St. Louis County police responding to
the Ferguson Uprising…
Curtis McGuire, St. Louis County police responding to the Ferguson Uprising after white officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown, a young black man, Nov. 24th 2014, Ferguson, MO. The night the Non-Indictment of Darren Wilson was announced. Images courtesy of the artist.
My role in St. Louis and Ferguson was that of a National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer (NLG-LO). As a practice, NLG-LOs only become involved when a request is presented from members of a community. The purpose of a legal observer is to be witness to the activities of law enforcement organizations and how law enforcement treats people during the engagement of constitutionally protected free speech. We document any violations of human rights or violence by law enforcement and turn over that documentation to NLG attorneys. That evidence is then used to protect protestors who face charges for engaging in free speech.
What I saw in St. Louis and in Ferguson was a systematically racist society doing its best to squash a rebellion of its most disenfranchised black youth who even now continue to fight against the perpetual threat of death for having the audacity to have been born black. Between August and November, 2014 I made periodic visits to the St. Louis area, primarily as a legal observer, but filling in however I was needed.
November and No True Bill
On November 24th word spread quickly as media reported that a decision about whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson would be made public on that night at 8 p.m. I spent several hours of the afternoon delivering warm winter gear to activist hubs around the area. The tone in the homes of activists that I met was tense and there was a lot of silence while the reality of the moment sank in. People considered what was going to happen if Darren Wilson was not indicted. People prepared to go out in the street regardless of the grand jury’s decision. They readied themselves for a long night.
Nick Klaus, a third year law student from Wayne State University who had traveled there with me, watched the prosecutor make the announcement on television from the Legal Hub. To no one’s surprise, the news that Darren Wilson had gotten away with murder was made official. We were deployed to West Florissant Street. We always took a buddy with us while working as a legal observer. Nick was mine. Ferguson sounded like a war zone that night. Frequent gunshots rang out from all sides near our location. Some sounded much closer than others. On West Florissant Street riot police were scattered all around in small groups. Things began peacefully but rapidly turned violent. When the illegal expropriation and destruction of property began every cop in sight retreated and left for at least twenty minutes, during which outraged citizens threw rocks through a McDonalds’ windows and a Bank of America ATM was pummeled with a sledgehammer. A MetroPCS cell phone store, a beauty salon, a liquor store, a storage unit office building, and several other structures were set ablaze. When the police returned they pushed people back until a fire truck could reach the MetroPCS store. Firefighters attempted to put the fire out, but as the gunshots got closer to that location the firefighters pulled out, leaving the National Guard and St. Louis County officers to watch the buildings crumble in flames. Once the fire trucks were gone, the police started to move their formation, pushing protestors further east on West Florissant Street. I went to move my car to ensure that I could leave when the time was ripe. I had an exit strategy, but it relied on my car being accessible. I pulled out and moved it a few blocks up. During the walk back I was surrounded by gunfire. People were pointing their firearms into the air or the ground as I passed. I purposely avoided looking at faces. A gun blasted off a shot not five feet from me. I dropped to the ground as I heard three men laugh as they warned me to be careful. I thanked them and kept walking back to my group, feeling that not taking my buddy with me had been a big mistake. I never once felt at risk of being hurt by protesters. My only source of fear was the police.
We stayed as long as we thought we were needed. Then we redeployed to the Shaw neighborhood. We had heard reports of police cars having been lit on fire there. We arrived as fast as we could and touched base with a few folks already there. We headed for Mokabe’s coffee house, which we’d been told had been surrounded by police. Upon our arrival we heard from activists there that they had been tear gassed not too long ago. It was calm for the moment. We went inside to get a cup of coffee and warm up a little. The owner of Mokabe’s had opened the doors as a safe space for the community. It had medic stations, charging stations, and free coffee for all who came through its doors. Seeing commotion, I went outside and almost as soon as I’d walked out the tear gas came down. I got a full dose. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see, and everything burned. Mucus drained from my sinuses. Everyone around me was running and screaming. The gas had been aimed at the Mokabes’ private patio where all the protestors had been gathered. As everyone ran for the door to get inside, the gas followed, filling the front room. People poured into the back and out into the alleyway. Following the group, we cut through the kitchen space and, barely able to see, I found a sink and stuck my face under the cold running water. It didn’t help much.
When we got to the alleyway the police were waiting and more tear gas came from over the building and perhaps elsewhere. This caused more panic and everyone ran inside and down into the coffee shop’s basement. I waited there for ten minutes. I needed air and was panicking a little. I went back out into the alley. To the right of the building was a staircase leading to a flat above. I climbed the stairs and sat above the lingering smoke. I loosened the Velcro that fastened my flak jacket and let my entire body relax for just a minute. I gathered myself. My eyes continued to hurt, but I could finally see. I headed back down to the basement to find my buddy and get him to come outside for a minute to scope the scene out with me. He and I went back into the alleyway. A white police van halted at the alleyway access and opened its sliding door. Inside three riot police officers sat with weapons aimed directly at us and opened fire without warning. We ran like hell. We had no idea what type of ammunition was being used against us. We didn’t wait to find out. We ran back inside the back door and I watched from a small window as more smoke filled the alleyway where I had been standing seconds before. There had only been six or seven people in the alleyway with me and everyone made it inside uninjured.
After a short while, a sizable chunk of the law enforcement left. We returned to the alleyway to collect the smoke canisters and rubber bullets (red marble-sized plastic balls with a white powder on the inside, which I think was for weight). We posted ourselves in front of the coffee shop. Most of the law enforcement had departed, as had many of the protestors. At 4:00 a.m. there were several other legal observers still around and we decided it was time to get a little sleep. We got back to our beds at about 5:00 a.m. I was asleep by 5:30 a.m.
This is an excerpt from a longer piece I wrote for the National Lawyers Guild Review in early 2015, you can find it in its entirety online here: http://bit.ly/2bPdj37