August 18, 2014. I had gone to work that day as if it was any other day. But my plans that night looked different than a normal Monday evening. I had decided to go out to the streets of Ferguson, MO that evening.
Five years ago, life forever changed for many people in St. Louis and around the country. To be honest, I don’t recall where I was or what I was doing on August 9, 2014, when Michael Brown Jr. was killed. My friends weren’t sharing information about a teenager being shot and killed by police – his body laying in the street for 4.5 hours – on Facebook or other social media sites. I probably found out about the killing on the local news that evening.
The following morning, I still didn’t think too much about it. It’s difficult to admit, but I wasn’t enraged or concerned about a black teenager being shot in broad daylight next to an apartment complex just a short drive north of where I lived. But by that evening, I was beginning to question the narrative that was circulating on the news.
Things weren’t adding up. There was a major discrepancy on the news stations and what people were posting on social media. I was trying to listen but I didn’t know who to listen to. I decided to listen to local voices, to voices that were in the community. I wanted to hear the truth and it seemed like many people were trying to speak their truths.
National Moment of Silence: August 14, 2014
On August 14, 2014, there was a national moment of silence in remembrance of Michael Brown Jr. I met Chris near the Arch where the ceremony was taking place in St. Louis. I spent about 20 minutes alone before Chris showed up. The mood of the ceremony was mixed. There were national and local news cameras setup overlooking the Arch, where Lezley McSpadden (Michael Brown Jr.’s mom) would soon speak and share her truth. There was also a young black woman who was very upset and making sure people knew that we were just feet away from where the Dred Scott court decision had been made. Someone in the group she was with was telling her to be quieter and calm down. She asked how she was supposed to calm down when persons of color were still being killed because of the color of their skin.
There was also music. Someone was talking on a large megaphone. Many children were there. White and black kids were holding signs. A few people were wearing Anonymous masks. And then there was me. I didn’t quite know where I fit in or what to do.
I began speaking with a few other women who were there. One black woman was more than willing to speak with me. She spoke about racism she had experienced. She spoke of how not all white people have racist beliefs. And she thanked me for being there. Thinking back on it, she probably thanked me for being there to help me with my white fragility. She probably understood that I didn’t quite know what I was doing there but could see that I was trying to understand.
Ferguson was only a few miles away.
I continued watching the protests from afar. Things still weren’t adding up. Why were local police in tanks? Why were there snipers? How come my white friends weren’t paying attention? Why did I not have the experience with police that many persons of color were speaking of? Why, why, why?
The weekend of August 15, a local councilperson was arrested on the streets of Ferguson simply for being there. I then heard that police were arresting people who were standing still on the sidewalk on West Florissant Avenue. Y’all. People were being arrested for standing still on a sidewalk.
I still had so many questions. Then on August 17, I visited a local church where the pastor had gone out to Ferguson earlier that week. He shared about his experience. And when it was time to take communion, I knew I couldn’t do so without committing to myself that I would go out to Ferguson. That I would join the protesters.
Stepping way out of my comfort zone.
So that’s what I did. Monday, August 18, 2014 was the first time I went out to Ferguson. As I drove towards the protest, I didn’t know where to park. I didn’t know what streets were closed or opened. But I saw several cars turning into the Target (which has since closed) parking lot. I soon found myself waiting in the turn lane behind armored tanks and national guard.
I took a deep breath and tried to take in my surroundings. There I was, parked just a few feet away from a military grade humvee in the parking lot. There was a makeshift police post just a few yards from me. And people were walking into the grocery store in the strip mall just to do their normal grocery shopping.
I spoke with a few people and followed a group of women out of the parking lot and onto West Florissant Avenue. From the moment I stepped onto the street until I left that evening, I was asked multiple times if I was media. Since I was one of very few white people who was out with the protesters or protesting, I’m assuming that’s why I was asked.
I found a group of people to walk with, still unsure of what I thought about everything. Still unsure about what to believe about everything. And feeling way out of my comfort zone.
Standing still five seconds too long.
Before protesters started walking down West Florissant, we were warned that police were arresting people – sometimes without warning – for standing still on the sidewalk. I was having a difficult time wrapping my head around that. But as I stood to talk with Cece, a woman standing near a bus stop (which was still functioning at that time of day), I was threatened with arrest for standing still for more than five seconds on a sidewalk.
But I was lucky. There were plenty of other people out there that evening who weren’t given any warnings. As people stopped walking and stood still, I saw numerous times a police officer come up to them, throw the person’s hands behind their back and zip tie them. Again, all for standing still on the sidewalk. (It was later determined that arresting people for standing still on a sidewalk was unconstitutional.)
I spoke with a couple of local media, not to share anything with them but to hear about their experience witnessing and recording the protests. I also spoke with other people who were like me, curious about what was really happening in Ferguson and wanting to see it for themselves.
This is what community looks like.
What I witnessed that day was nothing like what I was seeing on the news. I witnessed community, where people were freely distributing bottled water to protesters who were tired and fatigued on that hot August evening. I witnessed young children carrying signs asking if they would be next. And I spoke to an older black man – John – who had participated in civil rights protests and couldn’t believe he was still having to carry a sign letting people know that he is a man.
I left that evening as night fell and walked with two young black men to my car. As we were walking towards the parking lot, the young men said they had been at the protests every day. But after the first day of being hit with rubber bullets and tear gas, they decided to leave before the armored tanks came down the street.
One of the young men was also kind enough to point out the snipers on top of the grocery store in the parking lot. I hadn’t noticed them earlier but sure enough, there they were. Snipers on top of a store where people were still entering and exiting, just to do their grocery shopping.
As I walked back to the car, I noticed police in full riot geart getting into tanks. I saw people getting out of cars wearing media badges and putting on gas masks. Police, the National Guard, media, snipers, protesters and people in the community doing their normal shopping. All of this in a Target parking lot.
I don’t know if August 18, 2014 is the official day that I became woke. I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. But I commemorate that day as my woke day. I take a pilgrimage out to Ferguson and walk down West Florissant Avenue, spend time reflecting in the Target parking lot, and pay my respects at Michael Brown Jr.’s memorial.
The pilgrimage is also a literal reminder that Mike Brown lived only a short distance away from where I live, but our worlds may as well have been thousands of miles apart. I remind myself that environments matter, that race matters in our society, and that black lives have always and will always matter.
*This is part 1 of a 2 part blog post. The second part will reflect on how the killing of Michael Brown Jr. has impacted me now that I’m a white mother to three black girls.