A Week Later…
I arrived at the station that night at about 2040. I was on the road in a police car for maybe a minute and had traveled just outside of the parking lot, when I flipped on the scan function on my radio. Immediately, I heard, “Um… be advised, we’ve got several hundred… correction… several thousand demonstrators heading south on West Florissant toward the CP [Command Post].”
I turned around and went back to the station. After a quick conversation with the evening supervisor, I loaded my car with a riot shield and helmet. Then, I got back out on the road and drove less than thirty feet when my radio started broadcasting the sounds of fighting and screaming. Officers who were either in the process of keying up their radios to report what was going on were getting into fights mid-transmission. Other officers were accidentally keying up their radios while fighting with other people. County dispatch immediately cut in and said in one of the most frantic transmissions I’ve ever heard, “First and second precinct all units respond at once, J1. Expedite. They’re about to overrun the CP.” The dispatcher was so beside herself that she forgot to put out the code. It didn’t matter though. The message was received.
I started that way running lights and siren, weaving through cars on the interstate. Finally, I reached the CP. Passing through the last checkpoint into the parking lot my nose and eyes started to burn. It suddenly became clear to me just how close the rioters had come that I was smelling CS gas (teargas) from this distance and within my car.
Incident Command had been moved inside one of the buildings in the strip mall. I was the first municipal officer on scene after the all-call. I knew the next two officers from another neighboring municipality who came in, Tom and Victor. Tom, Victor, and I were put in a group while a fourth member from another Muni was added as well once he arrived. Immediately, we were sent to the frontline. I wasn’t confident how close we would actually be able to get without gas masks and County Command was out of gas masks.
Nevertheless, the sounds of struggling and yelling into the radio only intensified. I jumped in the car with my team and we headed to what was quickly elevating from a riot to a battle. Shots were being fired by the rioters. People were down. Tear gas was being deployed. For the first time, it seemed like instead of a series of randomized but widespread events, we had a central consolidated force attacking us.
Cops have a stereotypical way of yelling commands. It’s sort of a high pitched, low register, atonal noise, the type you might here from a drill sergeant. It is also very easy to tell from changes in the pitch when a cop is scared or in trouble. I hope I never hear officers in that much trouble ever again.
Tom, Victor, the other Muni cop, and I staged just past the underpass where, a week ago, I had joked with SWAT team members who were looking for Tums. As we spoke with the other officers who were staging near there, they informed us that the crowd had pushed the entire line all the way back to the rail bridge that went over the pass. It was at that point that they finally deployed CS gas.
One of the newer problems in the sea of many was that a McDonald’s had been overtaken. The employees had locked the doors, but the looters had busted through a window. Now they were ransacking the building while the workers hid in a locked manager’s room. Our first order of business as we pressed onward was to retake the McDonald’s which was about a block from the underpass.
Reports started coming in that rioters were attempting to lead officers down toward several apartment complexes and residential areas just off of W. Florissant where they had set up ambushes. In one location in particular, they were apparently waiting on balconies for officers to pass underneath. The dispatcher had to report something else midsentence and neglected to mention what types of weapons the rioters in the apartments were using. However, if they were anything like the rest of the demonstrators, the answer was a little bit of everything.
We joined a group of about twenty St. Louis County Officers and twenty State Troopers and began moving forward. Several bearcats led the line along with the tactical units they belong to. This strategy was apparently being used to minimize the crowd’s ability to shoot at us. From what we had been hearing, members of the crowd would take a few shots at the police, then fall back into the crowd where officers could not and would not return fire.
The air was filled with smoke and a yellow light from the street lights. There were so many loud voices it was impossible to distinguish what was being said. Anger and fear were the most prevalent as were the sounds of gunfire. Due to everything that was going on we really couldn’t see the crowd very well, but the noise that just hung over W. Florissant like a canopy was evidence enough of its size and presence.
We marched forward toward the McDonald’s parking lot that was still apparently covered with people. All we had to do was march in that direction and when we got close, the building emptied like a bottle being poured out. Bravado about killing police aside, once again they fled the area but also, once again, no arrests were made. For looters who regularly puffed out their chest, they certainly weren’t interested in a physical confrontation. They were only interested if they could hide in a group to shoot or throw things.
A county supervisor started waving us further ahead down W. Florissant repeating, “Move up! Move up! Move up!” The crowd was falling back but was holding their own line further up the road.
We obliged the county supervisor but I couldn’t help but notice that the smoke in the distance was beginning to get thicker and my nose was already starting to burn from residual gas. I also noticed that the sounds of fighting were significantly louder here. We walked in the second line behind the first, behind the bearcats. The front of the line apparently started taking fire and receiving Molotov cocktails. I could hear gunshots repeatedly, but I wasn’t hearing bullets whiz by as would have been expected if they were coming near us or being fire at us. Of course, the bearcat tactic may have been drawing the fire. The order was given to release more CS gas and a series of loud thumps signaled the deployment as canisters were fired from launchers. This newly deployed gas caught the wind and enveloped us.
