August 9, 2014
I remember the night of August 9, 2014. The temperature was in the 70s, the air smelled like August, the limbo nearing the end of summer, leading to the start of the autumn air. I was lounging on the couch with my mother’s arms around me, caging my frame with warmth. We had finished watching a film with my father and sisters and flipped back to regular nightly news.
White text in a crimson square saying, “LIVE” and showing people swarming in and out of a burning QuikTrip store. The on-scene reporter was stammering and faltering over her words, the adrenaline of the commotion getting to her. She never explained what was happening and where this was taking place. Instead, focusing on the people and violence unfolding. The nearest QuikTrip was 9 miles away. My dad was paranoid “they” were coming over to where we were, not knowing the incident was occurring across the Mississippi. He locked the doors and drew the curtains closed. He ran to his gun safe, preparing for an invasion of sorts. My mother tightened her grip around me. Confusion laced with dread coiled itself around us, unsure of what was going on.
I remember the morning after August 9, 2014. Channel 5 KSDK reported on the shooting of Michael Brown and the protests that ensued. Michael Brown was shot six times—three times in the front of his body, twice in the head, and once to his right hand—by Officer Darren Wilson, who discharged twelve bullets from his SIG Sauer P229. He died eight days after he graduated from high school. He used SoundCloud to post his rap music. His body lay on the concrete for four and a half hours until the police took him to the morgue. His parents weren’t allowed to approach their son’s body.
At the time, it didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Living at or near St. Louis, you hear a lot about shootings and gun violence to the point of numbness. Everyone went on about their days, paying no mind. I went to my English literature class in fourth period; we read the Diary of Anne Frank, going through the motions of the day.
During the evening of this day, Brown’s parents back in Ferguson had placed candles and flowers at the spot where Michael Brown laid. Bystanders gathered at the vigil, heartbroken and furious. They spelled out Michael Brown’s initials with flower petals over the bloodstain, giving back the dignity that was robbed from him. Mark Follman from Mother Jones reported that the residents saw a policeman allowing his K9 unit to urinate near the memorial and a police vehicle that rode over the flowers.
Anger grew from these actions. People started to block the police vehicles from entering the street, resulting in police utilizing their K9 units and escalating the situation. A declaration of war from the members of the community, Mark Follman reported. Rioting started, buildings were set aflame and cop cars were flipped. Riot shields were given to the officers, armored vehicles and a helicopter were rolled out. Unrest all through the night.
I remember the second day after August 9, 2014. News coverage began to show multiple stories about Ferguson. Protests, traffic jams, city officials making their statements behind a podium, flashing and clicking of camera shutters as they tried to quell any worries. The name of Michael Brown was at the forefront. Teachers at my school, mostly white, would talk about it as an unmentionable subject, a distraction. The only black teacher, my social studies teacher, was raving about how history was happening in our backyards. She said to us, “We should pay close attention to what’s happening, a monumental event that could change the course of the country, a historic moment to tell your kids that you were there when it happened.”
Police had begun using tear gas to disperse the crowd of protestors and firing bean bag rounds at anyone getting too close to their riot shields and armored vehicles. The battle cry of the protestors, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” was gaining traction and became the slogan of the movement; the saying was to bring attention to Brown who was unarmed, and therefore Darren Wilson had no reason to shoot.
I remember hearing someone, a faculty member at my school, saying they didn’t understand why this was the moment it became too much when similar events were on local news all the time.
I remember the week after August 9, 2014. Nights of rioting and looting became the focus of the movement, at least according to the news and locals. More and more, people started to have a less than positive view of the whole ordeal. Locals began seeing St. Louis as this warzone, “You’ll be attacked if you enter the city.” People were urging others not to go into St. Louis County until it blew over. Protests became synonymous with riots, and this led to more indifference to the movement, and the principle of equality and holding police accountable was increasingly seen as superfluous and void.
Ray Albers was an officer of the Ferguson police department. During one protest, demonstrators were blocking the road and kept marching forward. Ray was trying to stop the crowd from moving any further, shouting at them to stand back. He brought his semi-automatic service rifle up to their faces and exclaimed, “I will fucking kill you!” A person in the crowd asked him to identify himself and replied with, “Go fuck yourself.” He resigned eight days later.
