In video of the very first moments after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, you can hear the frustration that would fuel so much of what happened next. In the days following, vigils became protests and protests turned dangerous. The outrage came in waves. From the very start every confrontation was recorded. Looking back at the video now, it can feel like walking into a hall of mirrors. The emotions are raw and overwhelming. Five years later, I wanted to slow all this tape down, try to understand what happened in Ferguson by seeing it through the eyes of people inside the city, people who saw the same pictures I did and took away very different meanings. These conversations are what we’ll be having over the next few days.
The worst night in Ferguson is a subjective thing, but when I asked Slate’s Joel Anderson about his worst night, he knew exactly what I meant. Joel was a reporter at BuzzFeed back then. He’d just flown in to cover the reaction to Michael Brown’s death.
So I sent this tweet. I remember I was in my hotel room watching the press conference. I’d finally gotten home, and I tweeted out, “Pardon me, and my language, but I’ve never felt more like a nigger than I did tonight.”
For Joel, the worst night was Aug. 17, 2014. It was a Sunday. Video from earlier in the day shows how the tension was beginning to build. In this tape, young men surround a cop car that’s trying to pass through West Florissant, Ferguson’s main drag. They’re yelling slurs, tapping on the glass. A protester approaches, tries to move these guys gently away from the police. He’s encouraging them to express themselves, but do it safely.
Joel was watching all of this, keeping his eye on the clock. A curfew is set for midnight. Around 9, he ducked into the local McDonald’s to charge his phone.
So this is one place where people can get food and it’s sort of a community gathering spot. They had chairs in there, it’s clean, and you can get a Big Mac or whatever. So anyway, I just went in there, and I was like, “Well, man, my phone’s dying I need to charge it up” because every night was basically the same for me. I’d be out, take pictures, record some audio, get what I need for whatever story that I’m going to do. … So I go in there, and then all of a sudden you just hear a crash.
Window got smashed out.
All hell broke loose. People started running and taking off. I was just like, “Oh shit, I got to get out.” …
I’m just like, “What was that? What’s going on?” And nobody could kind of tell. It … was very—it was chaotic, like people trying to get the hell out of there. And I remember walking outside, walking or running, and there was a kid on the ground. They were telling somebody to get milk to clear the gas out of his eyes. And yeah, that kid was in agony. I’ll never forget that. And as I’m there, there’s police around, and I’m just like, “Man, what are we supposed to do? I thought the curfew is at midnight.”
I just remember thinking, “Oh, it feels like I’m in another country or a place where … the law can’t protect you. Where there are no rules.”
Joel ticked through his options. First, there was his rental car. He’d parked it in front of McDonald’s, but when he went back to get it, he realized he was blocked in. Next option: leave on foot, but the police were throwing smoke bombs and tear gas. So he asked a cop for help.
That cop, man. I’m a journalist, and you’re thinking that there’s like some sort of protection for you. And he’s like, “Well, my advice is you need to get the hell out of here.”
So that’s what Joel tried to do. He walked straight down the middle of West Florissant. The sound of the street that night was deafening. A line of police vehicles was forcing protesters down the road, firing flash grenades. But at the other end of the block, Joel says a line of cops was pointing their guns right at him. He felt boxed in.
They’re coming down the street at us, the police. They’re just gradually moving everybody back, moving the crowd back, and people are running back and [panicking], and they’ve got the tear gas canisters coming, they got the flash bombs coming at us.
It felt terrifying, but also, this is going to sound stupid, but I didn’t actually think something was going to happen to me. You know what I mean? I was just like, “Well I’m going to get out of this one way or another.” I didn’t think I would die. Early on at least, right? Actually, when my phone died I was like, “Oh God, I am really in trouble now.” I think that’s when it registered to me that, “Oh, I don’t have a… I might not get out of this. I don’t have a backup plan. I don’t know where anybody is. I’m out here by myself. I’m amidst all these people, but nobody is responsible for me but me.”
Joel describes moving through the protesters and police—and then someone decides to break a window.
At this point it’s dark, and the cops have their guns trained on us, and I’m just like, “How do you know, given everything that’s happened tonight, what makes you think that the cops won’t shoot us?” I was just so mad at them because I was like, “This is so dumb.” Don’t do that right now, let’s come back and do that another night. But why are you doing it right now? It’s already terrifying. I think I yelled at that kid. I was like, “Man, what the fuck are you doing? Stop.”
In a piece for BuzzFeed, Joel writes, “By now, no one cared that I was a member of the media. I was just a black man among hundreds of them. I looked at their faces scanning for anyone I might know. Some of them had tattoos or gold teeth or extravagantly manicured beards. They reminded me of my cousins or friends that I lost touch with. I wonder what the police saw when they looked at these men. Did they bother to look at them in their faces? I wondered if the police could tell any of us apart.”
He says now:
It was just really scary, man. It’s just really tough. It’s just really tough to be a black person in that sort of a situation because you just, you know that, man, that people are doing the best that they can. And you think that, “Man, you take one of our 18-year-olds away from us like that, a kid that could have been anything and we don’t even have the right to be mad about it.” That night I’m just like, “All of this is happening because we’re mad right now, and people are mad right now, and we’re not allowed to be mad.”
This article is a written adaptation of What Next, Slate’s daily news podcast.
On Thursday’s show: What if the story you tell yourself about Ferguson isn’t true? To listen to What Next, subscribe via Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.