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Sebastian Walker for Al Jazeera America

Ferguson 'felt like a war zone'

Fault Lines correspondent discusses police treatment of the community, protesters and journalists in Ferguson

When we made the call last week on Tuesday to go to Ferguson, we thought we might be too late to cover the story there. We couldn't get there until the following day—the fourth night of protests over the killing of Michael Brown and after three nights of militarized responses by local law enforcement.

The reason why we decided to go is because we were seeing the same kinds of images that we had seen at previous events that had developed into something big. We covered the protests in Anaheim, Calif., during the summer of 2012, which followed the killing of two unarmed young Latino men by police officers. It was a similar kind of scenario where there was military-style force being used in the streets. Armored personnel carriers, SWAT teams and high-powered rifles were on display. We thought that this was going to develop into a situation that would kind of spiral. And sure enough, it did. (Our film, "Ferguson: City Under Siege," airs Saturday, August 23, at 7 p.m. Eastern time/4 p.m. Pacific on Al Jazeera America.)

We had heard very little about Ferguson, and I had never been to St. Louis. For our show, Fault Lines, we've covered a lot of stories similar to this across the United States. But it wasn't until we got on the ground that we started to hear about Ferguson's legacy of what was referred to as “economic segregation.” We heard many young men say that they had far more friends who had gone to jail than had gone to college. In this community, the unemployment rate for young black males between the ages of 16 and 24 is reportedly approaching 50 percent.

A St. Louis County tactical vehicle advances on protesters on the night of Wednesday, August 13.
Sebastian Walker for Al Jazeera America

The way that law enforcement plays into that in this part of Missouri seemed as problematic as anywhere I've been in the United States. Despite being a majority black community, out of 55 officers in the local police force more than 50 are white. African-Americans account for nearly 90 percent of the stops, searches and arrests by local police. And while I wouldn’t dare compare my experience to what residents of that community have endured for decades, while trying to cover the events of the last 10 days or so, we have seen a lack of transparency and surprising level of aggression on the part of the police. It’s a circumstance that other journalists we spoke to in Ferguson echoed.

When we arrived in town, the protest we found that Wednesday afternoon was pretty calm. So it was a very surprising set of decisions on the part of the police that led to a militarized response, complete with tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets.

We were with a group of peaceful demonstrators throughout the afternoon. Women, children and families had assembled in the neighborhood where Michael Brown was shot asking for justice, asking for their message to be heard and basically raising awareness about what's been going on in their community. We saw nothing in the realm of weapons or violence on the part of the protesters.

At around 6 p.m. the police showed up in riot gear and ordered those assembled to disperse. The crowd—I’d say it was a few hundred, not a huge number of people—was blocking the street and preventing traffic from flowing. But this is not a major urban center, it's a street through a neighborhood. To see riot police turn up was mildly disconcerting. But then we spotted armored vehicles rolling down the street. We saw three heavily armored trucks; two of them had ballistic armor designed to withstand high-powered weapon fire.

It was at dusk that the police started to advance. The spark was the sound of a breaking glass bottle. We didn't see anybody throw anything up to that point. In fact, some in the crowd told us later that they'd seen a police vehicle run over a bottle that was lying on the street. Immediately police officers were putting on gas masks and getting ready for what was the predictable next step: escalation of force and the firing of tear gas. It was one of the most intense, militarized police responses that I've seen—and I've covered protests like this across the United States and internationally. It felt, and looked, like a war zone.

You have a situation in Ferguson where there's a community that feels oppressed and unfairly targeted by the police.

More alarming was that we saw officers firing tear gas canisters down side streets into communities. It seemed indiscriminate. It was extremely scary to be in the middle of it. As a journalist, you like to think that you're not part of the intended target. But journalists that evening were arrested and shot at and gassed, and we were no different. We got a throat full of tear gas, and it was excruciatingly painful. But it was nothing compared with what happened to some of the protesters. By that point, there was a small number of people in the crowd throwing projectiles back at the police. They told us they felt like they were under attack, and that it was hard to stop themselves from fighting back.

Most disconcertingly, we heard from many in the crowd that this style of policing was not particularly surprising to them. That’s tragic, when you take a step back and think about it. During our four days in Ferguson, we spoke to families, community leaders and activists—we heard from the full spectrum of voices in the community. So whether that's the state senator that we interviewed or the head of the local chapter of the NAACP or a longtime community activist who'd been organizing for decades in that part of Missouri, all of them had facts and figures to back up what we were hearing from the young black males who were the most angry of the voices that we heard. The overall assessment was universally similar: things were completely out of control.

A protester confronts a line of riot police deployed on the streets of Ferguson.
Sebastian Walker for Al Jazeera America

You have a situation in Ferguson where there's a community that feels oppressed and unfairly targeted by the police. And now they were being shot at and killed. Michael Brown was the case in point.

The way that the police treated the media lent credence to what the members of the community told us. Many of our interactions with law enforcement—and I know this is true for other colleagues in the field and those from other news organizations—were incredibly frustrating. There was very little transparency and very little accountability that you could get for any of the decisions being made. Officers would refuse to talk to us when events were unfolding. Even when we would ask for their senior commander or a representative who could talk to the press, access was denied. We saw police officers covering up their badges, refusing to identify themselves to media.

These are public servants whose job it is to serve and protect a community and also to be transparent and allow the media to document what’s happening. But journalists were being actively prevented from doing their work, whether by being intentionally fired at with tear gas and rubber bullets, being arrested or simply being stonewalled by media officers.

We were wrong when we thought we deployed too late. The story in Ferguson is still developing—in fact, it may just be beginning. 

Fault Lines' special report on the protests and police response in Ferguson, Missouri, premieres on Al Jazeera America on Saturday, August 23, at 7 p.m. Eastern time/4 p.m. Pacific. It will air again that evening at 10 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Pacific and Sunday, June 22, at 2 a.m. Eastern/11 p.m. Pacific.   

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