For many, the violence that erupted in St. Louis in the wake of Monday’s night Grand Jury announcement dramatically played out via broadcast or cable news stations, or through a variety of web feeds, whether corporate or independent. My proximity as both a home- and business-owner along South Grand allowed me a different, somewhat-dissonant view of the situation that slowly built along the South Grand business district as Monday night progressed.
Hopscotching between my business and the street was fascinating, as Channel 4’s coverage played in the bar I manage, one that drew a strangely-full house in the immediate moments before the decision was read by County Prosecutor Bob McCullough. (More on that momentarily.) As the evening wore on, KMOV’s anchors seemed more-and-more tied to the brief flashes on their monitors, the news readers trying desperately to decipher what was happening on the ground. It wasn’t always a smooth thing, as the Channel 4 anchors never fully seemed to pick up on the exact action that was happening on Grand; perhaps that’s understandable, considering the immense emotion taking place across town in Ferguson and the inherent lack of nuance that comes with broadcast news.
But Grand had plenty of plots and sub-plots, twists and turns. Many of them couldn’t be captured by news copters or reporters locked down to one camera position. Luckily, I was able to float, with any expectations. The following impressions are mine and mine only; how could I presume to speak for anyone’s experience, even along the same stretch of city street? Here are a half-dozen-plus-one thoughts on a night I’ll not soon forget.
The TV: Only a day after discussing the pros and cons of having a television in a barroom, our place was empty in the half-hour before the McCullough announcement. But as it drew nearer to 8 p.m., something strange happened; more people kept coming, until a crowd of just over 25 sat in rapt attention for the next hour, as his speech and Q/A session bled into one with President Obama. As the night went on, our usually TV-free environment stayed glued to Channel 4’s coverage; at times, people just watched, though they more often did so while also tapping at their phones. There was a common conversation, though few were conversing. Modern communication was in full effect.
The Highway: My second time slipping out of the bar came when the news coverage turned to the protest marchers taking over I-44, stopping the traffic heading in both directions. My interest piqued, I drove a few blocks, then walked a few more. (Crunching across dozens of gingko fruits once inside of Reservoir Park.) The scene was freaky, uncommonly so, as I wound up on the hill overlooking the protest, slowly moving my way down to the highway, where the protest seemed 100 people deep, at least that many just off the roadway and on the eastbound exit ramp, with as many more on the hillsides. In time, the group gave way, with protesters even waving through the first few cars. Then calls went out for the group to march to “Grand and I-64.” (Were there outside organizers involved here? Well, how many St. Louisans do you know that call Highway 40, I-64? Just a theory.) Once on Grand, the SLMPD was set, stationed on the bridge and the march moved south, back to the business district. The moment of seeing the two sides lined up in a standoff? Dramatic. The feeling of being on the highway? Honestly: energetic. The view of a police line moving slowly towards you? Scary. In total? Surreal.
The Misinterpretation: At one point in the march, things were moving back north on Grand. Strung out at the end of the group were a few stragglers, one of whom was chanting various versions of “Fuck the Police,” with a line of police cars behind him, to the tune of 50-yards, or so. I slapped up an Instagram video of it and labelled it Fuck the Police. In also adding it to Facebook, I noticed that a police officer I know from the City was chastising me. Then a friend texted me, saying that there was more talk about me on another thread. I never did see those comments, but I understood quickly that by not using quotation marks around “Fuck the Police,” the idea gathered was that it was my own statement, or sentiment. Two quotation marks, one sharp response, a possible thread I missed. All because I was walking, recording, jotting notes, trying to keep up. I’m not in the business of making excuses for reporting, but if you’re doing it on the fly, it’s not necessarily pretty, especially in an age when instantaneous thoughts go live and people thrive on picking apart errors and omissions. Oh, well, live and learn.
The Windows, I: The moment at which I fully realized that things were taking on a new vibe came in a quick instant. Standing on the northeast corner of Grand at Arsenal, I heard some dull pops to my right, then a few more. As quickly as that, a half-dozen rocks had smashed against the windows of Salon St. Louis. The first few didn’t go through, but then more would. A woman, whom I assumed an owner or manager of the business, fully ran after a handful of the young folks that threw the rocks, chasing them onto Arsenal before they all disappeared from sight, her voice crying out against their act. The shop’s alarms blared and the curious pressed close to the business, with a mixture of shock and laughter. A few took time to pose for photos. Others grabbed a pic or some video and moved on. For me, that was the turn; the night would get weirder, edgier.
The Windows, II: Moving back down Grand to my own block, Connecticut, was strange. Police were everywhere, but lots of small things were happening on the periphery. In the middle of Grand, a young woman sat in the dead-center of the road, with mask-on and cars circling her. For a second, I was touched; thinking about scenes like this in, say, China, I’d be moved and would salute the spirit of someone taking that kind of direct action. And for a second, I held onto that, even as cohorts of hers were building a barricade across Grand; this seemed strange with police so close, but just as the barrier was up, a big portion of the group splintered and ran up the street. In their wake, broken windows: to Baida, Parsimonia, others. More rocks, more broken windows, with police so freakin’ close. The lack of an actual, proactive presence by this point was lost on me, completely; especially as big groups in riot gear were stationed just a few blocks away. Weird and upsetting, on every level.
The Senses: On a walk back north, passing business owners and residents who were standing guard outside the buildings, I was hit by the smell of tear gas, which began to make my eyes water before I’d realized what was really happening. My nose burned a bit, my eyes kept tearing up, but the gas had been dissipating by the time I reached Arsenal. There, a pretty amazing scene was taking place, with dozens of riot-suited police set up just across a narrow path from MoKaBe’s, a coffeehouse that’s been in the news since declaring that it would serve as a 24-hour safe zone for protesters. Shouting was taking place, police warnings went out about unlawful assembly. For a second, I imagined being caught up in the activity, arrested for the crime of observance. But, strangely, the police filed west, down Arsenal, giving the streets fully back to the protesters, who moved into Arsenal with chants and the airing of grievances. Things had gotten too weird, now. It was time to head home. But first, a quick trip back….
The Prayer: Between Baida and The Gelateria, sitting on a small ledge along the street, a young woman sat in meditation as the street was socially crumbling around her. I’ve known Naa-Dodua for a while, but here she sat in a new form, an emissary of pure peace. And there was verbal chaos all around her as she sat. From a second-floor window across the street, a couple yelled to police that there was someone on the back of their building, maybe more than one person. As if on some type of socially-backward cue, a pair of women on the west side of the street yelled the old saw that “snitches get stitches and wind up in ditches.” It would been some type of social satire, but it was real and it was jarring, one more example in what was becoming a string of screwed-up moments. But Naa-Dodua was in pose, hands on knees, intent beaming, doing the best that any one person could do to advocate for humanity. Someone I’d seen at the bar earlier, Martin, caught the same visual, as he was sweeping up glass at Baida next door. “That’s a good picture,” he said. It was a good image, for sure, of a good person, doing a good act, on a night when countless more were needed. And it came because she left her house and took to the streets. As all good people should do when others would own them.