I was supposed to have Sunday (11/23) and Monday (11/24) off so naturally when Monday morning rolled around, I wasn’t able to sleep very well. Perpetual midnights has a tendency to make establishing a sleep pattern difficult, particularly if you deviate from that pattern on your days off. So I only slept for about three hours Monday morning and was awake by about eleven AM. After all, since I had the night off, I knew that I could go back to sleep for a few more hours later. Instead of sleep, I opted to go run some errands instead.
As I left my apartment, the media was already beginning to report that the Grand Jury might be reaching a decision today. After the continual barrage of pending imminent Grand Jury decision speculation in the media and the community, the announcement of yet another definitive date went in one ear and out the other. My opinion was further bolstered by the fact that we had been repeatedly informed by St. Louis County Police and from my supervisors directly that we would be given approximately forty-eight (48) hours notice once the decision had been reached.
As the day went on, and I tried to get more errands done, the rumors became a lot less nebulous. The new rumor had elements previous speculation did not. For instance, in the new rumor, the Grand Jury had reached a decision around noon and a press release later in the evening would declare what that decision was. I did know that the Grand Jury was meeting Monday morning. Seeing as the Grand Jury had recently met on Friday, it seemed plausible that they might meet on Monday in order to preempt the Thanksgiving holiday if they were close to a decision. If more deliberation was expected, meeting before the holiday would be irrelevant.
Still, I stayed in denial reassuring myself and reasserting that we were supposed to have forty-eight hours notice. Even if the Grand Jury had reached a decision, perhaps the pending press conference would only be used to declare that a decision had been reached and would formally be announced in two days. This strategy seemed particularly inflammatory if true, in a sort of school yard, “I know something you don’t know” style, but at least it fit with what we had been told to expect.
However, the big change came around Midday when St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s office confirmed that a decision had in fact been reached and that a press conference would follow that evening. At that point, the thought occurred to me that perhaps we had been lied to about the forty-eight hour delay. Less than thirty minutes later, as various supervisors called me to make sure I was aware that our emergency plan was going into effect, I was forced to concede my denial. I probably took eight or nine phone calls in total between coworkers, supervisors, friends, and family all of whom had heard something a little different.
Our emergency plan called for all of the officers within my department to start twelve hour shifts and all of our days off were officially cancelled until further notice. For those of us on the midnight shift, we had to report into work at 21:00 on the day of the announcement. Given that the press conference was scheduled for 20:00, that presented a bit of a problem. I made sure I was ready to go by about 19:20 and left my apartment deciding to take back roads instead of I-70 like I usually did. Getting caught on the road after 20:00 seemed like a recipe for disaster, particularly since I would be an officer caught out by myself after the decision was finally announced.
Various businesses along the way were boarded up, some as far away as seven miles from Ferguson’s city limits. Still, I made it to work relatively quick and without any problems. At the office, the afternoon shift was huddled around a TV watching a live feed of the area at Justice Services where Bob McCulloch would later make his announcement. In a split screen, we also watched as a small group formed in front of the Ferguson Police Department. The group stood across from a small line of police officers who blocked the way to the Police Department parking lot, just as they had done any other time a group of protesters had formed in the street.
As 20:00 came and went, the group swelled. Around 20:15, Bob McCulloch finally gave his speech and announced after a lot of dramatic lead in that the Grand Jury had failed to return an indictment. Without waiting for McCulloch to finish speaking, around fifty people suddenly broke off from the main group running south on S. Florissant. The speech and discussion of evidence wasn’t even over before the protesters gave up any semblance of peace and began throwing objects through windows, setting fires, overturning cars, and firing weapons. The radio traffic confirmed both what we were seeing on the news as well as what we couldn’t see.
It was about this point that those of us at my department were informed that our emergency plan was not actually being put into place. Why not is a question I don’t have an answer for. Whatever the case, at that moment, Rick and I would be the only officers available to be sent back into Ferguson in a sickeningly familiar repeat of the first day of rioting back on August 10th. We were fortunate that this time we had helmets even if they were not ballistic. However, Rick had to borrow a gas mask because ours were apparently unavailable. I had taken the initiative to buy my own after my experience in the entry “Bloody Sunday.”
