“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.
Map of Ferguson – note W. and S. Florrissant about a mile apart.
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.”
Seasons Greeting sign outside Ferguson Police Department
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.
As for me and my photographer – all day long I got getting messages from people who were praying for us. I asked all of them to pray for the community too.
One friend said he was praying to St. Michael the Archangel: “Defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls. Amen”
It’s a powerful prayer and I know it’s been prayed by many who know we are here.
I refused to let anything get in the way to telling the story of history unfolding from our perspective. I refused to instill fear in people and not show them what was happening on all sides of the story.
We did our evening live shots from the corner of S. Florissant and Chambers. At that point, when the sun started setting, the tensions started to grow. People were passing by and honking. Shouting profanities at the media, walking by wearing masks and helmets.
They seemed to be prepared for a possible riot or smoke bombs from police. National guard members arrived in HMMWV’s as thousands of them were deployed to prevent what happened Monday night.
We watched a few peaceful protests unfold at our intersection. Protesters had their hands up and said “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot”
over and over again. As police arrived in riot gear, the crowd got heated and started to spill onto the street. The national guard asked the media to clear out of the Walgreens parking lot and find somewhere else to go.
So at 9:00 pm we headed back over to the Ferguson Police Department. All night, there had been a relatively calm protest. Only a few arrests, smoke bombs and bottles thrown. NOTHING compared to Monday.
“This is perfect,” said one protester. “This is what it’s supposed to be. Their voices can be heard. But we are still scared because you don’t know what to expect.”
She was right…none of us knew what to expect.
At 9:54 the crowd started moving down Florissant, towards City Hall. We were set up to go LIVE with our mobile backpack. So we walked along the street with protesters, prepared to report on the PEACEFUL protest turned march down W. Florissant.
At 9:56 someone back in the station started talking to me in my IFB (ear piece) device:
“Lauren, the chopper over the scene has video of a crowd of people turning over a police car. It looks like they started it on fire.”
“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.
The ONE photo I took during the chaos.
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.
A few minutes later police fired smoke bombs into the crowd. That made things calm down. We did a second live shot. This time much more calm. Shortly after that we got wind, literally, of the smoke bombs and started coughing.
It was a very intense 30 minutes.
People asked me if it felt like a “war zone.” I can’t truly answer that because I’ve never been in an actual war zone. But, I can say that if I were to imagine what that might feel like, for a few moments, it felt like that. (you can watch ALL the LIVE shots here).
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.
I was honored and humbled to cover this moment in history. People were messaging me calling my reports “courageous” and “brave” but I think the true people who are courageous and brave are the ones who will remain in Ferguson. The ones who will work to rebuild it. The ones who will start tough conversations about race and policing. The ones who will truly begin to make change in a community that’s lost so much more than we can ever imagine.
No matter where you fall on the opinion scale, there is a community of people (on both sides of the issue) hurting by what happened there back in August and November.
Ferguson needs our prayers.