Ferguson Behind the Scenes – The View from One Local Muslim Journalist/Activist

Ferguson Behind the Scenes – The View from One Local Muslim Journalist/Activist December 1, 2014

By Umar Lee

photo courtesy of Umar Lee
photo courtesy of Umar Lee

For weeks on end the talk of the town in the St. Louis Metropolitan area had been guessing the date of the announcement of whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would be indicted or not. Locally the question was simply “when will The Announcement be?”.

The week before the Thanksgiving saw plenty of indicators The Announcement was near. These included a press conference by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and another event where he joined St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley ( all Democrats). School districts in North St. Louis County began giving children additional homework to take home and the general consensus was the announcement would come on the Sunday orMonday of Thanksgiving week.  The logic being that if civil-unrest got too bad it was only a three day school week.

That Sunday St. Louis was on pins and needles but the announcement never came. Monday I woke up to news the announcement would be coming that evening. I began to get texts, calls and emails urging safety and the streets and roads were eerily empty.

I decided to go to the St. Louis County Courthouse in Clayton,  MO to hear the news. I was joined in a heavily fortified Clayton by my intended Ezdehar and my good friend and local St. Louis filmmaker Ryan Frank.  Clayton was an absolute media circus with the parking lot across from the courthouse full of satellite trucks and a mix of national and local media milling about.

As the press conference from St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough (D) began a cell phone was placed next to a bullhorn to amplify to the crowd.  Even though I have a press pass only 40 members of the press were credentialed for the press conference.

From the perspective of a Muslim I noted that the sound of the press conference was coming from former Missouri State Representative Yaphet el-Amin and the cell phone being used was from her father Eddie Hasan. As I stood listening to Mcculloch speak behind me were members of the Nation of Islam including Minister Akbar Muhammad the International Representative for Minister Louis Farrakhan.

The Fall Out

The news of the non-indictment didn’t shock me. As a matter of fact not a single person I spoke to in St. Louis beforehand believed an indictment was coming.  The Justice for Mike Brown community for one simply didn’t believe Bob Mcculloch at any time gave justice for Mike Brown a serious consideration.

We left Clayton and headed immediately to Ferguson.  Within less than one minute from us getting out of my car we were caught in the middle of St. Louis County police firing teargas from one side and protesters throwing bricks from another side. Retreating to safety we were once again hit by teargas as police randomly fired into the crowd.  Seeking the safety of an isolated parking lot with only a handful of people we came under direct fire from police (and this was caught on CNN).

With downtown Ferguson in a complete state of mayhem and police agression we headed towards my car to leave. However,  near my car a police cruiser had been set on fire and the ammunition that had been left in the car began popping off.

Eventually we got to my car and headed to West Florissant. The stretch of West Florissant through Ferguson is not only heavily African-American but it’s also the section near the Canfield Green apartments and where Mike Brown was killed.

By this time West Florissant was ablaze. Stores were being looted, businesses were being burned, the youth were setting up road blocks and there wasn’t a police officer or National Guard troop in site. A number of the businesses being burned or looted happened to be Muslim owned.

I decided to drive north on West Florissant to check on my brother-in-law’s barbershop and before I could get there two youths jumped on top of my car outside of the Ferguson Walmart.  Having made it to the barbershop and seeing it was fine I then drove by my family’s home to check on it.

The next stop was South St. Louis.  For those not from the area Ferguson is a northern suburb of St. Louis.  The rallies and street actions in North St. Louis County are not limited to the city of Ferguson and most especially include neighbors such as Dellwood, Jennings and Berkeley.  South St. Louis actions began with the killing of Vonderrit Myers in the Shaw Neighborhood.

Ferguson and the Shaw/Tower Grove area of South St. Louis are culturally very different.  Ferguson like the rest of North St. Louis County is blue-collar,  working-class and suburban.  Shaw/Tower Grove has a racial mix like Ferguson: but has seen a lot of gentrification,  is very liberal,  home to a lot of hipsters and people with money and prestige. I personally love both areas ( I grew up north but my mother lived for years in Shaw).

On Burning and Looting

On this night of anger and frustration windows were broken along South Grand in South St. Louis, Highway 44 was shut down,  teargas was fired by police,  and passions ran high. It was still nowhere near as intense as the actions in North County.

Businesses burning.
Businesses burning.

I’ve been asked by many people what I think about the burning and looting.  It’s not a simple question.  First off only a small number of people were involved in those activities.  Protesters protecting many businesses and leaders spoke against it. However,  allow me to dig a little deeper.

From what I saw most of those involved in the burning and looting were young black males.  Few had been to protest rallies since the death of Mike Brown.  All they know is they’ve been let down by the system once again and that their voices are not being heard. Couple that with the fact many of the targeted businesses already had poor relations with the community and are viewed as outsiders and you had the recipe for drama. I mourn for family-owned small businesses: but I’ve got a hard time mustering up sympathy for the bloodsuckers at payday loan,  rent-to-own, pawn shops and Liquor stores. Or Walmart for that matter.

Let me also make one thing perfectly clear: the looting and burning was allowed to happen.  Not one cop stood up to stop it nor were they even in site. Meanwhile the St. Louis County Police and National Guard were strong arming political protesters in downtown Ferguson.

By the time Thanksgiving came I was grateful to be with my family. The movement goes on though. People are still in the streets,  actions are ongoing and a new generation of leaders is emerging.  These leaders include young Muslims many of whom are at the forefront.

In closing I say this to the Muslim community.  The Friday after Thanksgiving a Salafi imam came to a local St. Louis masjid.  The imam disparaged protests as haram. I don’t say this as a swipe at Salafis as I know local Salafis who’ve been supportive as have been some national figures such as Omar Suleiman of the alMagrhib Institute.  This particular imam reiterated the Saudi position against street protests. The imam was rebutted by local Palestinian-American businessman and activist Zuhdi Masri who spoke in favor of the Justice for Mike Brown movement.

There are two paths we can take. One seeks justice.  The other seeks a stability attached to an unjust status-quo.

Umar Lee is a St. Louis-based  activist and writer. His writings can be found at umarlee.wordpress.com, on his Amazon author page and in the St. Louis Evening-Whirl. All photos are taken by him.

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