Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Don’t be distracted by the introduction; it begins with a discourse on the advantages of wearing a suit in a riot. Or a rebellion.
I came from work and even if I hadn’t I wear a suit almost every day every night. I feel good when I dress well. I admit the externals help me.
I also find people treat me differently. I have ideas outside the perimeter of the circles I belong to and I get away with a lot more when I am wearing a nice suit.
I buy all my suits in a boutique elegantine in Detroit, my homeland. They have my size and preferences on file. My size has also changed since I entered this phase. It has diminished.
Wearing a suit also simplifies my problem with colors. There are certain zones of the color spectrum I do not see well. I don’t have to think about that and now that my daughters have left home, I am less embarrassed by uninformed tie and shirt selections. So for me, a suit means a simplified life. In some situations, a suit draws attention to me in an advantageous way.
I went down to the police station in Ferguson last night in response to a call for clergy. Nine PM. Our purpose was to be a presence between the youthful protestations and the Ferguson police, who have been unpredictable and not measured in their responses since the shooting of Michael Brown. The night before there had been conflict and arrests.
I made sure I had a dramatic head covering, kipah (yarmulke), in addition to my nice suit so I could be identified as a clergy person, rabbi. My wife, also a rabbi, is in the thick of this story and has demonstrated sensitive leadership and other attentive skills, she was also present and suggested a prayer shawl but I thought that might be excessive and ungainly.
I showed up. I stood on the street in front of the Ferguson police station.
We stood on South Florissant Road which is the nice part of Ferguson I suppose one would say with a celebrated open air market on Saturday mornings and some restaurants that are not fast food and even a brew house, unsure what a brew house is but I saw one there. And a corner bar. Next to the police station is a charming looking Italian restaurant that the proprietors I am sure thought they were getting a privileged spot right next to the police station. I don’t think so.
Every night this week there have been demonstrations up and down South Florissant Road this is old town Ferguson a semi-cute stretch of thoroughfare a different environment from the Canfield Green area where the shooting of Michael Brown occurred and the West Florissant Road where the burning and looting took place during the difficult days after Michael Brown’s death.
The protesting has moved to the police station, a newish building on South Florissant Road next to the Italiano restaurant, etc. down the street from the open air market location. Across the street is Andy Wurm’s Tire and Wheel store with a large black top parking lot where most people have gathered.
The police station looks new, I was told that the jailhouse part of the jail was still under construction. One of the fellows arrested the night before (Sunday night) was taken to the St. Ann jailhouse he later told me.
The protestors made chants and marched up and down South Florissant, pausing at the market grounds to drum and dance and chant. There was good use made of a bass drum that worked well to punctuate the chanting which was musical and youthful and a nice groove from a purely musical point of view, a good use of a single bass drum it was working except for the puppy dog that one of the young women was holding who was scared of the booming drum and thus doggie and her handler withdrew to the perimeter.
There was some smell of weed in the air, not a lot, and a great measure of youthful enthusiasm. Once we returned to the police station on South Florissant some of the young people approached the Police Department building, after the 11 PM noise ordinance that the protestors were violating. The police also suggested in the most vociferous manner that the protestors vacate the street and go to the sidewalk on the other side. They did not.
They moved into the middle of the street and sat down. By then there were about twenty five people sitting in the middle of South Florissant street right in front of the police station and a gathering of uniformed police officers in the parking lot of the police station, about the same number. It was 11:30 and I wondered why there weren’t more police officers. There were about the same number of police as there were protestors sitting and making chants in the middle of the street.
A masculine voice from a loud speaker from somewhere on the police parking lot demanded protestors move out of the street and onto the sidewalks. I noticed that at about midnight the voice changed to a female voice.
The protestors didn’t move. They sat down in the street and there was still some traffic moving through with the help of protestors guiding cars and trucks through the small crowd on the street, some of the cars and trucks moving a little fast compromising for sure the safety of those on the street.
One of my pals who was taking pictures went over to the Lieutenant of the Ferguson police across the street and suggested that they close the street off to keep the safety of the protestors. I thought that was a great idea, then the protestors could make the chants, etc., and no one need get hurt or arrested.
The Lieutenant was rude and said to my friend, we’ve thought through all the possibilities and dismissed him. The police lined up against the protestors and began to converge on the people sitting and making the chants in the middle of the street, telling them to disperse.
Some of the clergy knelt down with the protestors and they spent some time together in prayer. That changed the rhythm of the evening; what seemed to me to be moving toward a youth riot became quiet. There was quiet for fifteen, twenty minutes and though the group returned to chanting and hollering in defiance of the police, the tension had been broken and the rhythm changed. We were now in the realm of rebellion, not riot.
A half an hour later the police closed off the street, just as my friend suggested. A minute later Captain Ron Johnson, the celebrated Captain of the Highway Patrol who the Governor had appointed during the most difficult days after Michael Brown’s death, showed up and moved right up into the crowd on the street. The protestors got up off the street and gathered around him. He had come to talk.
Everyone gathered around Captain Johnson and shushed those who were bent on discord and said let him speak let the man speak. He began to talk with the protestors. He told them he was not in charge of the Ferguson police but if they wanted to continue their protests they could and they would be left alone if they just moved back. They were free to make all the protests they wanted. He tried to empathize without making promises, he was after all not in charge there. He had seen the confrontation emerging on television and came over to see if there was anything he could do.
The Ferguson police (and a few other uniforms) began to disperse behind him into the parking lot of the police station. Captain Johnson was alone with the protestors and there was a few minutes of civil conversation and more lessening of tensions. The police presence began to disappear and another night of confrontation was averted.
I stood across the street in conversation with one after another of young people who showed up for the protest. A lot of people wanted to know who I was; I was probably the oldest person there, and as mentioned above, I was dressed to notice. I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to engage people in conversation, I wanted to know who these people were, what they were thinking.
When I arrived, it felt as if a youth riot was brewing. I walked up and down the street with people and when we returned to the police station, I stood and waited and one after another of the young people who were chanting and protesting and hollering came up to me and with genuine kindness and respect, always referring to me as sir and many even commenting how dignified I looked (their word) asked me in the gentlest way: who are you? Why are you here?
I told them I was here to learn and listen. I want to know people. Every person I met, and I met many, were kind and communicative and respectful. There was one fellow who had been arrested the night before, spent the night in the St. Ann jail, he was familiar with all the places a person could go with mental illness kinds of problems in our area (there aren’t many) and he seemed to be a street person. Why he was there was unclear to me though the longer we talked the clearer he spoke and soon he was making more sense. He was kind of along for the ride. He brought me carrots and water and made sure I had somewhere to sit if I got tired. I was not tired.
Others I spoke to lived nearby and gave me an earful about how the community works, Ferguson and environs, the nature of these fiefdoms in our area. There are many of them in what is called North and West County. These were people who lived there and knew what they were talking about. Some white, some black, all of them had a take on the complexity of the story in Ferguson and all its implications, the history before the death of Michael Brown and the implications of the action since the death of Michael Brown. I learned a lot that night.
By then it was past one AM and the confrontation had risen and receded in front of my eyes. I’m familiar with police and jailhouses, etc. and there wasn’t enough policemen out that night in the incipient confrontation to be scary but there was some wildness in the street and real tension. Also a stirring and a hollering, a message of resistance and purpose, an expression of social critique and intelligent vocalization of perceived wrongs.
I’m glad I went and I’m going back again. Every person I spoke with that night thanked me for being there. This is what democracy looks like.