THE BLOG
12/09/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

There's More to Ferguson Than Burning Cars

I was on an Amtrak train to St. Louis when I heard that the grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown. My heart sank and I exchanged a look with the friend traveling with me; it looked like we would be covering riots, not celebrations.

We weren't wrong. We were in the thick of the riot outside the Ferguson Police Department on Tuesday night. But that same night we witnessed a peaceful protest outside a designated safe space in St. Louis. The way the two demonstrations were handled by the media, the police and the protestors were dramatically different.

We arrived too late to cover anything but burning buildings when we met up with a team of journalists in Ferguson on Monday night. But Tuesday night we were on the scene from the beginning, respirators and goggles in hand in case of tear gas.

The National Guard lined up in front of the police department long before the sun went down. Protestors wandered in and out of the parking lot across the street all day. The crowd in front of the police station was half protesting residents and half media. Everywhere we turned, there were news cameras and eager reporters.

It wasn't until after the sun fully set that people began to chant.

A call and response of "Hands up!" and "Don't shoot!" rang out from protesters. Police with riot shields countered by shoving protestors back onto the sidewalk. Every time the police spoke to protestors, a crowd of reporters with television cameras surrounded the interaction.

I was reminded of the NATO protests in Chicago in 2012, when I saw the exact same phenomenon. It reminds both parties that a physical attack will be well documented, but the media is no longer in the background. The video cameras intensify an already tense encounter.

Someone in the crowd periodically threw smoke bombs and flares at the police and National Guard, who responded by shoving the protesters further back onto the sidewalk.

Still, it wasn't until the media moved off to check out the target of a helicopter spotlight that the crowd began to march. The mass of people, most of their faces covered by bandanas, rounded a corner, discovered an empty police car and began to vandalize it. That was the only unaccompanied, empty police car I saw my entire time in Ferguson and I wonder why it was left there.

An effort to flip the car failed, but the attempt to light it on fire did not. As the flames caught, police poured in from three sides carrying riot shields and nightsticks, and that's when I had my first taste of tear gas.

The crowd spread out and was ordered to disperse by a disembodied voice from a military grade Humvee.

A little more tear gas and a few trips up and down the street later, we decided to check out another protest scene on the front terrace of Mokabe's Coffeehouse in St. Louis. We were the only journalists there. The street was empty aside from more than 50 police officers in full riot gear, encircling the coffeehouse.

On Monday night, police fired tear gas into the shop, catching Amnesty International observers in the gas according to Twitter. The protesters gathered there Tuesday night to protest the tear gassing because Mokabe's is one of several safe spaces in St. Louis for activists.

"Safe spaces" are designed to be havens for people fleeing violence, to be respected by demonstrators and police alike. Not a single protester stepped onto the sidewalk; they all remained on the coffeehouse patio with their hands in the air, ringed with lights and a prominently displayed sign that read "Black skin is not a weapon." As a police officer approached to engage the demonstrators, people began getting agitated.

"I was standing right here and I got tear gassed," one woman yelled, "and I didn't do anything wrong!"

But before anyone got physically aggressive, Reverend Osagyefo Sekou from the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Boston stood on a chair and began to speak.

"I need you all to listen," Sekou said. "Do not engage them. Arguing with them gets nowhere. Our presence is enough."

He asked the crowd to pat their chests like a heartbeat. "That is the heartbeat of democracy you hear," he told the police, reminding them that the gathering was a peaceful demonstration well within the rights of the assembled.

"So whoever your captain is, stand down. Go home!" He said. "We'll be alright."

And the officers listened. They slowly retreated back into their vehicles and left the scene amidst cheers from the assembly.

We were shocked. After the violence we'd filmed earlier in the evening, we were all expecting thrown bottles and tear gas. But the protesters showed the police that violence is not everyone's answer. Not everyone with a sign and a bandana over their faces is an enemy. Protesting is a first amendment right and can be non-violent. And the police showed the protesters that they can respect a peaceful demonstration.

I'm a senior in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and this was the first time I covered anything like this. I feel lucky to have seen both sides of the protests. They're not all burning police cars and looting, as it sometimes seems from media portrayals. There was certainly no media at that peaceful protest. People standing with signs don't tend to look exciting on camera.

I wanted to see for myself what would happen in Ferguson. There were demonstrations in every major U.S. city on Tuesday night. Some of them were violent and some were not, but all of them were rooted in anger and disappointment with the system. Sometimes only the anger and violence comes across on TV cameras. But I learned there are more facets to these protests than what you see on screen.