Kajieme Powell was killed by gunshots from the police, twenty-five years old. St. Louis county Police officer Dan Page had a video leaked to Greg Botelho at CNN of him speaking to the St. Louis and St. Charles chapter of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia, saying that Obama was an undocumented Kenyan, the Supreme Court housed sodomites. Page said he was “a killer” and if need be, “he'll kill more.” He resigned three days later.
My dad had tickets to a Cardinal game at Busch Stadium, courtesy of a close friend. He was real excited as he hadn’t seen a Cardinal game at Busch since the 2007 recession. However, over in St. Louis, demonstrations were holding up traffic and some were big enough that the Cardinals postponed their game. My dad went into a fury, shouting about how the protests had done nothing but mess everything up. He watched the news coverage of the demonstrations at Busch. There was a young girl, talking about the death of Michael Brown. She started sobbing halfway through her speech, couldn’t finish it, saying this could’ve happened to her brothers or cousins. My dad said to the screen as if she was able to hear him, “Oh, shut up. You’re faking it!”
From then on, anytime news coverage of the Ferguson protests came on, he’d change the channel or put it on mute.
I remember the month after August 9, 2014. We had a small class assembly with the school’s officer leading. He looked like a composite of all policemen in America. Pink skin from high blood pressure and sunburn, thin-rimmed glasses, bald, blue eyes, and a pot belly. The bulletproof vest he wore didn’t account for the bulging of his belly, letting his stomach hang low. He walked in, eating a Pop-Tart. Before he started talking about the protests, he said, “A little butter on a toasted Pop-Tart? You gotta try it, man. It’s so simple and delicious.” After eating his snack and flicking the crumbs off his Kevlar vest, he began asking the students questions about what they’ve heard people say about the police recently. Some kids earnestly responded with things like, “The police are bad guys.” “They aren’t trustworthy.” “They murdered Michael Brown.” The officer wanted to reassure the kids that these things weren’t true, the police were still good. “One bad apple doesn’t ruin the bunch.”
I observed the faces of my classmates. One student caught my eye. He was black, an athlete, and a popular kid, wildly confident and talkative during classes. Now, his shoulders were hunched, his eyes stared towards empty space and avoided looking at the police officer. The officer noticed this and singled him out, asking a question about how he felt about the police. He stammered, “I-I don’t mind y’all here, it’s just that…you know there’s…uh…things going on in neighborhoods like mine and Ferguson.” The school officer silently nodded, not in agreement but in acknowledgement.
I tried the buttered Pop-Tart the officer was raving about when I got back home. It came hot out of the toaster. A light slathering of butter on the unfrosted side. I took one bite. Disgusting. I threw it in the trash can and spat out the pastry chunk.
I remember the second month after August 9, 2014. By this point, people were beginning to complain about how much attention was being brought to the whole situation. The whole world was watching what had been going on in St. Louis. People began feeling overwhelmed with all eyes on them. “They’re overblowing this.” “I get that it’s a tragic thing, but can we just move on?” “Wish this would end so it’s not always in my face.” It grew to be more or less a nuisance to the locals. I remember being shocked when hearing this, the casual coldness of these statements, coming from people who I thought were kind, charitable even.
The death of Michael Brown and the conversations around the aftermath were seen by these folks the same way they might view a fly. They know flies exist outside but they’re at enough of a distance to think about them every day. Once a fly enters their homes, they become transfixed by it, annoyed by it, wishing it to go away, back to the way things were.
News of arrests kept circulating, with dozens and dozens of people being incarcerated. Two-hundred-fifty people attended a sit-in protest at Saint Louis University around the clock tower. A memorial of Michael Brown was burned down on Canfield Drive. Ferguson community members came to put it back up.
I remember the third month after August 9, 2014. On November 24 the St. Louis grand jury gave their verdict to not indict Officer Wilson for the death of Michael Brown. Before the grand jury announced their decision, many people had made a promise to burn the city down if the jury didn’t sway their way. Fires were started, windows smashed with bricks. Cop cars were melted or flipped. Smoke filled the air and then tear gas became mixed in. SWAT teams and the National Guard were deployed and held no punches, launching gas canisters into the crowds. Crowds with pastors, children, and elderly folk.
Journalists reported that SWAT teams came and took down their lights and camera equipment. Oath Keepers had arrived in Ferguson and started fights with protestors, guarding rooftops with their scoped rifles. Boston to Los Angeles held demonstrations against the decision. Internationally, London and Canada had their own protests over the grand jury’s call.