We waited to hear a code and didn’t have to wait long. A code 3000 was put out in reference to a group of officers attempting to stop looters at the Toys-R-Us on W. Florissant near I-270. From what we could tell, the officers were surrounded. If there was any mention of heading to the command post first, we didn’t hear it in the radio traffic and the immediacy of the call seemed to render it a moot point anyway.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t head north on South or West Florissant from I-70 because tear gas had been deployed on S. Florissant supposedly in reference to automatic weapons fire across from the PD. Consequently, the RBG Black Rebels have bragged about firing AK47’s near the PD in recent days. In response to the tear gas, the rioters were displaced onto W. Florissant causing the violence to amp up dramatically in that location with numerous buildings now fully engulfed in flames. We had to head over to the inner belt, in order to go up around the area so that we could come back south avoiding the problem areas on both Florissant roads.
By the time we reached the Toys-R-Us, enough officers had arrived that the rioters had moved on leaving the trashed business alone for the time being. The officers there were largely in plain clothes with plate carriers identifying them as “POLICE.” Evidently the name tag issue had gone completely by the wayside which caused me to smirk. Obviously, I didn’t know what department they worked for but given their look, including facial hair and other general shady features I was willing to bet they were narcotics officers.
Word spread that a beauty supply business was actively being looted further down the road in a strip mall across from Walmart. The group of officers at Toys-R-Us headed over in that direction and we followed. As we pulled into the parking lot, we were blocked by a single file line of cars leaving the lot. I didn’t put two and two together initially but it was pretty clear afterward that these individuals were responsible for looting the business.
Finally, the county officers in the car in front of us gave up on waiting for the looter vehicles to get out of our way and bailed out of their own car and took off running on foot in the direction of the business. Rick and I followed suit running toward the front of the beauty supply store with guns drawn. The lower front panel of the glass door was shattered. Items such as hair extensions which were carried out in a hurry were strewn about in the road in front of the business. A number of officers cleared the building confirming that the looters had fled.
With this situation resolved we decided to start heading back to our venue until a second Code 3000 was called in reference to officers needed to help in front of the Ferguson Police Department. As we made our way back out and around to I-70, we jumped in behind an Ellisville patrol car that was heading east running lights and siren. This unit headed all the way back to the Command Post at the Buzz Westfall Center in Jennings.
In reference to the Code 3000, we checked in at staging and were put in a group with four other municipal officers. One of which was the individual whom I borrowed a gas mask from back on the events of the entry, “Bloody Sunday.” Once we were situated in a group, we got to sit around for a while listening to radio traffic and perpetual gunfire most of which could be classified as quite a bit closer than “in the distance.” We also got to hear about the Toy-R-Us from earlier being looted about three or four more times after we left.
The National Guard and their Humvees were present at both entrances of the CP though almost all of them were wearing only basic ACUs and did not have plate carriers or rifles. There were several white buses around the area that were apparently borrowed from the Missouri Department of Corrections which the Guard had used to transport personnel. While I was glad for their help even in guarding the CP, it seemed that their involvement had been greatly exaggerated in the days leading up to this.
Finally, we were dispatched to Dellwood to search for four individuals walking near W. Florissant with gas cans. As we pulled onto W. Florissant from 270 we were diverted briefly to Halls Ferry where individuals were looting a Home Depot. By the time we reached the business, the looters had fled and went someplace else as was becoming customary. So we continued toward the Dellwood area of W. Florissant.
At some point, a code 5000 was called. None of us had ever heard of a code 5000 before but given the ramifications of a Code 1,2, or 3000, it wasn’t hard to interpret what this meant. One of the other officers from my venue was sent in reference to the new call for assistance. I’m not sure what resulted in this code but other officers in other parts of Ferguson like those at Chambers and W. Florissant were regularly taking gunfire from the east and west of W. Florissant.
We were once again diverted from the initial call, this time to a car lot with at least four cars that had been set on fire. In a slow progression, each car in the row nearest the street caught fire briefly resulting in a small explosion when the fire reached each gas tank The sound of the explosions resembled a shotgun blast. In time, nearly the entire row of cars was ablaze. All of the various fire departments from all over the region who responded to Ferguson were tied up with other arsons at the moment and unable to respond to our location leaving the vehicles to burn. What was more, whenever a fire-truck was able to respond to another location they were regularly taking gunfire and being forced to retreat until the scene could be secured. That might have had something to do with the delay to our location as well.
