Black and White

Ferguson Tensions in Black and White

With the looming grand jury decision on whether or not to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown, Ferguson feels like a time bomb.

11.21.14 6:00 PM ET

Tensions are rising in Saint Louis, Mo., as race relations heat up. In anticipation of the upcoming announcement on whether Police Officer Darren Wilson, a white cop, will be indicted for shooting Michael Brown, a black teenager, the city is on the edge. White people, because they don’t want any drama, are scared that they might get caught in the crossfire. Black people are tense because they are sick and tired of being subjected to what they see as a prejudiced judicial system. This is about more than Michael Brown.

Race relations in Saint Louis could hinge on the outcome of this announcement. It’s an anxious time for everyone, in Saint Louis and in the nation, and leads to the million dollar question: what happens in Ferguson if there are no charges?

“If they don’t charge that cop it’s gonna jump off again,” a 30-something African American, who was recently released from prison and whom we’ll call Black, told The Daily Beast. “The fireworks are fitting to explode. It ain’t about racism, it’s about the law. But in this country, it’s not about justice. It’s a ‘just us’ mentality. Ain’t no black cops shooting white teenagers.”

In a case like this there is no right or wrong, only perspective. Black people see it one way and law enforcement another. Which makes me wonder if we’re on the verge of another Rodney King or even Watts type riot. I have the unique advantage of seeing this from both sides of the fence. I was just released from federal prison and residing in a halfway house off Kings Highway in the center of black Saint Louis, or what suburbanites would call the ghetto. At the same time though, I am a white male from a suburban upper-middle-class upbringing. Despite the 21 years I did in prison for a drug conviction, I am assimilating back into mainstream or, dare I say, white America. And white America is scared of what is going to happen when the announcement is made.

“People are mad as hell. Why wouldn’t they be?” said Dre, a 40-year-old, ex-convict from the south side of Saint Louis. “But it’s not a black/white thing. It’s a people/cop thing. At the protests, there’s as many white people as blacks. Everyone is sick of these pigs. They just do what they want. It ain’t right.” Many complain that the media are stirring things up and agitators are trying to turn it into a black and white thing, so everybody loses in the end. Just recently, a march on the Ferguson police station ended with protestors quickly arrested for impeding traffic. Anything to make the protestors look bad and the police good, but there are faults on both sides.

It is tragic that events like Brown’s shooting happen, but when they do it shines a national spotlight on the dreaded word that no white person wants to be accused of—racism. But these issues are real. I work at a law firm in Clayton, Mo., where they are holding the grand jury for the case. I hear the lawyers and secretaries talk every day. I deliver legal documents to the courthouse. Then at night, I go back to the halfway house and see how the residents there react to everything going on in the news with the issues swirling around in the media like a chaotic storm about to break.

“Why the story change so much?” Dre asks The Daily Beast. “At first the cop gunned him down. Now it was self-defense? It seems like they setting us up. Getting ready to soften the blow or something. I don’t know. But I mean, what really happened? Does anybody know? Don’t they have a police video? People just want the truth. We just want to be safe in our city.”

With the ruling from the grand jury expected soon, police have been preparing themselves in an attempt to avoid the mistakes they made before. They are aiming to avoid a renewed outbreak of violence during the potentially large demonstrations that could follow the announcement of whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson will face a criminal trial for the shooting. But Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor staging the grand jury, just announced that the grand jury is still hearing evidence in the case, saying no announcement is imminent, but there is speculation that the announcement could come on Friday. Regardless, the denizens of the street hold their own opinions.

“He shot dude down in the street. He needs to get charged.” Black says. “If it happened to me I would be locked up already and they would be trying to give me life.” Many protestors want Wilson indicted for murder. The consensus is that’s the only proper outcome. Still others would like to dispense street justice. “They should put dude down in the hood and let him get what he deserves.” Dre says. But that’s not going to happen.

The consensus among the legal establishment is that Wilson will not be indicted. The grand jury can choose between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, or no charges at all. That is the reality. Nine out of the 12 members of the jury must agree for Wilson to be indicted. And with all the conflicting news reports and evidence, who knows what they’ll decide?

“I know they’re gonna let that cop off,” Black says. “That’s just how it goes. Ain’t no grand jury gonna indict that police officer. Especially in Saint Louis. But what they don’t know is that when that happens its gonna get worse. People are gonna riot. They’re gonna tear the city down. It’s gonna be on and poppin’ for real. Dudes ain’t pump faking. They ready to get down.”

And this is the prevailing attitude that white St. Louis fears the most: an all out riot, anarchy, lawlessness, disorder. A repeat of the LA riots from 1992. In the building where I work they are talking about lockdown procedures for when the announcement is made and how the police are prepared for the worst but hoping for the best.

More than 350 Saint Louis officers have been trained in civil disobedience tactics, studying up on constitutional rights to avoid the human rights violations that they have been accused of. Saint Louis City police also spent $325,000 upgrading helmets, sticks and other civil disobedience equipment. If protestors get violent, the police will respond in kind. They are ready and more prepared than they have ever been before. It seems the combatants are squaring off and flexing their muscles, waiting for the announcement that could set off a chain reaction and sequence of events.

“I hope they don’t indict him. That will get everyone hyped. We just waiting for an excuse,” Dre says. “He needs to get charged and go to trial, but we all know that won’t happen. People need to stand up for what’s right. People need to be united, but that won’t happen either. It’ll be a free for all. Everybody for self. The shit will jump off, but it won’t be organized. It will all be on impulse.”

Clayton businesses and buildings are preparing for lockdowns as the Buzz Westfall Center in Clayton where the grand jury meets. Protest leaders talk of boycotting and marching through Clayton again to shut down area businesses.

But at the end of the day, I hope it’s not really a white/black thing. I don’t feel any hatred from blacks towards me. I try to reassure my white friends of this. But there is anger and something needs to be done so that events like this don’t happen again. Perhaps it’s properly equipping the police, doing some hard self-analysis, or looking at race and class structures. Something.

“The only two people that know the truth are Michael Brown and Darren Wilson,” Black says. “And Michael Brown is dead. If they just do the right thing, it’s all good. If not…”