One of the fastest places in the world to quickly learn new life skills is in the middle of a large street demonstration or riot. Pure fact from someone who’s “been there, done that.” Watching the news out of Ferguson, Missouri, brings it all back.
It’s also recreated that eerie feeling of being lost in the crowd – finding yourself unable to control your own direction of motion – scared – trying to get your bearings. And the smells. Lots and lots of unforgettable smells.
There are really just two kinds of street demonstrations. One is focused, calm, centered, deliberate. Peaceful. Several of those I experienced as a reporter at anti-war gatherings of several hundred thousand in Washington D.C., in the late ‘60’s – early ‘70’s. Except for twice being ridden to the ground by mounted National Park Service cops, those gatherings fit that description.
The other type was brought sharply watching events in Ferguson. Crowded – scared – charging cops – tear gas – arrests – walking wounded – strangers trying to help strangers. I got into several of those, especially around the DuPont Circle area of D.C. As in Ferguson, cops could get aggressive and out-of-hand.
All those years ago, media people in D.C. were issued I.D. badges to be worn on a chain around the neck – about the size of a postcard, orange and black with our pictures in the middle. Supposed to keep us safe and free from arrest as opposed to media experiences in Ferguson – where they also have “credentials.” Except they were actually used by cops to target the media with tear gas canisters and to get you arrested, hauled off to busses and taken to RFK Stadium for processing. At that time – and maybe even now – wearing your name tag simply meant this was your first street riot. We been-there-before guys kept them in our pockets.
One of the best descriptions of feelings in a riot situation with thousands of people, tear gas, cops, police dogs and panic is “alone in a crowd.” From the second it starts, people have a cattle-like urge to run some direction. If you came with a friend, most likely you are quickly separated. You find yourself breathing gas, feeling your skin burn, choking, eyes running and that terrible taste in your mouth before you can cover your face. You are instantly disoriented. One experience like that will NOT be forgotten. Nor the sights and sound. And that smell.
I’m sure many of the unarmed demonstrators in Ferguson would attest to these descriptions. The intervening 44 years or so between my experiences and theirs haven’t brought much change. People – mostly honest folk feeling deeply about a grievance – still take to the streets. The herd-like stampede can still start at any second for any reason. Cops are still armed – though better now and able to wound or kill more people more quickly. No amount of intervening time has made the effects of tear gas any less painful.
My generation grew up with strong parental admonitions to “respect police” and even help them when we could. I believed that and tried to teach my own offspring the same. As a young reporter, I spent a lot of time on the “cop beat,” riding with ‘em at all hours. I saw a lot of things they were confronted with that most folks don’t hear about. I witnessed lightning-quick decisions – nearly all right decisions. I knew a lot of good cops. And a few – very few – not good.
Despite that exposure and years of respect for law enforcement, I’ve never seen such an out-of-control, heavily armed and dangerous situation as we’ve seen in Ferguson. Not just once or twice. But most nights. There can’t be any well-trained supervisory structure or it wouldn’t be repeated so damned many times. Capt. Johnson of the Missouri State Police seems to be a helluva spokesman. But even his people seem overly aggressive and quick to strike out. And the presence of the equally well-armed national guard is completely unjustified. Very bad decision.
I know there are provocateurs in the crowds. Sustained demonstrations anywhere always draw the bastards out. But after a confrontation or two, they can be identified and arrested. Maybe more plainclothes cops are needed in the crowd to find ‘em and weed ‘em out. There’s no damned reason for the night-after-night violent police reaction we’ve witnessed to legitimate crowds of earnest and peaceful folks gathered in the streets. Boot the troublemakers. Jail ‘em.
I tell of these demonstration experiences and of the uncalled for response by poorly trained law enforcement for one reason. To describe why – after the first confrontation – I believe things have gone so badly. No matter how innocent the demonstrator – no matter how willing to be directed by responsible authority – no matter how legitimate the initial grievance – once faced with heavily armed and irresponsibly aggressive cops using tear gas and abusing their authority, after the first night the protest swings from the original reason for the demonstration and becomes an us-versus-them situation for most participants from then on. Almost impossible to control.
Every night since the first one, that’s what we’ve seen on the streets of Ferguson. No longer outrage over the killing of one black teen for many. No longer the emotions such a violent act would have on citizens. After the first night, its been us-versus-them. More a protest of the heavy-handed authority and badly mishandled response. Rocks, bottles and bricks don’t come from a peaceful assembly of honestly aggrieved people supporting their own impassioned feelings.
I’ve got two scars – some 44 years old – reminding me of all that every day.Share on Facebook