Immediately next to the car lot was a Conoco Phillips station which was also completely engulfed in flames. It was possible that our four missing men with gas cans could have been responsible for these fires, but given the sheer amount of arsons actively taking place at the time, it could have also been caused by a completely different group of rioters. There was just no way to know for sure.
While we were starting to try and block the roadway, a white twenty-something male came stumbling up to me on the side of the road stinking of alcohol. According to the drunk, he had been walking through the neighborhood when he was jumped by a number of people and robbed of (not by) a forty caliber handgun. He kept repeating that he wanted me to take a report. While I retrieved his pedigree and other contact info, I had to tell him that not only could I not take a report on the robbery, but that everyone else was going to be too tied up to help him as well. What was more, he didn’t have an adequate description of the gun or the suspects. He also didn’t have a serial number for the gun so I couldn’t even enter it as stolen if I had wanted to. Most troubling was that he couldn’t or wouldn’t explain what he was doing prior to the robbery or why he was in the area in the first place.
Next, we turned our attention to blocking off the road which was more than a little challenging with all of the vehicle traffic out and about despite (and because of) the riots. Traffic was still coming through from further down W. Florissant, so we closed off the road as best we could while allowing a single lane for remaining traffic and Fire/EMS/Police to get through.
One of the last vehicles to come through was a sedan with tinted windows and one loudmouth who was hanging out of the rear passenger window cussing at me. I turned to him specifically, smiled, and waved. This action infuriated him even more as evidenced by his sudden increase in volume and direct quote of “FUCK YOU, MOTHER FUCKER!” As the car sped off, I waved some more. The man nearly fell out of the window as he climbed as far as his knees would allow outside of the car still threatening and cussing at me.
After a few more challenging minutes of trying to get traffic out of the W. Florissant area we were still blocking, we finally managed to get the roadway under control. About thirty minutes later a set of fire trucks were finally available to start putting out the Conoco station and the cars in the car lot. The gas station was a complete loss. Once the fire was finally out it was clear that all that remained was a door-less, windowless, roofless cinder-block frame and nothing more. The fire in the car lot was contained to the row it started in and fortunately was unable to progress from there any farther. Still, the resulting spectacle the car fires created were photogenic enough to appear repeatedly in the media in the days that followed.
While we were still operating our little checkpoint near the ruins of the Conoco and the car lot, the Mayor of Ferguson, James Knowles, pulled up and stopped to chat. We spoke to him for a few minutes about everything that was going on. I can’t speak to his job performance as a Mayor but he was very personable and respectful to us which wasn’t something we could say about everyone we’ve dealt with from Ferguson in recent months.
Of particular interest was his account of being promised National Guardsman by Governor Jay Nixon to be placed up and down the W. Florissant corridor. At the last second, this was apparently changed as to quote Knowles, individuals in Jefferson City started, “playing politics.” Now, as the city burned, Knowles couldn’t get Nixon or his affiliates to answer his phone calls. This story seemed awfully familiar to other stories I’ve heard about Nixon including one recently by the Lt. Governor, Peter Kinder.
After Knowles left and the fire department was ready to leave as well, we decided to head back toward the command post. We tried to go back south on W. Florissant and proceeded just past Chambers by taking parking lots and side streets in order to get around random debris and other fire crews trying to put out fully engulfed structures. Other buildings continued to smolder even as the fires that had destroyed them were long since put out. Destruction was widespread with obvious signs of burglary and vandalism. Smoke filled the air and an occasional burn in my nose and eyes indicated the remnants of tear gas.
Eventually we had to turn around on W. Florissant due to a fire truck that had a hose running across the entire length of the road. We made our way back to Chambers, took Chambers to Halls Ferry, and then to Lucas and Hunt which brought us back to the command post. As we reached Halls Ferry, I turned on Oldies 103.3 which around this time of year starts playing Christmas Music. As we pulled back into the lot filled with police cars and guarded by the National Guard, Elvis Presley sung in the background, “It’s Christmas Time… in the city.”