Until two weeks ago, I had never even heard of Ferguson, Mo.
Yet here I was, late on Sunday, amid the worst of the violence that erupted night after night in the little city.
All was chaos.
Police lined Ferguson Street and were beginning to push the protesters down West Florissant Avenue. A loud, piercing noise filled the air, which was already thick with tear gas.
People were running full out down the street. At McDonald’s, a group of frightened workers peered out the window, as if caged. Panicked marchers banged on the doors, begging for water to soothe their stinging eyes. A man picked up a brick and threw it, fracturing the plate glass window. When it didn’t fully break, he picked up another brick to finish the job.
It was 9:15 p.m. I had been on the street less than 30 seconds.
I got the call from my editors on Aug. 15 to get to Ferguson as fast as I could. The city was on the brink following the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a white police officer.
I arrived that same day. The plan was for a weekend of coverage. But in the end I spent eight days in the midst of the madness.
That Sunday a curfew was supposed to start at midnight. Anticipating trouble, I wanted to get on West Florissant — the main drag of the unrest — as early as I could, if only to find parking.
I found a back way that led to the media area, the McDonald’s at West Florissant and Ferguson Street. Its parking lot was already blocked off, so I found a spot on a back street and walked to West Florissant.
Tear gas rained down as protesters-turned-rioters attacked nearly every store they passed.
Stunned, I ran in circles.
Someone grabbed me.
“Where is your mask? Where is your mask?” he said.
It was Nigel Duara of The Associated Press, wearing a gas mask. I noticed other reporters in bulletproof vests and helmets. I realized my fresh Afro was not gonna be enough.
I spotted Yamiche Alcindor, the national breaking news reporter for USA Today.
“Is this what you signed up for?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, laughing.
But I was scared. In all my years as a reporter, I had never been in anything like this.
Thousands of angry protesters. Hundreds of police officers. Gallons of tear gas. And countless rounds of bullets, even if they were supposed to be rubber.
(Much respect to my colleagues who cover real wars.)
I had two major concerns: Getting shot by some knucklehead and getting a direct tear gas hit.
I called Blayne Alexander, a WXIA reporter who was also in town covering events. Straight to voicemail.
Reporters were getting caught up in the crowd. The cops were like bulldozers, smashing everything in their path.
When the helicopter above us began shining a light on the crowd, tear gas followed, then gunshots. The tear gas pushed people straight back. The gunshots made people scatter.
I fell to my knees and crawled.
We made it to the residential section of West Florissant and were hit with another volley of tear gas. Then bullets.
I ran into a yard, where I was face to face with a dude with a gun. It was pointed right at my gut, although he wasn’t pointing the gun at me.
“Y’all don’t want to come down here. Y’all don’t …”
I didn’t wait for him to say it twice. Yamiche was on my heels when I turned around and pushed her away, shouting, “Gun!!!”
I kept asking myself, where are we expected to go?
Back on West Florissant, the crowd thinned out a bit as Chambers Street came into view. Tear gas was coming from the direction in which we were headed. They were boxing us in.
The tear gas forced us behind a car. When we emerged, we were greeted by a line of rifle-toting officers in fatigues and gas masks, pointing their guns at us. The lasers of their guns were on our bodies.
We raised our hands and yelled we were journalists.
As we inched closer and they realized who we were, we asked one of them how were we going to get back to McDonald’s to get our cars. One officer tried to give us an answer. Another cop, a black man, jumped in.
“You want your car? Go get it. Walk down there and get it!” he yelled.
I was confused.
“We can walk back?” I asked.
“They shooting down there. You want your car that bad? Go!”
Oh, he was being facetious.
“You want to get shot?”
“Then why you asking stupid questions?” he said as he turned and left.
I looked at Yamiche.
She said she’d known from the jump that the guy was being a jerk. She could spot it a mile away, even in a war zone.
“I bet he was cute behind that mask, too,” she said.
Sometimes you have to laugh.
We marched exactly 1 mile to a service station on West Florissant and Chambers that was protected by a team of police officers. A group of protesters taunted them.
It was about 11:45 p.m. and the actual curfew was set to begin. The remaining journalists were given a corner across the street from the service station to watch what would become of the few protesters who remained as midnight approached.
Then, like an angel, Blayne appeared with a full news team and a private security guard. And two cars.
At midnight, the small crowd left. No arrests. No more tear gas.
Yamiche and I piled into the cars and were driven to the command center, about a quarter-mile beyond McDonald’s. Then we all got rides to McDonald’s. My car was the only one still on the street. It was in one piece. And so was I.
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