Ferguson Chaos Is Only Just Beginning

The streets of a Missouri suburb were strewn with tear gas canisters and rubber bullet casings again last night as protesters pledged to keep on demonstrating.

Scott Olson/Getty

For four days Ferguson, Missouri has existed in various states of chaos, conflict, confusion and indignation over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager killed by a cop Saturday night. Wednesday night was, for the most part, peaceful. But following a warning from police to protesters that public assembly should only take place during daylight hours, disorder took hold in the form of marching police, tear gas, rubber bullets and other ammunition of suppression. On this fourth day it was a scene that has become all too familiar for the residents of Ferguson.

“It’s not going to stop,” said Phil Bowdry, wearing a paper surgical mask tucked under his chin in preparation for the tear gas that still hung in the air nearly two hours after the climax of Wednesday night’s round of chaos. “This is just the beginning.”

Bowdry was at the protest with a man who identified himself only as Mike Brown, in solidarity with a phrase many protesters have chanted since the young man’s death: “We are Mike Brown.”

“Did the police get touched?” the anonymous man asked. “No. It was Mike who got gunned down by the police.”

That Brown was unarmed and, according to many on the streets of Ferguson, surrendering to police, is the cause of rage here. The protests that continued Wednesday night are just the latest iteration of that anger. The police presence and response to protesters might be doing more harm than good, drawing citizens to an area of town that has become the focal point of demonstrations over Brown’s death. Adding to the situation’s national implications was the arrest and quick release of two journalists that occurred Wednesday evening, picked up for apparently not vacating a McDonald’s restaurant that has served as a local newsroom for many reporters working here. As Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post noted, however, his situation was one of almost immediate resolution, unlike the dozens who have been arrested by what looks like a militarized police force taking control of this city.

Tuesday night saw a peaceful protest dissipate, only for more unrest to occur shortly after. (Tear gas and flash bang grenades were fired early Wednesday.) A St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer captured what may be, so far, the defining image of this conflict, taken after the calm of Tuesday night’s demonstration waned. A sense of calm materialized after Tuesday’s visit by Al Sharpton but that fell apart on Wednesday night. A local TV station had set up a live feed to capture the carnage, and national media outlets began to pay even greater attention to the situation in this small, St. Louis suburb, of which an even more microscopic area is now ground zero for discussions of civil liberties, race relations and police power.

Bowdry and his friend, standing near the QuikTrip gas station that has become home to protests following Brown’s death, were far outnumbered Wednesday night by police who congregated across the street near SWAT trucks that have become a familiar part of the tense atmosphere here. More than a few times, the faces of Bawdry, a man picking up trash near the main protest area, and anyone walking down West Florissant Avenue were illuminated by spotlights from atop the SWAT vehicles.

Among the garbage was the typical detritus of public gatherings: water bottles, soda cans, candy wrappers. Also typical, at least for the past four nights here, were the plastic wrist-cuff ties, spent smoke bombs, tear gas canisters and rubber bullet shell casings. A man named Tom Tucker decided to start the clean-up. At one point, an officer across the street announced to his riot-ready companions: “he’s just picking up trash. He’s fine.”

“I’m just trying to clean up,” Tucker said. He might have work to do for the foreseeable future.

To refer to these nights of protest as clashes with police would be a misrepresentation of the situation. And to say the protests have turned violent would also be incorrect. No police have been harmed in any of the demonstrations that have taken place, mostly, in front of the QuikTime gas station, known on the streets of Ferguson as “the QT.” The Ferguson Chief of Police, Thomas Jackson, did, however, announce late Tuesday that the officer who killed Brown was injured in the alleged scuffle that led to the teen’s death. Whatever your term is, the unrest that has taken over this small city continued Wednesday night, with police firing the ammunition that could still be seen on Florissant as the midnight hour approached.

“I ain’t going to throw these away,” Tucker remarked to himself, touching signs previously held by protesters. The posterboards contained messages to police, and had been discarded on concrete barricades that have blocked entrance to the destroyed gas station since Sunday.

“They’re trying to sweep this under the rug, and the only thing you need to sweep things under the rug is time,” said the man calling himself Mike Brown. “Until Mike gets buried, I’ll be out here.”

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Brown’s family received his body today.

Related: ‘Go Ahead and Shoot Me:’ The Veteran Who Defied Ferguson’s Cops