Ferguson Revisited: The Worst Night

Listen to this episode

S1: Looking at the images that have come out over the last few weeks, images of police violence and protest. It’s impossible not to think how similar they are to pictures we saw just a few years back in Ferguson, Missouri. Only this time, Ferguson is everywhere. And now journalists who cut their teeth covering the killing of Michael Brown are in positions of authority at national news organizations. They are helping shape the conversation Americans are having about equal justice and police brutality. Because of all that, we wanted to listen back to an interview I did last year with Slate’s Joel Anderson. In Ferguson, he found himself in harm’s way, targeted by the police. It’s an eerie echo of the images we’re seeing right now. Journalists being arrested on live television teargassed as Joel to come on the show and tell me what was like on the ground in Ferguson. I asked him to tell me about his worst night. One note before we start this episode has some pretty rough language in it, including a racial slur. We’ve kept that language intact to preserve how people felt in the moment.

Advertisement

S2: I’m going to start out by saying the worst night in Ferguson is a really subjective thing. But when I asked Joel Anderson about his worst night, he knew exactly what I meant. You summed it up in this one tweet on your timeline. I cannot read aloud, but maybe you would.

S3: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

S4: Oh, is that the one with the slur?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah. Joel was a reporter at BuzzFeed back then. He’d just flown in to cover the reaction to Michael Brown’s death.

S5: Yes, I sent this tweet. I remember I was in my hotel room watching the press conference. I’ve finally gotten home and I tweeted out, pardon me in my language, but I’ve never felt more like a nigger than I did tonight.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Well, Joel flew into Ferguson expecting to write about a community in recovery a few days before he got there. A gas station had been set on fire in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting. By the time he arrived, that burnt out lot was filled with kids dancing.

S5: I remember filming that kid breakdancing, and that was in the parking lot, the burnt the burned out parking lot of that gas station. And it like it was sort of surreal, is almost corny. It was like, oh, here’s this hope, this youth that’s dancing for joy in the burned out remains of, you know, Ferguson. And this represents something. And everybody was really happy. And there was music and people were kicking out and people were still protesting and no justice. No peace. But it just felt like we were going to really turn a corner. And I just I don’t think that going into that evening that I could have foreseen that it it would have gotten as bad as it did.

Advertisement

S2: So you had this feeling like, OK, we’re turning a corner.

S6: When did you know that wasn’t true?

S7: I think that something happened the second night, and I wish I could remember exactly what it was, but it just like all of a sudden the anger took off.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Poor Joel. The worst night was August 17th, 2014. Was a Sunday.

S8: 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. One of them just follows the cops as they roll down the street. He’s got his middle finger up and then a protester approaches, tries to move these guys gently away from the police. He’s encouraging them to express themselves, but do it safely at the same time. There were kids on the street holding handmade signs and chanting.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Joe was watching all of this, keeping his eye on the clock. A curfew is set for midnight around 9:00. He ducked into the local McDonald’s to charges phone.

S5: So this is one place people can get food and this 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, you know, every night was basically the same for me. You know, I’ll be out, take pictures, you know, record some audio, get what I need for whatever story that I’m going to do. And I was like, why I need to charge my phone up? So I go in there. And then all of a sudden you just hear like a crash.

Advertisement

S9: Something literally went through the window. Yeah, something went through the window, windows smashed out. All hell broke loose like people started running and taken off. I was just like, oh, shit, I got to get out. First of all, I want to find out what it was. Right. Reporter’s instinct.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: Yeah, right. I’m just like, what was that was going on it. And nobody could kind of tell it because it was very chaotic, like people tried 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 that kid was in agony. I’ll never forget that in as I’m there, like there’s police around and, you know, I’m just like, man, what are we supposed to do?

Advertisement

S4: I thought, the curfew is at midnight and I haven’t done a lot of international traveling, but I know we do that if it happened here type series. And I just remember thinking, oh, it feels like I’m in another country or a place where, like, we are absolutely where the law can’t protect you, where there are no rules.

S10: Joel tick through his options. First, there is his rental car. He’d parked it in front of McDonald’s. But when he went back to get it, he realized he blocked in next option, leave on foot. But the police were throwing smoke bombs and tear gas. So we asked a cop for help. And that cop man. I just again, like.

Advertisement

S4: It’s your naive. I’m a journalist or whatever. And you think that there’s, like, some sort of protection for you. And he’s like, well, my advice is to get the hell out of here.

S10: 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 says a line of cops was pointing their guns right at him. He felt boxed in.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: So you’re literally being pushed towards a line of officers who are armed. Yes.

Advertisement

S4: And they’re coming down the street at us.

S5: The police are just gradually moving everybody back, moving the crowd back, and people are running back and panic. And, you know, they’ve got, you know, the tear gas canisters come in. They got the flash balls coming at us.

