that racial tension and resentment over what black residents (and, later, the US Department of Justice) described as biased policing had long been simmering beneath the surface in the city, where the population was majority black and the city government and police force were majority white, and Brown's killing simply sparked an explosion of anger that was inevitable.

Why exactly Ferguson became the touchpoint it did can be debated, but the resonance of the response to Brown's killing two years ago can't. We spoke to journalists, residents, politicians, and out-of-town protesters and activists in 2015 — a year after the protests — to understand the beginnings of what would become a national movement and how a local news story became one of the most important moments of the last two years.

"The police shot and killed this dude"

The scene of Michael Brown's death

The scene of Michael Brown's death. (St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office via Getty Images)

Edward Crawford, local resident, protester

It was the day of my son's birthday party. I called my little brother to ask what was the setup, since I couldn't set up since I was at work. He told me, "Yeah, we're setting up. But did you hear what happened?" I'm like, "No, what happened? Is it good or bad?" He was like, "It's bad, but it doesn't have to do with any of us." I'm like, "Okay. What happened?" He was like, "The police shot and killed this dude." I'm like, "Who?" Then he said, "Mike Brown."

Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal

On the day of the shooting, I started getting all of these phone calls from [St. Louis Alderman] Antonio French. We've been friends all these years, but it was unlike him to call 15 times. He says, "Maria, you got to get up here." For three days, people were just in total shock.

Robert Cohen, photojournalist, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A shooting by a police officer gets our attention, but they're no longer rare. It's not one of those things that jumped out as being terribly unusual. The newsroom and the reporters got the word after one of our photographers read a tweet that was sent to him, saying that this was important and we needed to be out to cover this story.

Ray Downs, journalist, formerly of the Riverfront Times

I was actually in Memphis on vacation with my girlfriend at the time. I think we were in a motel when she pointed to the article about what's happening in St. Louis. This was on the day it happened. I immediately thought, "I should get back to St. Louis."

Princess Black, librarian and historian who traveled to Ferguson to protest

I was on Instagram and started to see pictures and videos about the death of Michael Brown. That was during the time when there was a lot of discussion about Eric Garner, so for me it was just like, damn, I went out and had a fun night, but the reality is that I came back home and another black person was killed by the police.

Maria Chappelle-Nadal

I went to see the family of Michael Brown, where he was headed before he was shot, to give my condolences to the family. We walked around. We saw rows of police officers — I would say something like 40 to 50 just on the street alone. Then, on the main road, there were probably a ton of police cars. This police officer, folks were trying to overturn his car. I remember more officers coming in. When those cops came in, that's when people started holding their hands up and saying, "Hands up, don't shoot!" That's where that came from. Everybody started thinking about the possibility of being Michael Brown.

Edward Crawford

I was out [at the scene of Brown's death] talking to people. There were a lot of people who were angry, a lot of people crying. There were a lot of people with backpacks and books saying the revolution is starting. It was a lot of chaos.

Mark Byrne, Ferguson City Council member

I don't think you can view it in any other way other than to say that some of the anger was justified — not necessarily against the Ferguson Police Department or Darren Wilson, but just the overall relationship between police and the African-American community. It's almost like it boiled over at that point. I don't know why it was that particular point, or why it was that particular incident, but certainly it had some justification.

Edward Crawford

This one guy, he told me that he was going to get a protest started. I was like, "What are you protesting?" He was like, "Man, they just shot this dude for no reason." I was like, "Okay. What is the protest? What are you protesting? What is the message you're trying to get across?" He was like, "Man, we need to stand up and fight." I was like, "Stand up and fight who?" He was like, "Police. They're the ones who did this." So we were going back and forth, and I was sitting there telling him that it wasn't the way to go. I thought more protests would just cause more problems, and would just agitate the police more.

Robert Cohen

The evening of August 9, there were a good number of protesters out. At the apartment complex, there were canines brought in, and certainly a lot of extra police were brought in. While it was a little surprising from my end, I still looked at this as a story that we're going to be reporting for a week or so and be done with. But when I worked the next day, it was very obvious from the surge of protesters and outcry at the police station that this story already had resonance nationally and was not going anywhere.

