Yesterday Ferguson was a community in mourning. Today, it is a city in revolt.

For the past week, the word “justice” has been on the minds and lips of many of Ferguson’s residents. For those who had held out hope that justice would be delivered by the grand jury, and that police officer Darren Wilson would face charges, hope turned to anguish as they learned those charges would not be forthcoming.

In August, Wilson, a white police officer from Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed an 18-year-old black teenager named Michael Brown, who was suspected of stealing cigars from a convenience store. Wilson claims he was assaulted by Brown, but the version of events told by Wilson has been described as “difficult or impossible to believe.”

Last night Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, awaited the jury’s decision surrounded by a crowd of over a thousand people assembled in front of the Ferguson Police Department. At 11:15 p.m., she was hugged by friends and family as the verdict was announced through the speakers of a car with a half dozen people standing atop it.

“They want him back in Ferguson,” she said in reference to Wilson, “but I can’t get nobody back?”

Calls from the crowd rang out: “We’re with you” and “We love you.”

Tears streamed down her face. “Why, lord, why?” she wailed before being led away, a sea of bodies and cameras parting to let her pass.

Lesley McSpadden
Michael Brown’s mother reacts to the decision

In the quiet Ferguson neighborhood of Canfield, a mood of somber contemplation hung quietly in the chilly air. A memorial to Michael Brown adorned the middle of the street, covering the spot where his body lay for four and a half hours in the hot summer sun on Aug. 9. On the block where he lived, his neighbours remembered him with a silent vigil, as they had for the 108 days since his death.

“This is where it all began. This is a community in mourning,” said Sapphire Taylor, a resident of the Canfield Apartments housing project. “Ferguson became a symbol of the racism that still lives in this country — but at its heart this is really about a family that is going through a terrible, terrible loss.”

After lying dormant throughout the slow and agonizing march towards a decision, Ferguson’s anger over this loss erupted. At the Ferguson Police Department, the news was met with stunned silence, then furious reaction.

The crowd knew this was coming. They expected it. Organizers even made a website at along with plans to “shut the city down” in anticipation of the grand jury’s decision. Dozens of journalists swarmed the St. Louis suburb, some more than two weeks ahead of the announcement, hoping to point their cameras at agitated residents in their eagerness to predict another outbreak of the violence seen in August.

What they didn’t expect was that police would be wholly unable to handle the situation in any kind of reasonable or responsible manner. Despite thousands of dollars in new weaponry, the National Guard and the “five thousand hours” of training the governor said that the county’s 1,000 officers had managed to go through since August, the upheaval that met the verdict was far greater than what had occurred in the summer and the forces of order utterly failed to quell or contain the wrath.

As the reality of the news settled in, the crowd seemed stunned. Their voices had not been heard, or simply didn’t matter. Pushing at the barricades proved a useless act of bravado, given the dozens of heavily armed and armoured riot police. Storming the police headquarters wouldn’t work. So the crowd took off on a spontaneous march, filling the street as they turned down South Florissant Road. They were met with a phalanx of riot police but marched effortlessly around it, swallowing the line whole.

Somehow, a lone St. Louis County police car was left defenceless, and became the first outlet for the seething throng’s frustration. Its windows were smashed with bricks torn from the sidewalk, and it was nearly flipped over by four masked men. That was when the first shots were fired.

Police moved in swiftly, firing rubber bullets at close range at the would-be car flippers. The street abruptly filled with smoke, as the armoured SWAT vehicles responded with stun grenades and tear gas. Wind carried the gas back toward the police lines, and the mass of bodies advanced. An elderly woman lay down in the street in front of a roaring, screeching and heavily armoured behemoth with snipers for horns and a hundred masked National Guardsmen for a tail. As the woman was carried away by two bulky sergeants, a dozen or more tear gas canisters sent the crowd back in an abrupt stampede.

The actions of the police belie their tired assertions that “good” protesters, who are righteously gathered (to have their voices remain unheard), become collateral damage when “bad” protesters use them as “human shields,” as St. Louis police union spokesperson Jeff Roorda put it. Unable to avoid provoking those on one side of the street, police responded with the lazy strategy of gassing the entire street. In the most egregious case, when a crowd tried to carry a shell-shocked woman to safety, screaming, “She’s having a heart attack,” police responded with stun grenades and a cloud of tear gas.

Law enforcement kept advancing. With an armoured mass pushing from the south, a flood of protesters spread out to the north. It was then that glass started breaking and fire started rising. It started with a trash-can fire. Then a police car went up in flames. Its owners, with all their armaments, were powerless to prevent it. Those storefront windows on South Florissant Road that were not boarded up in anticipation of reactions to the verdict were smashed with little agenda apparent, an expression of inchoate rage. Some windows were broken, but in most cases merchandise was left untouched. Police were nowhere in sight as aggrieved protesters moved north and took out their anger on a town that had betrayed them.

And so the mission that officials had been promising to accomplish for months was an abject failure once more. Having failed in August, Governor Jay Nixon and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay vowed time after time that the police would use minimal force to protect property while allowing protesters to exercise their right to free speech. But even judged according to their own objectives, the police response last night was a miserable disaster, both in failing to show restraint and in allaying criticisms that they were too lax in preventing businesses from being ransacked.

Dizzying reports poured rapidly out of protesters’ cell phones and into the cloud, becoming more and more difficult to follow. One after another, buildings were ransacked all over town in an uncoordinated and unrehearsed symphony of revolt. A McDonald’s was smashed. Twelve new cars ignited at a dealership. Two gas stations burned to the ground. All the while police stood by and watched. Garrisoned in front of the Ferguson police station, they lost track of the protesters as they dispersed in every direction.

“Don’t go into a war unless you’ve got a plan to win,” an elderly gentleman later muttered aloud while walking away from the impromptu battlefield.

What started as an agitated yet concentrated convergence quickly diffused into spontaneous chaos throughout Ferguson and surrounding townships. Weeks, months, whole generations of repressed fury bubbled to the surface on this night.

Darren Wilson is not the first white man to walk free and face no consequences for taking a black life. Behind the curtain of an easily simplified narrative painting protesters as savage animals, there is an unheard voice behind the rage, a voice crying “not one more.”

“This is only the beginning,” local activist Alexis Templeton vowed, bellowing through a megaphone to a frenzied crowd in the streets of Ferguson. It will take time to assess the extent of the damage and the financial impact of last night’s riots, but the message they send should be indelibly clear.

Despite a handful of arrests for petty crimes, which police touted as trophies to distract from the millions of dollars of public money already spent to defend one man from the indignnity of a trial by his peers, and despite all that was burned and broken, none of it will bring back Michael Brown.

All photos by Shawn Carrié.