S2: We sound you sound really calm describing it now. And you’re talking about how, like us getting videos, getting tweets in the moment. It couldn’t have felt like that, you know.

S4: So, yes, it felt terrifying. But also, this is gonna sound stupid. I didn’t it maybe this is just the way I live my life. I didn’t actually think something was going to happen to me. You know, I mean, like, I was just like, well, I’m going to get out of this one way or another.

Advertisement

S5: Like, I didn’t it, didn’t it? I didn’t think I would die in, you know, early on at least. Right. Actually, when my phone died, I was like, oh, God, I’m really in trouble now like that. I think that’s like when it registered to me that like. Oh, I don’t have. 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 mean, I’m amidst all these people, but nobody is responsible for me but me.

S2: You describe this moment of moving through protesters and seeing police and someone decides to break a window. Yeah, I don’t do that. They’re going to hurt us.

Advertisement

S4: Yeah, yeah, man. Cause, I mean, at this point it’s dark and the cops have their guns trained on us. And I’m just like, how do you know it, given everything that’s happened tonight? What makes you think that the cops won’t shoot us? You know, like, I was just so mad at them because, like, this is so dumb. Like, what do you like? Don’t do that right now. Involve all of us. Like, let’s come back and do that another night, you know? But like, why are you doing it right now? It’s already terrifying. I think I did. I yelled at that kid. I was like, man, what the fuck are you doing? Stop it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S11: You have this really poignant paragraph in your piece. Where you talk about the MoMA, you’re talking about right now. And you say 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.

S2: Oh, man, that graph, like I’m about to cry, reading it seriously. Oh, there you go.

S5: Actually, it’s funny you said that because that’s how I started. Oh, man.

S4: It just it just really it was just really scary, man.

S7: And, you know, I just it’s just really tough. This is really tough to be a black person in that. And that’s sort of a situation because you just, you know, that man that people are doing the best that they can.

S5: Like you think that man, you know, you take one of our 18 year olds away from us like that, you know, kid, that could have been anything. And we don’t even have the right to be mad about it. You know, had just that night. I’m just like, man, 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.

S12: We’ll be right back.

S2: Imagine that you’re Joel on this night. You’re in a strange town. The cops are forcing you down the street. You’re moving with a group, a bunch of people you don’t know. You don’t have a car. Your cell phone’s dead. At the end of the block, police have shouldered their weapons and they’ve got them pointed at you. This is when Joel realized he needed a ride.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: So I’ve never hitchhiked in my life, like if anybody that knows me, they know I would never. I would never. I don’t want to ride in a car with anybody. You have to. But I was just like and I don’t know what I’m going to do. But we need to get the hell out of here, because being stuck out here is my phone’s dead. I’m not going to be doing things. So I saw Stacey, man.

S13: When Joel first saw Stacy, he didn’t know her name. He just knew she was a middle aged white lady with a picture of Michael Brown on her t shirt, that and she had a car.

S4: You know, you just you never know what you’re going to end up remembering in life. And I’ll never forget her.

S13: We saw you didn’t know she was Stacey. Then when you saw this woman, why did you think I’m just going to ask.

S6: Can I can I get in your car?

S4: I don’t know. I mean, I would God. I mean, again, just like what you know from being a black man in America. You just don’t walk up on a white woman in a dark parking lot late at night. That’s also a no no. But I was we were really, really desperate by this point.

S2: Joel had found a friend in the crowd, another reporter. They were trying to get off the street together.

S5: Desperation will make you do anything, I guess. And that’s where we were. What do you say to her?

S4: I think I just said. Can you please help? Can you please help us? We need a ride to my hotel.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S7: And she said, get on in.

S2: Stacey. Yes, this is Mary. Hi. You don’t we don’t know each other. Hello, I’m Joel. Always wondered what had happened with Stacey. He meant to buy her a cup of coffee, meant to find out a bit more about her kids in the car that night. Stacey told Joel her children had been out protesting to their bi racial. Their dad’s incarcerated. Five years later, I had questions for Stacey about what made that night so hectic and also about whether anything had changed for her and her family. So one of my producers tracked her down on Facebook.

S4: Stacey, is that you?

S14: How are you doing?

S4: All of good. It’s good to hear from you all these years later. Wonderful. Yes. Did I ever tell you that I was a reporter? Did you. Did. Do you remember me telling you that? That I worked the news. Anything?

S14: Yes. You and that gentleman with you, both of you is like four news reporters. They won’t let us get our vehicle where we’re at or stranded.

S4: Yeah. Yeah. Strangers. I swear to you, I like because I was still in Ferguson for, you know, a couple weeks after that. And I remember saying, I’ve got to look. I don’t even know if I had your number. I know it sounds like I’m going to call Stacey and thank her for saving my life. But every day, like, I think about you, like every, you know, few months. And I just I mean, maybe I should give a call, check and see how she’s doing. And then I think that’d be weird. I was like, I’m not going to do that. I will let her go on Sinopoli. I didn’t think you remembered that, to be honest. So I did.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S14: And fortunately, I was a lot that night.