"The sadness began to turn into anger"

Ferguson protests

A demonstrator observes tear gas during the early Ferguson protests. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

After Brown's death, small, peaceful local protests quickly ballooned into large-scale demonstrations that attracted national media and often lasted until the early morning hours — and were marked by violent clashes between late-night protesters and police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Ray Downs

I think this was around 3 or 4 pm when I got [to the protests], and people were just starting to gather. At first the protests were extremely peaceful — with visuals, signs, people quietly demonstrating, and a great sense of sadness. People were crying and hugging each other. It was really somber.

Edward Crawford

Once I saw the amount of people who were so for the protests, I felt that people had the right of a peaceful protest. It goes back to the night me and that guy were arguing. He was really on me, telling me I had to be down with this, that we could get a lot of people, and that this could change a lot of things. So I was finally like, "Okay."

Ray Downs

I think what changed things was when more and more police came. I don't remember at what point the police had two blocks occupied, just full of police. The police kind of boxed the protesters into these two blocks with officers and armored vehicles. As it got dark, more police showed up. Then the sadness began to turn into anger. People began yelling at police, and saying, "Hands up, don't shoot!" At some point, the looting started. I actually wasn't aware of what was happening at the QuikTrip. There was just so much going on.

Maria Chappelle-Nadal

On Sunday night, that's when the QuikTrip burned up. I was at the police station at the time — at a candlelight vigil there. No one wanted to do a prayer with the older ministers. There was one minister or pastor who was younger than I am, and he was the only one the folks in the crowd would allow to hold hands and pray in a circle. And I think it was because he was younger. So there was a generational gap.

Ray Downs

From my viewpoint, it was more of a party atmosphere — not like a party as in a celebration, but more a party as in a "fuck-the-police" kind of party. It was just a bunch of kids playing music in loops. It was a little funny in a way. So I moved along. I saw more and more looting. But even then — and I'm not trying to be an apologist for the looters — it didn't seem like a crazy, hectic environment. One of the guys was in a cast; his arm was in a sling. It just didn't seem threatening to me. Later on in the night, when things got crazier, people went to the stores and started taking stuff. The police were just standing there. And protesters asked, "You guys are the police. Are you going to just stand there and watch them do this?" The police didn't really do anything.

"I really didn't know what it was, because I had never seen tear gas"

Ferguson tear gas

A protester holds up her hands as she's engulfed by tear gas in Ferguson. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Robert Cohen

By August 13, we had seen tear gas for two nights in a row. The protests and media were out in full force. None of us were getting a whole lot of sleep. I was working with one of my colleagues that night — it was pretty common for journalists, at least for safety's sake, to work together while in the streets. It looked like we were actually going to finish the night peacefully. The police and the protesters normally went to head to head in the vicinity of Canfield Drive and West Florissant Avenue, which is right next to the burned QuikTrip that everyone's heard about.

Edward Crawford

I talked to my mother, who told me to not get in trouble and be careful. We drove out there, to the protest area, which the police had blocked off. We parked the car on a church lot, because the police had all the streets blocked off. We walked to the protest area. At this time, you just see a bunch of police. You see police on every corner. There were a million of them. The police were in riot gear. They had their tactical helmets, riot shields, and batons. They were standing in a straight line, like a wall of defense. There was a guy chanting, "Go home! Return to your vehicles!" And he just kept saying that. But people weren't listening.

The police got so close. All of a sudden, they stopped. They were just looking at us. We were just looking at them. They were still hitting their batons to their shields. They yelled for people to get out of the street. They marched forward, and they began shooting tear gas and rubber bullets.

I remember there were reporters out there. Police were shooting tear gas while these people were filming. I remember people started running. It was so loud. It sounded like a cannon going off. And you just see the canisters spinning in the sky and landing not even close to us. I was like, "Okay, they're just trying to scare us." They shot another one, and it landed a little closer. They shot another one, and it landed in the group I was in. When I saw it, it didn't look like tear gas. It was on the ground, it was spinning, and it was, like, the size of a soda can that you get out of a vending machine. It had fire on it. I really didn't know what it was, because I had never seen tear gas. People were screaming. So my first initial thought was, "I just need to get this away from people," because it was smoking and had fire on it. So I just chucked it, threw it out of the way.

