In my wildest dreams I imagine that the #IRLProject will one day be a book, and as long as I’ve imagined that, I have known that there would be a chapter called #Ferguson.
I was on a plane to California when Michael Brown was shot, but I knew almost as soon as I landed because of Twitter, which kept me informed until I returned to Kansas City three days later. After that I thought at least a hundred times that if you are a person who says that you care about racial justice and something like this happens only four hours away, you should put your miles where your mouth is and go there.
My friend Derecka Purnell, whom you will meet in a later installment of the project, spent her senior year living in Ferguson and had returned with her husband and infant son. She was working with the young organizers for a couple of weeks before beginning her first year at Harvard Law School and we texted several times before I decided to go. My desire was to be present in a way that said, #BlackLivesMatter before it was a hashtag and to witness firsthand what was happening so I could compare it to the reports I’d seen from mainstream media. But I feared being a useless presence, voyeuristic or intrusive in this tragedy that didn’t include me. I couldn’t articulate a good reason for going. I just knew that I wanted to be there. When Derecka texted on August 14 and said, “Your presence is helpful,” we left that night.
When Derecka texted on August 14 and said, “Your presence is helpful,” we left that night.
It was a peaceful day and night in Ferguson. We spent most of it at the burned out Quik Trip. My daughter brought her camera and shot throughout the day, while I wandered up to random groups and just asked them to tell me their story. All of them did and I can’t do justice to how much of a privilege that was. One of the people I spoke with that day was Brittany Ferrell (@bdoulaoblongata) who has emerged as one of the leaders of Ferguson’s now powerful protest movement. But that day we had the chance to just talk a bit and I remember that she pointed out my Charlotte’s Web earrings to her beautiful young daughter who also loves the book. I met Daniel Watson (@IsaiahMrSwaggn), who was just about to start college and we talked about the desire of young people in Ferguson to make a difference. We made posters and talked to tiny children doing chalk drawings in the Quik Trip parking lot.
We observed two press conferences, at which no official save Captain Ron Johnson appeared even remotely comfortable with the pain of their constituents. At the end of Governor Nixon’s presser, his entourage left en masse and the door of a nearby RV swung open and the mayor of Ferguson stepped out and raced to catch up with him, having apparently been hiding throughout the conversation. Captain Johnson was the only official remaining in the Target parking lot and made himself available to listen to citizens who wanted to share.
We saw journalists standing around like this was their big break and we saw journalists talking to people because they wanted to get to the truth of a story. We saw Wesley Lowry and Ryan Reilly at McDonald’s, and wandered into a secret press conference with Captain Jackson because it was held near the parking lot where our car happened to be parked. This was where I heard him say that he had released the video of Mike Brown because the press had requested it. And when reporters asked who requested it, Captain Jackson said the press conference was over.
Ferguson is when I saw that my Twitter feed was telling the truth and the nightly news was distorting it. Ferguson introduced me to citizens who welcomed our presence and officials who didn’t like it when we asked questions. And Ferguson is where I saw the global nature of the social media village. I could be there and tweeting with my Twitter friend Joseph in Australia who was supporting the protests from afar. In the wake of Darren Wilson’s acquittal, I saw on television what I saw in person, people who are willing to put their lives on the line because they are tired of being ignored and treated as second class citizens.
And if you find judgement in your heart about the violence or destruction, remember the riots in celebration of sports teams and on this day of all days thank your Maker that you’ve never been pushed to a place where you felt there was no other way to make your voice heard. Yesterday I was with a friend whose daughter struggled for years with a life-threatening eating disorder. My friend and her husband are educated professionals and yet they had to constantly battle an insurance company over whether it would cover treatment. My friend told me that when she saw the violence in Ferguson her first thought was how she felt when she was talking to the resolute and unhearing woman at the insurance company, “If I had encountered her elsewhere I would have physically assaulted her, I was so angry. It was shocking to see that I had that in me, but I knew it was the same thing they must feel in Ferguson.”
Lest you get the wrong idea about me, I’m a firstborn rule-follower and recovering co-dependent, so rabble rousing is not in my DNA. I pissed some people off on Facebook and maybe even in my own circle and even now I can’t describe my sorrow over the fractures in those relationships. But I could not unsee what I’d seen. Ferguson is when I knew that I had to do the #IRLProject.
Here is the original post I wrote about visiting Ferguson. Here are some Twitter users who are on the ground in Ferguson: @akacharleswade, @bellebutters, @akacharleswade, @Nettaaaaaaaa, @TefPoe, @MusicOverPeople