I made it about as far forward as everyone else in my group did until I started violently coughing. My face burned and my nose ran. My eyes watered but oddly I could still see alright, which I interpret as my contacts somehow minimizing the effects. Fortunately once we were out of the gas, I was okay and things largely went back to normal. We dumped water on our faces which also helped to minimize the burning. After that, we fell back and met up with another Muni cop who Victor and Tom were familiar with. He let us borrow gas masks and since the strap on my helmet wasn’t working, he also let me borrow another helmet.
The press became a nuisance as we helped man a number of side street checkpoints. While trying to keep track of protesters who were lurking about a block from the checkpoint, ducking in and out of the spotlights, other people would approach us waving around a white laminated card that said, “Press.” If they thought they would fit in by dressing down a little bit, they were sadly mistaken. It wasn’t just local media either. I saw a number of national correspondents, one of which I know is on MSNBC though I never cared to learn his name.
Consequently, tonight was not exempt from outright media lies. St. Louis County Tactical moved forward to remove an injured man in the crowd. One particularly disingenuous reporter took a picture of the man and captioned it that he was reacting to the gas. In actuality, he was apparently a gunshot victim who was subsequently rescued by the police unlike the man from a few nights previous.
In another case, while helping to man the post at Ferguson Ave, a man approached the checkpoint with the press crew. However, while he had no press credentials and did not claim any, he wanted to inform us that he had spoken with Capt. Johnson personally who said it was okay to pass. When the county officer informed him that only press were allowed to pass for now, he demanded to talk to a trooper apparently believing insultingly that they all outranked us, even if their boss did. The only trooper with us might have been twenty three and had no rank, but spoke with the man as requested. Needless to say, the attempt at lying about a conversation with Capt. Johnson didn’t work and he grumbled as he walked back into the dark.
En route to the next checkpoint near the burnt down Quiktrip, we had to navigate our way through what was essentially a cinderblock barricade created by the rioters. Retaining wall concrete was stacked about one or two feet high and had been spread across the street before the tactical units created paths to get through. Since there was enough concrete to block W. Florissant, I knew that this blockade was premeditated. Someone had planned to build this and they might have even staged the supplies in the area earlier in the day or evening. There wasn’t exactly anywhere immediately nearby where one could get this amount of concrete to my knowledge from simple looting.
Tactically, the barricade would slow officers down who were attempting to pass. While removing rubble and concrete, the officers would be exposed to gunfire, bottles, and Molotovs from the crowd. It was a dangerous situation but the Tactical units who were on point managed to push through. Teargas also helped to diminish the barricade tactic since the rioters couldn’t be close enough to take advantage of the officers and their temporarily exposed position.
In the meantime, the entire line from earlier had made it all the way past the ruins of Quiktrip and were holding at that location with most of the tactical units present that night. Cars approached the checkpoint periodically and were informed over a loudspeaker to turn around. There was new graffiti in the area around Quiktrip as well. On a Laclede Gas box someone had spray-painted in red, “KILL FOR MIKE.”
We sat there guarding W. Florissant at the Quiktrip for about an hour and a half. After a while we moved to another checkpoint at Canfield. Canfield had a little bit more activity with protesters staying at the start of a residential neighborhood. Quite a few other people were hanging back unnervingly, watching us from the shadows. A few cars would black out, approach the checkpoint, and then peel off as they got close. A few others would park down the road and turn on their high-beams to blind us. Most just stood around yelling obscenities disregarding the curfew.
Interestingly, this area was stocked pretty heavily with gang members dressed in red shirts, red hats, and wearing red bandanas over their mouths. I had a seen a few people dressed like this in earlier days, but not in this concentration. Gang activity was another faction of this conflict that I had overlooked until now. Though the behavior we had been dealing with was clearly not above them.
By about one in the morning, the area inside of our once hot zone had calmed down. Like days past, looting was still actively going on in the surrounding communities. Dellwood apparently got hit particularly hard that night due to the fact that the checkpoint ended on W. Florissant at the Quiktrip where the Ferguson city limits ended though the problem areas extended to Chambers road and beyond. The fact that the other surrounding communities are still being ignored is disgraceful.
As a result of the attack on the command post, the national guard has been activated. What their entire function will entail has yet to be determined. Seventy guardsman are set to arrive on 8/18/2014 in the afternoon and will be tasked with helping to secure the CP. An additional one hundred and thirty will arrive in another day.