Robert Cohen

I just see this guy out of nowhere come out — I had never seen him before — and he reaches down, and he went to pick up the tear gas canister. When he reached down, sparks just kind of flew out of it. He kind of let it spin for a second. Then he came back down, grabbed it, and threw it. And I'm just trying to keep things in focus and get some pictures.

Edward Crawford throwing tear gas

Edward Crawford throwing a tear gas canister in Ferguson. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Edward Crawford

When I first saw the picture, my sister had sent it to my phone. I was like, "This is dope! I look pretty cool!" I called my sister. I asked if that was the picture she had seen. She was like, "Yeah, it's everywhere. It's all over Facebook."

Robert Cohen

I didn't have any feeling for the reach of the photograph until the next morning when I got up, got my kids to school, came back, and checked my Twitter feed just to check what was going on. It was like, "Oh my god, everyone is talking about this image."

Edward Crawford

People were just like, "Who is this guy?" They couldn't really see my face, because my hair was in my face. People were like, "This guy has a mask, and he's throwing a bomb at police." I heard "bomb," "Molotov cocktail," "tear gas," a bunch of stuff. Some people said it was somebody the CIA sent out here, because [they didn't] know anyone who had the balls to throw anything at the police.

Robert Cohen

[The photo] was something I thought was interesting, different, something we hadn't seen yet.

But what I didn't realize was the effect it had on people, and how many people saw that act of defiance as their calling. It just resonated with so many people.

Edward Crawford

They were like, "Stand up to it. You did something good. You threw the tear gas." I'm like, "Yeah, but I didn't throw it at the police. I was just trying to get it out of the crowd." They were like, "Okay, whatever. You stood up." The guy that I was arguing about the protests with earlier, he was like, "I told you that you had it in you." I'm like, "Yeah. I really didn't know I did."

"Peace during the day and war at night"

Ferguson protesters gather at Quiktrip

Protesters at the Ferguson QuikTrip on August 17, 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images).

As the protests continued, protesters, activists, and observers flooded the area to be a part of the growing movement. According to people who were there, some of these outsiders had better intentions than others.

Princess Black

Ferguson was peace during the day and war at night. Unwarranted war at night. It was almost as if a large part of the community had convened in that space and were in solidarity for Mike. It was people from all over, and we were all grieving, but we were all embracing each other, and that to me was one of the most powerful things. The QuikTrip had burned down, and they turned it into — I think it was called Liberty Park. We parked, walked two blocks up, and it was just one of the most amazing spaces. It was a situation with tragedy, a burned store, and the community took over that space. They were grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, it was all free, and it was take what you need.

Derecka Purnell, Harvard law student, formerly of the St. Louis Young Citizens Council

I remember asking people, "Hey, where do come from?" Some people came from Illinois, some people did live there. West Florissant was just always just really, really crowded. Even in the rain. The QuikTrip became a meetup spot for people who were coming from out of town. We would say, "Oh. I see you're coming to St. Louis; there's a group of people gathering here at pump three at this time."

Princess Black

To see us doing for us during a vulnerable moment like that was really powerful. It was something I thought I would never see in my lifetime, and that was amazing. That was the daytime — a lot of camaraderie. No one fussing or arguing.

And as soon as it became dusk, the whole vibe changed.

Robert Cohen

The same people that were out carrying signs, marching up and down West Florissant Avenue, weren't necessarily the same people that were breaking into stores, looting, and setting fires. I'm not saying that none of the protesters along the march routes participated in that, but I would see people looting stores and throwing bottles that you certainly didn't see in the day in the march. Once I did this for a long time, a lot of the faces got to be very familiar, and I got to know some of the protesters as well. So when there were new groups that showed up out of nowhere, I would notice that, because I had been out there so much.

Derecka Purnell

I remember being in all of these group meetings sometimes, and people were saying, "There are outside agitators who are purposely coming to Ferguson because they believe that a revolution that will only happen if it's violent." Trying to figure out who in the crowd was potentially one of these agitators was hard.

Robert Cohen

I never knew that you could be in the middle of a peaceful protest and have a couple people decide to throw bottles at the police. Once that kind of stuff happened, the police response was very different at that point — that's when you had the tear gas, the rubber bullets, and all of that.

