“Lauren, how would you like to cover one of the biggest stories of the year?”
When you’re a reporter – you can’t help but want to be a part of covering BIG stories. Especially when those big stories matter to the people around you.
When I got word that a decision had been made in the Ferguson Grand Jury case involving officer Wilson, I knew this may be one of those moments. A moment where being there was important to our viewers and to telling the story from our perspective.
Monday night – At 5:00 pm WMC Action News 5 made the decision to send a crew to Ferguson. At the time we didn’t know whether the grand jury would indict Officer Wilson. But we knew, either way, all eyes were on the story. And people in Memphis would have something to say about it. We knew it mattered to our viewers in Memphis, they too had planned a protest, regardless of the outcome.
The announcement came at 8:00 pm. I watched it all unfold on CNN. And for the next three hours I watched reporters in the crowd get tear gas, rocks, and bottles thrown at them. While other rioters and looters destroyed businesses along W. Florrissant and S. Florrissant. On TV it looked like total chaos and I had not idea what I was getting myself into.
At 11:00 pm we loaded our WMC Action News 5 car with camera gear, laptops, chargers and our LiveU Backpack (oh and an overnight bag). We hit the road for Ferguson, not knowing what we’d encounter.
We stopped south of St. Louis to fill up on gas and grab a quick snack. The clerk, Jim, was from Ferguson and told us how difficult it was to watch the events unfold on TV. He said it didn’t represent what his home town was about but that “it was bad.”
At about 4:05 am we arrived in Ferguson, greeted by that now famous “Seasons Greetings” sign outside the Ferguson Police Department.
We kept driving and saw the damage done to local businesses. Glass was everywhere, broken out windows, looted stores and numerous police cars driving around. We stopped at the scene of a fire for our first live shot. It was then, that I got my first glimpse of the true destruction and devastation. It was a Little Caesars pizza, next to business I could not identify because it was destroyed. The place the a total loss. Fire crews were still on scene. In all, 13 buildings were destroyed in large part because crews couldn’t fight the fires safely. While they were responding to fire calls, gun shots were being fired into the sky. It was so unsafe many of the crews abandoned their fire hoses and left.
We did live shots all morning, about four an hour. But what I didn’t realize is it was only the beginning of a look at life in Ferguson. It was hard to think that all this damage was done so quickly and how much it will change life for so many in Ferguson and surrounding communities.
After our morning live shots, we were give the “all clear” to find a hotel and take a quick nap before we prepared stories for evening newscasts. I couldn’t really sleep, because all I could think about was how people would be waking up today to a community forever changed.
As the sun came up, the damage became clear. The smoke from buildings billowed over the community. It was most certainly imagery for the a much bigger issue going on in Ferguson.
To give you context, the community has a population of 21,000 people. That’s about twice the size of Millington, TN. Most of the damage was isolated to two main streets. But that damage contained the majority of major local businesses and shopping resources in the community. That damage also spread into the neighboring community of Dellwood.
Most of Tuesday was peaceful. Media outlets from across the country descended on Ferguson. Many of them had been there in advance of the announcement, preparing for whatever happened. We all had stories to tell and we were all trying to give people a glimpse of what it was like at our location.
That’s the thing though, it was different, depending on your perspective. Near the Ferguson Police Department, City Hall and the Library (where the protests started) it didn’t look as bad as it did over on S. Florissant. And in the middle of those two streets, sat homes untouched, churches with their doors open for prayer and people just trying to live their lives. Trying to comprehend what happened to the community they call home.
If you know me, you know I look for the positive in every situation. In this case, I was determined to show that the human spirit had not been defeated, despite they way it looked. I found volunteers from across the city and St. Louis area, coming together to clean-up. Bringing food and water to those who were stuck out in it all day. They wanted to be a voice of reason amidst so many unanswered questions and raw emotions.
“Where? I’m walking with people now. It’s very calm.”
“That’s…wow that’s a block away.”
As I looked up I saw smoke and flames. Hundreds of people were running towards it.
When we got closer to the scene we were set and ready to go LIVE. Until someone pulled up behind us, got on the roof of their car and reached for what looked like a gun. (I watched the video when we got back to the station Wednesday and it was definitely a gun. I had reason to run.)
All the while, 20 plus squad cars were responding. Sirens were loud, people were throwing rocks, bottles and whatever else.
We ran across the street and stood near a bus stop and went LIVE in the chaos by accident because it happened so fast.
I repeated “we are safe.” Over and over again. My voice even cracked in air when I realized we were safe. At that moment I said a quick (like really quick) prayer for safety and found peace and calmness overcome me. I finished that live shot and took a deep breath. Part of me thinks I was really trying to reassure my family watching back in Memphis that I was okay…the other part of me thinks I had no idea what else to say.
It was a very intense 30 minutes.
But we got to leave. We got to head back to a warm hotel. Ferguson stayed up late, police tried to get the crowds under control. And the national guard members stood guard for HOURS after that.
As I sat back in the hotel room, I was reminded how quickly something calm can become chaotic. And how quickly a few bad decision can turn a crowd.