“This is my city” — One night in the Ferguson Flex Zone

It’s getting dark along West Florissant Avenue and reporters are getting antsy. After several days of arrests and occasionally violent confrontations, there’s some uncertainty about the size of tonight’s protests. Small groups of reporters are roaming the street looking for protesters.

I stop and chat with three guys around Mike Brown’s age. They are eying the media throng warily. None of them seem remotely impressed by wandering reporters. “Looks like some of them are eager for it to pop off,” I mention to one of them. He looks up with a look of disgust. Then his contempt eases a bit. “Well, at least they’re honest,” he says. He declines an interview but we talk for a bit before saying goodbye. We’ll meet again in a couple of hours under more intense circumstances.

Reporters are everywhere. News outlets from Germany, France, Japan, China etc. have sent crews. Media “base camp” is a shuttered convenience store. More than one reporter gives off a distinct “wannabe war correspondent” vibe. Some of the TV guys are wearing protective gear. Later it will become public knowledge that one well-known journalist, unbelievably, hired a crew of ex-special forces operators as on-site security.

If you’re from the St. Louis area, it’s hard not to find this comical. The city has plenty of areas badly affected by crime and poverty, but Ferguson isn’t one of them. It’s a well-kept little town with a wine bar and micropub — hardly the “Beirut on the Mississippi” some media members appear to believe it is. The protesters have been unfailingly friendly and helpful.

As it grows entirely dark things are starting to pick up. There’s a charged feeling of expectancy in the air. Along West Florissant, a large wave of protesters materializes several blocks past QuikTrip, the convenience store that previously served as the hub of the protests and is now off-limits. People are moving down the street calmly, waving signs and chanting while being tailed by flock of reporters. The mood has darkened along with the sky. You can still hear Civil Rights Era spirituals being sung, but other, more aggressive chants are now more prominent.

Cops stand along both sides of the street and impassively ignore verbal taunts. One kid screams “without that badge you a bitch and a half” in a sing-song cadence repeatedly, and with plenty of conviction. Signs are everywhere. A younger group of protesters, including a couple who look like they haven’t seen more than half-a-dozen birthdays, wave signs saying “No Flex Zone. My Skin Color is Not a Crime.” An undeniable notion, but one I doubt many here tonight fully believe.

As the protesters move down West Florissant, I tag along in the rear. I spot a reporter puzzling over Port-a-Potty graffiti like he’s trying to decipher hierogyphs. A riot line of police soon appears at the end of the street. A huge mass of them in full Robocop gear. Helicopters circle overhead. A tank-like vehicle with a rifle-wielding cop sticking up through the roof hole rumbles down the street. As usual, the vast majority of protesters are civil. But a few begin lobbing bottles filled with unidentified liquids at the riot line. I marvel at the over-the-top tactical techniques used to extract these bottle hurlers from the crowd. The usual routine goes something like this: young, skinny kid with a bandana on his face hurls a bottle at the riot line. A police spotter makes an identification. Then 10 or 12 cops slice through the crowd in something that looks like a V formation, with high-powered weapons drawn and pointed. This happens again and again, and we are one finger slip away from the unthinkable.

At one point I’m watching a local TV reporter deliver a live run down of events on the ground. He’s being watched by five or six locals. The reporter blurts out something about protesters “throwing Molotov cocktails.” The locals react immediately, angrily yelling that the objects were just bottles. The TV anchor, obviously sensing his deteriorating position, pivots beautifully without missing a beat. He gestures on camera toward the most incensed of the group and says something like “this young man reports that they were, in fact, not Molotov cocktails.” Feelings are somewhat assuaged, and the TV reporter continues his spiel.

The police soon attempt to disperse the crowd with bullhorn warnings. They are ignored. Sound cannons come out next. Annoying but ineffectual. During one particularly nasty extraction I bump into the three young guys I spoke with earlier. I ask about police tactics. He tells me it’s crazy, police are doing everything wrong and just inciting the crowd. Shortly afterward I’ve moved onto slightly higher ground along the curb. Seemingly out of nowhere dozens of people start fleeing toward me in a state of raw panic. There’s nowhere for me to go, so I just stand there while everyone else runs. To my amazement, everyone breaks off to my left or right before crashing into me.

As the confrontation near the riot line cools down, things heat up near QuikTrip a few blocks down the road. Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters who won’t leave. Frightened and upset, people begin running down West Florissant to escape the noxious gas. Excited and adrenalized, reporters and photographers begin running up West Florissant into the gas. The gas smells like promotions and awards, but it stings the eyes pretty badly.

I don’t have a gas mask, so my enthusiasm is waning. A friend and fellow reporter has a mask, but it only covers his mouth. We try to get close to the gas station, but give up and eventually get separated. People are yelling that shots were fired. Eventually, my slow retreat ends and I have to start jogging away from the fumes. Some local news cameraman films me as I head down the road. My mother in law has a good laugh as she watches me retch and stumble in real time on the local affiliate.

Things remain ugly as I stumble back into media base camp. Police want us to leave. A woman who looks to be in her early 20s grabs my arm and tells me to stay. “The police want you all gone so they can do what they do,” she says. She looks shaken. She’s not the only person asking the media to stay as police order us out.

The tear gas has slowly drifted down West Florissant. My car is parked about 20 feet away so I escape inside to escape the fumes. My friend wanders up and gets inside. His eyes are a mess. The police order the media to relocate to a designated staging area — a grocery store a considerable distance from the scene of the protests. It’s obvious they blame the media for exacerbating the conditions tonight.

I decline the opportunity to sit in the media bullpen. As I’m getting ready to leave, I see a young guy standing near a shuttered McDonald’s. He looks distressed. I talk to him for a few minutes.

“It’s not right how they’re doing us,” he tells me. “But this is my city.”

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