Hope is like an appendage that hangs from your soul. It is flexible and it is lithe. It reaches out to grab hold of the things it needs to sustain it. And, like any other limb, it doesn’t grow back if you saw it off. Once hope has been thoroughly severed from the soul it is gone. The wound may heal and cover itself in striated scar tissue and the person might find some sort of prosthetic to take up the space in which that hope used to live, but it will never come back. People who have had the hope completely ripped away from them are left only with a ghost limb; a faint memory of what it used to be. They can never truly believe in whatever goodness that surrounds them for fear that it will be snatched away just as it was before and that this time the hurt will be doubly deep because they would’ve dared to hope again when everything in their life’s experience told them there was no reason to do so.
As the St Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown was being delivered, I waited outside the Ferguson Police Department and watched as Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, screamed out into the night, still keening for the death of her son. “Some of y’all think this is a joke?!” McSpadden yelled at no one in particular. “This ain’t a joke.” Even from 100 feet away you could feel the pain in her voice and see whatever emotional scar tissue was there being torn off, exposing the wounds from her son’s death all over again. I cannot speak for her, but if I were Lesley McSpadden, I doubt very much that I’d have so much as a shred of hope left in my body. And, judging from the reactions of many of the protestors around me, what little hope they harbored had been snatched as well.
There wasn’t much time to think on the matter though, as a large group of protestors peeled away from the Police Department and started marching down South Florissant towards an assembly of police and police cars about a quarter of a mile away. As I followed the crowd and hugged the sidewalk, trying to get a better look at what was going on, a group of men started bouncing an empty cop car up and down and side to side, yelling out “fuck the police!”and chanting Mike Brown’s name. It was only another 5 or 10 minutes until a phalanx of cops in riot gear appeared from the south, with humvees and massive combat vehicles flanking them. A smoke bomb was fired into the crowd, but it didn’t do much to deter protestors from congregating in the streets. Police officers in gas masks followed as a PA system on one of the humvees blared out, “You are unlawfully assembled…Disperse from the roadway or you will be subject to arrest.” That’s when it happened.
Within the span of about 15 seconds, the St Louis County Police had shot tear gas into the throng of people on South Florissant and a series of red and yellow flares shot up into the night sky. I stood still, watching as one of the flares landed on a house in front of me, until the sound of gunshots rang out. The police had begun firing rubber bullets at the protestors and, even though I was about 50 feet away from the street in an adjacent parking lot, I just started running—ducking behind cars and trying to make myself as small as possible. Little explosions were going off every couple of seconds and my glasses were beginning to fog up from the warmth of my breath that was being held by the surgical mask I had placed over my face. After a couple of minutes I had worked my way back into someone’s side yard and was tweeting out images behind a baby pine tree.
Eventually, I started walking down a small residential street away from the mayhem when I ran into a guy named named Mario who was in remarkably good spirits. Mario, who was in his early 30s and built roughly the same as Mike Brown was, told me he had been separated from his cousin and a few other friends he came with and that he needed to find a way back to the spot where their car was. Having nothing better to do as I’d parked my car in the lot of an abandoned restaurant that was next to the very epicenter of the unrest, I walked with him and listened to his story. Mario told me that he was an army brat and the he’d never done anything like this protesting stuff before, but that he was upset because people were getting it all wrong.
“Don’t they know man?” he said to me. “This shit ain’t about race. It’s about humanity, man. I’m black, you’re white. Who gives a damn? I been all over the world—lived with Filipinos and Mexicans and Australians and Eastern Europeans and all kinds of different people. It don’t matter. We just gotta take care of each other, you know what I mean?”
I knew what Mario meant and, while I didn’t particularly believe it, I wanted to. Whether or not he was right, it was comforting to know that amongst all of this chaos and hatred and institutional racism, I could run into a guy who was so overwhelmingly positive. He made me feel like things might just be alright and when we found his folks and I gave him my card with my info on it, he insisted that he was going to give me a call in the morning. I don’t know if he will, but the sentiment was nice.
After Mario had left, I wandered up and down the back streets parallel to South Florissant, just trying to get my bearings and take a breath. I found a group of roughly 35 to 40 protestors camped out on a little hill overlooking the police station and started talking with folks to try and see what was going on. A legal observer was going on about how all of her colleagues had thrown their neon green hats to ground and ran off when the tear gas started flowing and I could see a couple of medics tending to someone over in the grass. I had started to relax a bit when all of the sudden, apropos of absolutely nothing, the police started shooting tear gas canisters up the street towards the hill we were on and everyone who could started running again.
I didn’t stick around long enough to see what happened on the hill and started looping back around to see if there were still convoys of cops in front of where my car was. When I got closer to South Florrisant, I could see that there wasn’t a major police presence there, but noticed a cluster of people huddled near the sidewalk taking pictures of something. As it turned out, that something was a St Louis Metropolitan Police car that was completely engulfed in flames. About 300 feet up the street there was another cop car that had a small fire going on it’s roof, but the one the sat in front of me was just one big orange fireball. And it was directly between me and my car. After a couple minutes of hedging, wondering if the car might blow up dramatically in my face like in some Jerry Bruckheimer movie, I ran across the street and hopped into my car.
It took me a few minutes of fruitless searching, but I eventually discovered that the only way for me to get my car out of the parking lot and onto a street that wasn’t blocked off by cops was to drive right by the flaming car. So, reluctantly, I pulled out into South Florissant and started driving past the burning vehicle and was confronted with anywhere between 20 and 40 police officers, fully decked out in riot gear and marching right at me. With nothing else to do, I pulled my car awkwardly into a patch of asphalt right off the road and waited. When I looked back, what I saw was something so surreal that I’m still having a hard time processing it a few hours after it happened.
In my rear window, perfectly framed, was the orange and gray husk of a cop car that sat burning on the other side of the street. In front of it, a steady stream of St Louis County stormtroopers clomped by, with their unnecessarily labeled riot shields at the ready and an assortment of “non-violent” and lethal weapons by their sides. For a brief moment I sincerely considered the possibility that I might in fact be dreaming—that I had fallen asleep while reading some dystopian Sci-Fi novel and had conjured up this police state in my mind. That moment quickly passed and I was left with the sobering realization that this is the new reality. Or maybe this has always been reality and my upper-middle class whiteness has shielded me from it for all of these years. Regardless, I know that my capacity to hope died a little bit tonight, while for countless others that last sliver of hope was snuffed out. I truly don’t want to lose the the hope I have left, but if I live through a few more nights like tonight, I don’t know that I’ll have a choice.