"This was the new Jim Crow"

Police in Ferguson in a cloud of tear gas

Police in Ferguson on August 17, 2014, in a cloud of tear gas. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Quickly, the story out of Ferguson became as much about the police response to the protests as about the protests themselves. St. Louis County police, who were in charge of the protest response, took heavy criticism for using military-grade equipment, riot gear, and tear gas and rubber bullets on what observers say were largely peaceful protests (Representatives from the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments, as well as the Missouri Highway Patrol, declined to be interviewed for this story). The events in Ferguson would inspire President Barack Obama to reform the programs that dole out the same weapons and gear used in war to local police forces.

Ray Downs

For me, the story was all about police brutality. I didn't really do much about the actual Michael Brown shooting. It became really ridiculous to me when they started using tear gas. Now they were using tear gas on people who hadn't done anything and who were just protesting. I saw some people throw bottles and rocks. But it was a pretty lopsided response by police. Even though police in this country are so aggressive, as is documented almost daily, it was pretty incredible to see it happening in person.

Alicia Garza, co-founder, Black Lives Matter

One evening I went to one of the nightly protests, and people had basically formed a line across the street, so maybe 50 or 60 riot police, and every single night there would be a row of riot cops protecting the police station and anywhere from 80 to 150 people across the street protesting. And sometimes those two groups would come into interaction. I saw at one point, maybe about 30 or so young leaders who blocked the street formed a line in the street, and they sat down and were chanting and singing, and the police gave an order to disperse, and folks did not. Police would do this thing called a five-second rule, meaning you couldn't stand in one place for five seconds or you'd be arrested, which was later overturned because the ACLU fought it.

Maria Chappelle-Nadal

It was oppressive treatment. When I look at what happened in Baltimore and protests in other states, they all did a better job than what Ferguson and St. Louis County did. This was the new Jim Crow.

Princess Black

Tear gas is very overwhelming. You can try to cover your mouth and face, but it still penetrates. It's like you can't breathe, and it burns. One night we were in the car for safety, and we were trying to get out, and they were doing tear gas on a residential street, and the tear gas comes through the vents and the windows and then you're not safe in your car.

Chauniqua Young, New York City–based attorney

I was tear-gassed along with my colleagues [from the Center for Constitutional Rights]. After it happened, I had trouble sleeping. I felt shaky. I know this happened to the people who went before me who were part of the civil rights movement. It happens all the time, it happens all over the world, but I didn't expect that it would happen to me as part of participating in a protest in the United States.

Robert Cohen

I've traveled internationally for work, and I've been in war-zone-type areas. But most of the time when I've been in these areas, there's been ceasefires or relative peace. So, really, the most violent encounters I've had between law enforcement and people were in Ferguson. I think it's the most violent thing I've ever seen.

Alicia Garza

It was pretty surreal. Most of the images we were seeing — it's hard to describe. When you turn on the television and you see a place that few people besides those who live there knew existed, and you see people running from tanks, tear gas, and rubber bullets, in some ways for me it was like, Wait is this happening in the US or somewhere overseas?, given that juxtaposition of the imagery. But what I remember feeling was that our people aren't safe.

Mark Byrne

When it comes to dispersing the crowd, if law enforcement had a better relationship with the people who were protesting, my hope is they would have been able to get them to go home earlier, so there wouldn't have been those standoffs. But would that have been wishful thinking? I don't know.

Robert Cohen

The police walk a fine line. They're trying to keep the peace. I think they learned over the weeks that taking a very aggressive stance from their end was not helping the situation. I think there were some leadership within the ranks that took a different approach and made better inroads with some of the protest leadership.

Derecka Purnell

The day after Captain Ron Johnson said, "We're not going to have the National Guardsmen on Florissant, on West Florissant. It's going to be peaceful. I want to walk with the people," and all of this stuff ... I remember the day after that announcement came, West Florissant almost become festive. There was music, people would just drive their cars and sing and chant together.

"There were just so many journalists"

Ferguson journalist

A photojournalist in the Ferguson protests. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The national media swarmed on Ferguson, and soon it was said that journalists became part of the story, as many were hit with tear gas and rubber bullets and were even arrested as they tried to cover the protests. Some of the people on the ground objected to what they felt was unfair coverage — violent late-night clashes got much more play in the news than peaceful demonstrations.

