Trauma is commonly defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Recently, I came to understand what that really means.
On the night of August 9th, I went to Canfield Drive, where Mike Brown, Jr. was gunned down in the street by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The heavy police presence from earlier in the day had thinned out by the time I arrived. Standing on a street I visited many times youth and seeing this teenager's blood on the ground is an experience that will likely haunt me for the rest of my life.
His blood on the ground cried out to us. His blood was the call to action.
The next day, a few hundred people gathered in front of the Ferguson Police Department's new million dollar headquarters to peacefully protest. The crowd was filled with people from all walks of life. We marched on the station's grounds, past officers and into and out of the building yelling phrases like “HANDS UP! DON’T SHOOT!” I could feel the tension in the air. Everyone was angry. I was angry. Being among such a large group of people–some strangers and others, familiar faces–I was not afraid of standing with them. The anxiety and fear grew inside of me as more and more police officers arrived to the station from different municipalities, including the K-9 unit.
We were all there for the same reason: to demand answers, to know why an unarmed Black teenage boy was gunned down. Mothers among the protesters gave testimonies to anyone who would listen about how to how the men in their family, or their sons (and even themselves) have experienced a form of police brutality. This was the first time I had ever seen police dogs ready for attack in real life. I felt as if time was rewinding back and showing me scenes from Selma, Alabama in the 1960’s instead of Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. I never imagined that this would be my reality as a young adult in America in the 21st century. I tried to remain as calm as possible in such a volatile situation but seeing those police dogs snarling at young Black children filled me with anger and rage.
I became less of a peaceful protester and more of an active one. Using my voice to chant loudly along with other protesters seemed to be enough but it wasn’t. Instead, I decided to yell directly at the police. I decided to dare the police to look at the faces of the babies and children their dogs were so ready to chase down. As more people began to look directly at the police and yell their grievances, the more aggravated they became.
That evening, my best friend and I took the back streets into Ferguson, down the now-famous West Florissant Avenue, only to be turned around. The police had the streets completely blocked off. There was SWAT everywhere, in gas masks, full body riot gear, police dogs, batons, and really big guns, also known as M16’s swinging from their hands.
This was the unimaginable.
I never would’ve dreamed that on the same street I drive down to go to my nail appointment at Crystal’s, or to the QuikTrip I get gas from would be the scene of a police occupation. Thanks to Twitter, I had been able to see photos of Gaza weeks before, and feel connected to the people there on an emotional level. I never thought the small county of Ferguson, this little part of Greater St. Louis, would become Gaza.
The police dogs were barking so loud we could hear them through our rolled up car windows. As we drove away, and found a safe space, anxiety took over. Yet, I was not afraid.
The militarized police had shown up to a candlelit vigil uninvited. A community of outraged, upset, hurt, confused, and sad residents simply wanted to mourn and show respect to Mike Brown's family by coming together peacefully. It is a community full of babies, children, teenagers, young adults, and elders. A neighborhood in mourning was greeted by a clear violation of their human rights.
Just attempting to write some of what I saw during the first two days of this movement makes me upset. I am upset to know that my people seem to not even have the right to hurt, to feel, to care, to show love, to be one with one another, or to mourn the loss of another Black life. I have anxiety, sleepless nights. Every time I see flashing police lights, I get nervous. I’ve never had an actual fear of the police, especially with having close friends on the force. Watching children, teenagers and elderly people running for their lives with rubber bullets flying and hitting people anywhere on their body, is heartbreaking. When I close my eyes at night, I see people running from tear gas in their own neighborhood. It’s a haunting experience to remember– running and hiding from the police, trying to stay alive.
I didn’t expect to go from a peaceful protester trying to attend a vigil for a young teen gunned down, to a modern day freedom rider. But I am prepared to stay the course and fight as long as we must.
Johnetta Elzie is a 25-year-old resident of St. Louis. She has been documenting the events in Ferguson on Twitter: @nettaaaaaaaa