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Ferguson, Missouri protests for National Public Radio's Code Switch blog

Protestors lock arms in front of police to keep agitators from creating more turmoil.

By a fluke of circumstance, I happened to be in St. Louis during some of the protests happening in Ferguson, Missouri. My family had been on vacation for the prior two weeks with my in-laws. My father-in-law wanted a nice family portrait that I was to be included in. Normally when I go on vacation, I travel very light camera-wise, usually taking only a body and lens and a laptop. This time, however, I decided to bring my whole kit since it would be easier to have all the necessary equipment on-hand and not piecemeal and potentially forget something crucial. 

My wife, a health and science reporter, was to attend a fellowship in Columbia, Missouri immediately following our vacation. She's a St. Louis native, so the plan was for her to go to Mizzou while I stayed behind with our daughter so she could get extra time for a week with her grandparents. 

An image made right around the time I was shot in the forearm with a rubber bullet. Oddly, it was on my left arm, which may indicate that the bullet was shot not from the approaching police force, but from an unknown flank position.

While we were on vacation, I could see that things were really heating up 20 minutes from my in-laws home in St. Louis. I thought to myself that surely things will have cooled down by the time I got there. When we eventually arrived in St. Louis, my wife took off for Columbia and I called a family friend to come by and watch our daughter (my in-laws weren't back yet) while I went to explore the situation in Ferguson. I naively told the family friend that I expected to be back in an hour or so and that at this point, it was probably just going to be people marching up and down W. Florissant Avenue, holding signs and marching. I even opted to only bring a little film camera I own. I figured I'll experiment and then go home. 

What I didn't realize was that things were far from calm. While things were peaceful enough when I got there, they deteriorated within about an hour and a half. The word on the street was that some people had decided to march toward the police command center about a half-mile from where many protestors and media were stationed. The next thing I knew, canisters of tear gas, smoke bombs, flash-bang grenades and lastly, rubber bullets, came flying down the street.

The aftermath of my left forearm after being struck with a rubber bullet

I found a gaggle of other photojournalists to group up with, most of them decked out in gear that I didn't have - tactical helmets, gas masks and flak jackets. I was standing on the curb trying to frame up a shot when I felt something hit my arm and it hurt like a thousand expletives. I instantly recoiled and ran back, zig-zagging, into a parking lot. I thought to myself "Holy sh*t! What the hell was THAT?" My arm started swelling up immediately. I was full of adrenaline and kept trying to make pictures, armed with a film camera with 400 speed film pushed to 3200 and one 35mm prime lens. It felt like futility. The cops kept pushing everyone back and their approach was overwhelming. As I came within about 500 yards from my car, I heard shattering glass. Groups of men were starting to loot a Papa John's Pizza on one side of the road and a pharmacy on the side of the road I was on. I looked around and noticed I was the only media left at this point and that things were getting very, very hairy. I made it back to my car, but only after being faced down by an approaching armored vehicle surrounded by soldier-y looking men with flashlights on their rifles, approaching my general vicinity. Hands up, I crab-walked away from them, made it to my car and then headed out when there was a break in the rush of people running by.

The next day, I made phone calls around town to find out about purchasing at the very least, a tactical helmet and hopefully a gas mask. The first place I called said they had sold out of helmets after last night's melee. Another place said they only had four helmets and were holding them for CNN. After what could be a whole other blog post just about getting last minute protective riot gear, I came away with a very used kevlar helmet and a Serbian gas mask with a dried out filter element. Still not on assignment for anyone, I went out the next night to try again, this time with my digital gear. The night was intense, but not as intense as the prior night. There was some tear gas used (hence discovering that the filter element in my Serbian gas mask was compromised) but by the time I got to where some shooting at the police had taken place, things had calmed down, at least by the strange standards of the protests.

A man is directed toward police after shots were fired at law enforcement moments earlier.