S15: Yeah. Yeah. That was the worst night of all of them. Right. Shirwa.

S16: That night, the air the air was so cloudy and dense that there was there was people standing at Quick Trip said that they was just standing there and the police started shooting them with rubber bullets and spraying tear grass for no reason.

S14: So I had done laundry that day.

S17: So I had a basket of blankets and sheets in the back of my van. And we couldn’t get on the main West Florissant. So I had to drive through people’s yards to get out through the back alley way, and there was a group of girls, teenage girls that had been gassed and their skin and their face was burning. So somebody was running up with milk. So I grabbed my sheets and they was pouring the milk on the sheets and wrapping a little girl up in the sheets because her skin was burning.

S14: It was definitely something to remember the site. I mean, it’s if you was not there, you couldn’t understand what was going on. It was something that I’m pretty sure everybody who’s who was there that night will remember what brought you there that day. Aid. I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I don’t know if I had the kids there that day and then for some reason I felt they needed to go home that evening. So I drove them all the way back home and then came back and felt the need to be there.

S4: Why were you there so late that night? It wasn’t even really late, I guess, because, like, it was like nine o’clock or something like that. So why were you still there?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S18: It’s something that I see too often.

S14: People have been too quiet too long in this area about the police violence. I can go back to times when my self was trying to move one of my cars off my children’s father’s property and. Police swarmed on us with assault rifles and all I was trying to do is move a vehicle that was just me and my children and some gentleman loading the vehicle up 4B. And they had my they had my children raise their hands like they were criminals as well. There’s trust and believe there’s amazing cops. My son’s role model is a cop. His name is it’s Rich Portwood. But there are cops out there who feel that it’s okay to abuse their badge. And people are tired of of others abusing and thinking it’s OK because they’re black. We can do whatever we want. People are tired of it.

S4: Do you. Will you go ahead? No. No good. No good. I’m going to ask you if the prime time barbershop is over. It’s not important.

S14: Listen, prime time barber has this. By the way.

S4: I was going to ask, OK? They did move. OK. That was really about doesn’t follow. Could they be talking to Stacey and Joel?

S2: They had this easy way about them. I could see where they trusted each other that night. But after we got off the phone, it wasn’t just that night in Ferguson. I couldn’t get out of my head. It was the story Stacey told about our kids in the car with their hands in the air. Because this is the story that was in Stacy’s mind as she peeled out of the parking lot with Joel. A story about how cops can look at you, look at your family and just see a suspect. And Joel, he had his own memory about about encounter with the cops when we sat down for this interview. It was one of the first things we discussed.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: I’m not. When I tell people there’s people think that I’m lying. But it’s absolutely the truth that I’ve been pulled over 40 or more times by the police in my life. Whoa. And I remember one night, it was not long after I graduate from college and I was driving back from Houston. I was working in Dallas as I was driving from Houston to Dallas. It was late at night and I got stopped in this little town called Corsicana. And it’s like, you know, maybe 11 o’clock at night. And the cops, like, come up to my car and they’re like, Do you mind if we search your car? No, I’m just like, you know, sir, I would prefer you not do that. And I think they were surprised that I knew that I could tell them no. And so they just held me like they just, you know, they that they took my driver’s license and went back to their car. They brought their dog out of their car and like, just took it around my car. Like, they were just, you know, they can because they can. Right. And I was just like I remember getting home and crying that night. I was just was like, why are these Jews like, why are they messing with me? I just wanted to get home. It was so frustrating. And I mean, I’ve had situations like that happen before. I mean, since then. But that was like one of the first times I was just like, damn, man, when I’m out in the streets, when I’m driving around, some people don’t care. Anything, anything that you would think any of the things that you think make you who you are. That doesn’t matter to some people. Like some police officers say, hey, that that kid looks like a suspect. And I never forgot that. And I was telling you about it now, almost 20 years later.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Five years after the protests in Ferguson, I called Joel and Stacey to try to understand the images I remembered from that violent summer.

S19: Protesters with their hands up. Lease swapping their batons.

S6: A city on fire or other memories that were closer to the surface for them. Their personal histories, stories about police encounters gone wrong. Not being live streamed or retweeted, each building that was set on fire in Ferguson got Talita. Memories of the protesters and Stacey and Joel, those were not. It made me wonder if the most important images from Ferguson’s worst night were the ones I couldn’t see.

S1: And that’s the show. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to go back and check out our whole series on Ferguson. It aired last summer. You can find it wherever you listen to our show or just click through the link in our show notes. This episode was produced back in August of Twenty Nineteen by Jason de Leon and Ethan Brooks. We’re back tomorrow with another episode of What Next? Catch it on.