Saturday Night Live made a sketch about the night. It was cut for time but uploaded on their YouTube channel. It stars Kenan Thompson and Cecily Strong as news anchors on the morning after the night of November 24th. They desperately try not to talk about the previous night, talking about fun things to do in St. Louis, but inadvertently bringing attention to race, Darren Wilson, and the fires. There’s a chef promoting his cookbook, regrettably played by James Franco, whose name is Darryl Wilson which prompts the news anchors to cut away from him. They end the segment with a local music act singing “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel. Most of the comments on the skit were from St. Louisans and how they thought it was hilarious and wished NBC had aired it.
On the other side of the Mississippi River, our school had many conversations surrounding the night of November 24th. The consensus from the teachers was that they believed what had happened was deplorable, not the decision the court made but the response by the protestors. The only teacher who did have things to say about the court’s decision was my social studies teacher, citing how the evidence was so clear and that she wasn’t shocked at how people reacted. “They said they were going to burn the place down if they didn’t make the right decision.”
On December 3, 2014, the court's decision to not indict Daniel Pantaleo, a police officer who put Eric Gamer in a fatal chokehold, made news. Even though there was footage of the act available, Pantaleo still walked free. My social studies teacher talked with us and afterwards, she’d call on anyone who had a question. One of the kids said, “How can he not be arrested when there’s video proof of him doing it?” She blankly stared, a heavy rise and fall of her chest, letting out a sigh, “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
I remember the winter after August 9, 2014. There was no more talk of Michael Brown, the news moved on. Regular news stories, rarely any update from Ferguson. The teachers, even my social studies teacher, stopped talking about Ferguson, focusing purely on the curriculum.
I remember the year after August 9, 2014. Sandra Bland was reported to have committed suicide while in police custody in Waller County, Texas. She was arrested during a traffic stop three days prior for the minor infraction of failing to signal a lane change. She was from Naperville, Illinois and had graduated with a degree in agriculture back in 2009. At the time of her death, she had a temporary job in Texas at Prairie View A&M University. St. John Barned Smith from the Houston Chronicle reported Waller County as ranking among the highest in documented lynchings from 1877 to 1950. Waller County replaced their sheriff in 2007 for racist behavior. The cycle continued.
Back in Ferguson, a large gathering of people came to attend a vigil for the anniversary of Brown’s death. Everyone remained silent for four-and-a-half minutes, signifying the four-and-a-half hours his body lay on the street. The news coverage was minimal to non-existent.
An unrelated drive-by shooting happened nearby. St. Louis was placed under a state of emergency for three days and 120 people were arrested. News coverage was all-consuming, barely talking about the peaceful gathering to mourn the loss of someone in their community.
Again, everyone seemed to act like it was over, no need for further consideration. The message being conveyed was to move on.
I still remember, nine years after August 9, 2014. It’s approaching ten years after the death of Brown. During the large 2020 protests following the death of George Floyd, I heard Michael Brown’s name for the first time in years as protestors listed off the deaths of people killed by the police. I felt a pang in my heart. I realized we had not gotten any better since 2014 and still, to this present day, have made very little progress. The number of police killing innocent people keeps increasing, leaving names like Michael Brown, like Eric Gardner, like Sandra Bland, to slowly disappear from the public’s consciousness. The news will cycle out these tragedies, pushing them to obscurity, to be forgotten.
It feels very easy to give in to this feeling of hopelessness, of this nihilistic attitude that nothing will get better. Being online has made people more aware of the many injustices occurring in the world. While there are many positives to having more awareness, it also has the negative consequence of making people feel as though they are small, powerless. However, what the 2020 protests have shown is the power of community, of organizing under a common goal of equality, of standing up to systems whose histories are imbued with the sins of the past that continue to this day. I’m a believer of time and what time has shown again and again is that things are never stagnant, never stuck in place. Eventually, the sands of time will erode what came before into a better today. A today where deaths like Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Eric Gardner are so rare, they’ll be dealt with compassion and empathy. A today where something like the protests of Michael Brown’s death is only something to be read in textbooks and not a reality.
Gavin C. Hosto is an English major with a Creative Writing and Anthropology minor in his senior year. He plans to be a screenwriter after graduating and when SAG-AFTRA makes things better over in Hollywood. His life is horror movies, and he wants to thank Professor Vogrin for encouraging him in his writing endeavors.