The next day, I was contacted by friend and NPR supervising editor Kainaz Amaria asking if I'd like to shoot a two-day assignment for Gene Demby, who runs the Code Switch blog at NPR. The interesting element is that she was looking for photos that showed a sense of place and not so interested in protest pictures, images of which had already saturated the media. I was very game and spent the next two days with Gene going off the beaten path throughout Ferguson, not just the scenes of the protest but neighborhoods and the downtown area. 

 

It was good to get away from the protests and explore Ferguson from another perspective. It was definitely work that was in my wheel-house and Kainaz's great editing helped focus my efforts. You can check out the final product at Code Switch here. Some of my favorite images from the assignment are below.

The owner of Red's Barbecue, left, speaks with a man making repairs to the restaurant.

Linda Owen takes a photo of her husband Al August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, MO in front of the Ferguson Brewing Company. The couple are from an unincorporated section of St. Louis County and were visiting Ferguson to help support the town.

Linda Owen takes a photo of her husband Al August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, MO in front of the Ferguson Brewing Company. The couple are from an unincorporated section of St. Louis County and were visiting Ferguson to help support the town.

A school bus driver gestures while waiting at a stoplight August 19, 2014 in downtown Ferguson, MO.

As protests take place two miles away, a spin class goes on uninterrupted August 19, 2014 

A drive-thru sign at one of many shuttered businesses along W. Florissant Avenue.

Members of the Nation of Islam walk down W. Florissant Ave. August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, MO.

A closed clothing store along W. Florissant Ave. August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. 

A woman stands before a chop suey restaurant August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, MO along W. Florissant Ave. where rioting took place earlier in the week.

A child stops to tie his shoe along W. Florissant Ave. August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. W. Florissant Ave. has been the location of protests and occasional rioting related to the shooting of an unarmed Michael Brown by Ferguson police.

A protestor poses for a portrait August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. 

A police officer glares at a photographer August 19, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. 

A woman, left, sings at a memorial where Michael Brown was shot on August 9, 2014 on Canfield Drive. Photographed August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO.

Road barriers stand at the end of Canfield Road, the same street Michael Brown was shot and killed on by a Ferguson police officer August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. Some residents have complained that they're not able to get to their homes and don't know shortcuts that law enforcement presumes they know. Many cars were observed by the photographer driving through adjacent yards to get past the barriers with ease.

A card from the FBI stuck in the door in a third floor apartment overlooking the street where Michael Brown was shot and killed August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. The apartment appeared to be empty and in disrepair as viewed through the undraped window.

DeShawn White, 12, left, Tayron Wilhite, 13, and Ricky Allen, 15, toss a football around August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. They were playing just around the corner from where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer.

Jamyla Bolden (far left), then 8, is shown in a photo from Aug. 20, 2014. She posed with Trice Johnson (center left), 8, (center left), Destiny Sonnier (center right), 8, and Rayell Hickman, 8, along Ellison Drive in Ferguson. The kids were in a yard  just around the corner from where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer. Bolden was killed by a drive-by shooter while doing homework on her mother's bed August, 28, 2015.

Two kids play basketball on Ellison Road, just around the corner from where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer. August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO.

Markquetta Powell, left, and Deborah Austin chat on the sidewalk August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. The two were chatting just around the corner from where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer.

People cross W. Florissant Ave. as evening approaches August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. The protest that evening was smaller and more calm than prior evenings.

A sprinkler waters a backyard lawn that abuts W. Florissant Ave., where protests have taken place nightly August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO.

Greg Jones, left, greets Walter Nash as Nash cooks free BBQ on W. Florissant for protestors August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO less than a mile away from where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer.

Asia Jackson, left, and Taylor Barnes, sit in front of a W. Florissant Ave. boutique August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO. Both are from Ferguson and were out to support the protest.

Elder Jason Watts, right, of the Williams Temple Church of God and Christ, listens to a woman who claimed she heard from God that the rain was a symbol that something bad was coming August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO.

Two police officers wait out a passing thunderstorm along the protest route on W. Florissant Ave. August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO.

Protestors walk past a bus stop at W. Florissant and Ferguson Ave. as law enforcement officers are reflected in the bus stop window August 20, 2014 in Ferguson, MO.