Chauniqua Young

I've never had the situation where I was part of something and the reporting on it was completely opposite of what was actually happening.

Robert Cohen

We got a lot of criticism at our newspaper for some of the images that we presented. A lot of the times if you had an entire day of peaceful marches end with one violent confrontation in the evening, certainly some people can say that we didn't accurately represent the day because the day was mostly about peace and not about violence. So how could we put that picture on the front page? But from our end, it was about reporting the confrontations that are going on.

Princess Black

Even after the attacks every night with tear gas and rubber bullets, people were still talking about looting as if that was something that went on forever. Looting went on for maybe a night or two. By the time we got there that following week, it was nothing like that. But that was the narrative that the media kept drumming up and talking about. No one wants to hear that the black community came, passing out ponchos and water and giving free food to all the people standing in solidarity in the QuikTrip parking lot that was burned down.

I didn't see any media when we were out in the day, but as soon as the sun started to set, that's when the media was set up.

Ray Downs

When you had so much media there, the media also became part of the story. There were just so many journalists there.

Maria Chappelle-Nadal

I'm so grateful to the media, because it finally gave us a voice. What I was enduring and what everyone else was enduring; we thought it was normal to be turned out at every single turn. You know? This shit wasn't normal. It was not normal. So I'm grateful to the media for coming to Missouri.

Robert Cohen

One of my favorite images is the one that didn't get a lot of attention. One evening at the Mike Brown memorial, at the apartment complex, there may have been one or two media people at the time, but overall it was very quiet. It was just a small gathering of college fraternity members. It was kind of dusk, getting into the evening. They were just gathering around, trying to do a prayer. It was very quiet, very peaceful. And I was glad to be able to share that image to counteract some of the more violent photos we showed later in the evening or the evening before.

Mourners at the Michael Brown memorial

College students pray at Michael Brown's memorial. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

"Those kids in Ferguson did that"

Michael Brown Sr.

Michael Brown's father talks to reporters. (Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images)

A year after Michael Brown's death, the impact of the Ferguson protests was still rippling through the country and affecting how the nation sees police-citizen relations — specifically within black communities — across the country. Locally, the St. Louis area was taking stock of how to fix policing and courts systems that a Department of Justice report described as incredibly flawed. And fed-up Ferguson residents started it all. Here's what some of the people involved told us in 2015, on the eve of the first anniversary.

Maria Chappelle-Nadal

It still hasn't changed [in Missouri]. Ferguson has had more impact on states around the country than Missouri itself.

Mark Byrne

Were there any lessons to be learned? Yeah. The lesson to be learned is that anywhere in America today, whether it's a majority-minority community or however it ends up being, we need to have a law enforcement that looks at the diversity of the citizens who they protect, gets to know those citizens, and gets involved in the community.

I don't think you can do a very good job to serve and protect if you don't know the individuals you're serving and protecting on a daily basis. And if our officers can take the lead on learning that very important lesson, I think that's a very big deal.

Robert Cohen

It's still a daily story for us. Many days it's a page-one story for us. We've been hitting the further-reaching effects of the protests themselves. A lot of them have manifested in the municipal court system. So we've been reporting a lot about how the municipal court system works and how they don't work. We're seeing a lot of changes there being made right now.

Mark Byrne

The court reform in St. Louis County probably would have never happened but for this event. As an attorney, I know it needed to happen. There's no question it needed to happen. There's still courts out there that are not following the recommendations that have been made, and they need to. But there's still some issues that need to be fixed. The hope is that everybody starts to take the position that we're in this together, and it's a partnership.

Celeste Faison, black organizing coordinator at National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-founder of Blackout Collective

One of the biggest lessons that I've learned from Ferguson is that the actions that happened in Ferguson really changed the way that direct action happens within a movement. I don't know if Ferguson is properly credited for that. Those kids in Ferguson did that.

Derecka Purnell

I remember asking a reporter, "What's different about Ferguson compared to what you've seen in other places?" He said, "In Ferguson you have everyday people who have this civil rights moment sort of being forced upon them, and they're stepping up the best way that they know how."

I feel like that's what it captured: how there are a lot of young, 15- to 30-year-olds who probably aren't quoting James Baldwin, but are out here now working as a part of this fight.


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