All photos by Cornell Brown & Sean Stout
A little before 5 p.m. on Saturday, August 16, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, speaking at a lively press conference, declared a state of emergency and set a curfew for the town of Ferguson from midnight to 5 a.m. Captain Ron Johnson told those in attendance that armed forces would not enforce the curfew “with trucks, we won’t enforce it with tear gas, we will enforce it with communication.” Despite the promise of less violence, the news did not go over well with the crowd.
When Governor Nixon opened the floor to questions, the first one reportedly lobbed from the crowd was: “You need to charge that policeman with murder!” The mood was tense as many began to question why there was a need for a curfew and, more importantly and angrily, why Officer Darren Wilson was not yet arrested. This would set the tone for the rest of the night.
Protestors began lining up along W. Florissant Ave for the seventh consecutive night, shortly after the press conference. The atmosphere was decidedly different from prior nights. Rain fell intermittently. Police set up posts along the street, preparing for the impending curfew. Most were dressed in riot gear with large plastic shields and full body armor. In the face of the increased police presence, demonstrators carried on, marching along Florissant with their signs and chants. Just as the nights before, others drove around with music blaring from their cars.
The crowd of protestors, markedly smaller than the night before, seemed split into two divisions: a younger sect who were not planning on obeying the midnight curfew and an older group who pleaded with them not to break the law. Jamilah Nasheed was one of those people. Perched beside a truck with a loud speaker, the Missouri State Senator for the fifth district tried to convince protesters gathered at the QuikTrip to go home.
“If you get arrested today,” Senator Nasheed told the increasingly rowdy crowd, “you cannot be out here tomorrow helping with the cause. Stay at your own risk.”
“If we keep letting them get away with this, what are they going to do to our children in the future?”
As the clock ticked towards midnight and rain began to fall harder, a good number of protestors dispersed. A lot stayed. “They ain’t gon do nothing but give me a hotel room for the night,” said a young man who clearly had no plans of obeying the curfew. Another, when asked if scared to fight with the police, told us “they got guns, shit, we got guns, too.” Many said that they weren’t disobeying the law for themselves, but for their kids: “If we keep letting them get away with this now, what are they going to do to our children in the future?”
At around 11:45 p.m. the police force began to mobilize. We moved to the makeshift staging area the authorities demanded the press stay within, which was nearly half-a-mile away from where the protestors were lining up. At midnight a roll of thunder crashed above the scene and the skies opened up. A procession of armored police trucks and vans slowly pushed down the street. Cameras turned in unison to capture the spectacle that would seem more at home on a battle field.
Half-way between us and the protestors, the brigade stopped. The backs of the trucks opened up and cops hopped out. One yelled, “Gas!” and ordered all the officers to put on gas masks. A short while later the authorities began launching what appeared to be tear gas at the steadfast protestors. Nearly all scattered along the sides of the street; the police continued firing a seemingly endless barrage of tear gas. A police spokesman told reporters that smoke bombs were fired, not tear gas. That turned out not to be true.
“[The protestors] were a unified front, until the bullets started flying and the tear gas started coming in,” said Corey Hughes, a demonstrator from Houston who was in the middle of the melee. “Don’t let them lie to you, it was tear gas."
“Don’t let them lie to you, it was tear gas."
The police made their way down W. Florissant by 1:30 a.m. By then nearly all of the demonstrators had fled the smokey scene. There were reports of a man being shot and rushed to the hospital. There were also reports of protestors shooting at police.
“I ran up on one guy and I said, 'Hey, man, be careful tonight,'” said Hughes. “Then he pulled out a gun and said, ‘this is all I need to be careful.’”
Despite that, the night did not turn out to be as calamitous as Friday or Wednesday. In a press conference early Sunday morning, Capt. Ron Johnson told reporters that seven people were arrested. He also admitted to tear gas being deployed, but only, according to him, as a tactic to rescue a man who had been critically shot.
Missouri Highway Patrol spokesman Al Nothum told St. Louis Today that the curfew would extend to Sunday. Amnesty International today announced that it will be investigating police tactics used during the protests. Will tonight be a repeat of Saturday night? Possibly.
“This country is at a boiling point. It’s going to bubble over pretty soon," said Hughes. "This younger generation is tired of it and I don’t think they’re going to continue to take it.”
Stay tuned to Complex News for further developments.