As Michael Brown’s parents laid his body to rest this morning, the eyes of the world were once again on Ferguson, MO. His is burial offers a moment of closure for a mourning community, it in no way indicates the end of the national conversation his killing provoked.
While most of us have followed the story on TV and computers from hundreds of miles away, we caught up with five women who traveled to Ferguson to tell the story from the ground. We spoke to Salima Koroma, a video journalist for TIME, along with Amanda Wills, Mashable’s Deputy Managing Editor, and her colleague Ashley Codianni, the Director of News Video. Amanda Terkel is the managing politics reporter for The Huffington Post, and Patrice Howard is an on-screen correspondent for Feature Story News. Our conversations, conducted separately, were edited and combined.
What brought you to Ferguson?
Salima Koroma, TIME: "Just after the shooting, I did a story about [civil rights activist] Dick Gregory, using his narration of civil rights protests in 1965. My editor and I realized that the issues that he’s talking about, the reasons people are angry, matches what’s happening in Ferguson today. So, my editor sent me down here."
Amanda Wills, Mashable: "Last week, I got an email at 7 a.m. from [my editor] Jim, saying, 'Can you go to Ferguson?' So, I texted [my colleague] Ashley and said, 'Pack your bags, we’re going to Ferguson.'"
Ashley Codianni, Mashable: "I literally just got up and left. I don’t even have clothes here — we’ve been buying stuff at Target. I’m currently wearing the same dress for the third time."
AW: "You fly into St. Louis, and it seems like a typical Middle American town. You’ve got your nice little suburbs with their one-acre lots, kids playing outside — and then you literally drive over this hill, and it’s like you’re in a war zone. Boarded-up storefronts with spray paint everywhere. The ground is covered in trash. There are cops fortifying every single corner."
SK: "Compared to New York, it really just feels like a small community. Everything moves slowly, people are polite — they call you sir or ma’am. It’s friendly."
Tell me about who you met while you were there.
AW: "We met a lot of young men who feel very emotionally charged because Michael Brown hits close to home for them. For them, they could’ve been a Michael Brown. But, we also met a 72-year-old woman who’s been out here every night, who’s lived in Ferguson for 40 years. You have middle-aged parents, you have white students from the University of Missouri, you’ve got church groups that come in and hand out water for free to people."
SK: "One man, I really remember kept saying, ‘You know, I have to pay $300 a month in child support, and if I don’t do that, they’ll put me in jail, and that’ll make it even harder to get work.’ He was feeling stuck, like it was really hard to get himself over the hump. That frustration is older, deeper."
Patrice Howard, Feature News: "Another young man we talked to told me, 'The story of Ferguson is the story of communities across the United States where people want a better life but they have no road to take to get there. Their parents were born poor, they were born poor. And, they’re stuck in this situation.'"
Is there more to this than just Michael Brown?
AC: "As we spoke to more and more people, they said it’s not a black or white issue, that it’s a systemic problem with the police force in this county."
AW: "According to the people we talked to, this stuff has been happening for decades. There was one woman we interviewed who left Ferguson years ago because her 11-year-old son stole a Snickers bar, the cops put a warrant for his arrest, they busted through her apartment door, and put a gun to this 11-year-old’s head. They took him into custody for a month — for stealing a Snickers bar. She was saying, 'That’s when I was done.'"
PH: "The relationship between the police and the citizens of the town has been historically strained. This was — as one lady put it — just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Their chant summed up what they are looking for: 'What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.' That chant means, ‘We want the person who shot Michael Brown to be prosecuted. Not because it was a white man shooting a black man, but because it was a police officer shooting an unarmed citizen.' That’s when I realized it was two stories: not only a racial issue but an issue of police brutality."
Women were notably absent in a lot of the coverage we saw. Was the situation different on the ground?
SK: "You know, a lot of the images in the media are shirtless guys with bandanas confronting the cops — and maybe the media likes those because they’re better photos, more sensational. But, there are lots of women, too. I’d say the crowds were 60/40, with big groups of women praying, speaking into loudspeakers, reminding people about the curfew."
Amanda Terkel, The Huffington Post: "A lot of women I talked to in Ferguson were interested in this because — even if they personally haven’t had interactions with the police, where they’ve been discriminated against — they all have brothers, fathers, uncles, friends, young black men in their lives who have experienced this. That’s why you see mothers out here with signs."
PH: "Early in the day, men, children, women who looked like mothers who had written their signs in their kitchen. The quiet protesters who didn’t make the news in this case. But, also young men, boys who look like they could have been classmates of Michael Brown, walking around in the daylight in organized lines, yelling ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.’ And, they weren’t doing it to taunt the police, they were just doing it as a peaceful protest."
AT: "The most interesting part is right before sunset, when people are starting to get off of work. Then, it’s a really family-friendly environment. You saw good Samaritans setting up stations, giving out water, giving out milk if there was tear gas. You saw a lot of children out with their parents, holding up signs. A lot of these families obviously went home before nightfall, but we did actually see one boy, eight years old, who was tear gassed; his mother was really upset. People were running to him, trying to help him and give him water."
Did you ever feel threatened or physically unsafe?
AT: "I bought my first gas mask and goggles here. So, there’s that."
SK: "You know, I felt very safe at the protests, largely because I think I was one of the only — the only that I saw — young black women with a camera in my hands. And yeah, there were some people saying 'Fuck the media.' But, also I had lots of people saying, 'We got you, we got your back.' People are feeling frustration and hopelessness, they want to share their stories. One guy I remember speaking to just kept saying, 'They don’t want to listen to us, they don’t want our voices to be heard' — and that sentiment goes beyond Michael Brown. Their anger is at the system."
Was your experience different as a woman?
AW: "I’m not here on a ‘woman journalist' escapade. I think it’s not about gender. It’s more about if you’re good reporter. Do you know how to handle yourself in a chaotic scene? Do you know how to talk to people who feel underrepresented? Do you know how to talk to cops that people are afraid of and that maybe you’re afraid of? That has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with your skills as a reporter."
Of everyone you spoke to, who sticks most clearly in your mind?
AC: "For me, it was this one group of teenagers, about six of them. We’re off to the side of the parking lot, and we’re trying to obey the rules, so that we’re not going to get them in trouble just by interviewing them — because the cops just hate it when we get these teenagers grouped together. One of the kids was, you know, performing for the camera. He was talking about Mike Brown and talking about being a black man here in Ferguson and the rubber bullets and the gas masks and all of that. And, his friend who was next to him grabs him and starts yelling at him, 'Stop acting black. Stop fucking acting black.' That phrase — because it was so raw, and it was so real — was extremely overwhelming. They literally dropped the mic and ran. And, that’s when we turned around and saw these cops walking toward us. And, they say, 'Get the hell out the way, interview’s over.'"
It’s been two weeks, the news media will soon head home. What happens now?
PH: "I think that it’ll be a long time before things change in Ferguson. There are a lot of levels of leadership there that need to assess what’s going on in that community, but the conversation that was sparked, the spotlight that was thrown on race relations, will continue. At least, I hope it will. The people of Ferguson have been through so much."
AT: "Most people you talk to say that, there won’t really be healing until Darren Wilson [the officer who shot Brown] is charged. That will help a lot of people feel better, but everyone is saying that this is more than Mike Brown. They want to see reform in their city government. They want to have a bigger voice. They want a police force who looks more like the community it represents. They want the issue of high unemployment addressed. There is a sense of energy and momentum that people don’t want to lose. The question is how to harness that."