Editor's Note: Rev. Alvin Herring is on the ground in Ferguson, Mo. Following is his account of the events of Aug. 17.
Last night democracy was trampled not as the media would suggest by the angry footfalls of sullen youth determined to disturb the peace and wreak havoc in their own community, but by the heavy march of a police force that seemed determined to create tension and antagonize young people — young people who are carrying the trauma of nights of unrest and lifetimes of dehumanizing racism.
We witnessed with our own eyes beautiful young people peacefully marching in step to cries of “hands up, don’t shoot.” We saw the very young holding older siblings’ hands and the old being pushed in wheelchairs by teenagers who had pain in their eyes but strong voices lifting up their laments to a nation that must find the will to hear them. And though they were clearly agitated, they were courageously hewing to the commitment to act peacefully in the face of an overwhelming police response that seemed determined to escalate an already tense situation.
Law enforcement was outfitted with the machinery of war. The officers wore military fatigues and carried automatic weapons. They were helmeted, with their faces obscured, and in the darkness they looked more like machines than human beings. They perched atop huge military vehicles with glaring lights and screeching sirens. It was otherworldly — and all of this to face down a group of wounded children, wounded tonight and many nights before this night.
As the demonstrators peacefully advanced, the military vehicles rapidly swung into position and without provocation unleashed a barrage of tear gas, smoke, and rubber bullets. If they gave orders for the demonstrators to stop their advance, they could not be heard above the sirens emanating from their own vehicles. The orders they barked over their loud speakers seemed not to caution or direct the group but to set the tone for the mayhem to come.
From our vantage point we could see the young people scatter and fall back, and as they retreated, the police line of military vehicles advanced. What followed was a mashup tear gas, rubber bullets, breaking of store windows, crying children, and older youth running – some no doubt, in their minds, running for their lives.
Before the night was over we were gassed, forced to run, duck for cover, and grab the hands of those who were frightened and scared out of their wits. We made it out of what looked and felt like a war zone.
We made it back safely to our vehicle and safely out of Ferguson. But democracy didn’t. She took a heavy beating last night. The question is will she recover?
The Rev. Alvin Herring is Deputy Director of Faith and Formation for PICO National Network.