It’s nearly impossible to capture the pain, frustration, and sadness in Ferguson following the announcement that a white cop will not be charged for shooting an unarmed black teen three months ago. But if the faces partially hidden by gas masks and bandanas are any indication, last night's events can be summed up by one simple word: rage.
“I guess it’s legal for police to kill unarmed black men now,” said one woman, defiant but in despair.
For many of those gathered, the grand jury’s verdict didn’t even really matter—it was the expected outcome of a system that works against them. “We already know what they’ve decided,” said one man outside the Ferguson Police headquarters before St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch had approached the microphone.
A few optimistic souls had not yet given up hope. “It’s never happened, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen,” said one. But when the announcement came, there was no surprise: Officer Darren Wilson will not stand trial for killing a teenager.
The reaction of the crowd wasn’t a surprise either. It started with chants. Then taunts. A few water bottles tossed at police. Tear gas. Smoke. Random gunfire. Arson and looting.
They flipped a cop car and torched it not far from the police station; flames reflected in the glass of storefronts that hadn’t been boarded up in the downtown shopping district, which is dotted with “Welcome to Historic Ferguson” signs. They fled from tear-gas canisters hissing through the air underneath the words “Seasons Greetings” that joined white lights and garlands on street lamps.
The crowd began to chant: “We gonna burn the shit down.”
A few protected stores from fellow residents and one man pleaded tearfully as water bottles flew over his head at police, but a mob mentality took over on South Florissant. That was nothing compared to the utter destruction going on across town. There, on the strip of West Florissant, which is now so familiar to protesters and TV news viewers, the night sky was lit by an inferno. Several, in fact. A storage building became a ghostly concrete frame lit bright orange. A small fire in an auto parts store created explosions that quickly got out of control. Black smoke rolled through the front door and the entire structure was gone to Hell in minutes. Business owners swept up glass in front of their barber shop. Next door, a strip mall popped and hissed as unknown accelerants aided in its fiery destruction.
“This was probably worse than the worst night we ever had in August,” said Jon Belmar, chief of the St. Louis County Police Department, who claimed to have heard 150 gunshots.
In truth, the genesis of these scenes that shocked the country came three months ago when residents of the apartments on Canfield Drive saw Mike Brown lying motionless and bleeding while Ferguson’s cops looked on.
Anger rose through the summer, as the names of more victims added fuel to the fire; starting as Twitter hashtags and making their way on to signs and T-shirts worn by the protesters in Ferguson—VonDeritt Myers and Kajieme Powell. Eric Garner and Ezell Ford. Then last week, a 12-year-old in Cleveland shot dead for holding a toy gun. A 28-year-old gunned down in a dark, New York City hallway by a rookie cop who apparently made a fatal mistake.
They were all Mike Brown, said the protesters. “We are,” the chant goes, “Mike Brown.”
The chanting—so much a part of protests here for the past 100-plus days—was sporadic through Monday night. As looters roamed, you could hear a few of the refrains that have defined this situation, most notably “No justice, no peace.” The phrase took on a greater sense of immediacy as chaotic midnight approached, with the streets belonging mostly to whomever wanted to take them. For a while it seemed like the cops didn’t. The destruction appeared random; it’s impossible to tell why some businesses were spared and others were torched. Although in at least one instance, there was discussion of saving black-owned shops. The Ferguson Burger Bar—a favorite among protesters—was spared despite having never boarded up. Across the street, Ferguson Market and Liquor, the convenience store that was home to Brown’s alleged robbery, was again wide open to pillagers. The tear gas smoke that consumed West Florissant in August—a sign of police oppression for some—was replaced by black plumes coming from the burning businesses.
Protesters simply trashed the place. But I didn’t see any smiles. It was an unfiltered anger that drove them to bust windows and set the flames that would consume a recognizable portion of their community. For the most part, the police simply backed off. And with the streets filled with protesters, gunfire ringing out in the air, the situation was too dangerous for firefighters to do their job.
So Ferguson watched itself burn.
For the young man’s defenders, this country’s sins—past and present—are the reason for his death and subsequent slandering in the media. The loss of his life, and all the others from this summer, back to Trayvon and well before that, are part of a pattern. But for one young woman, who recognized her chance to give a passing quote, Brown’s death is indicative not of an ending, but the start of something. What that is remains unclear.
In front of an engulfed auto parts store, surrounded by mayhem, she shouted five words before disappearing into the crowd: “This is just the beginning.”