Ferguson, Missouri: On the Ground in an American City Under Siege
Activist, rapper Haiku becomes a viral sensation documenting protests.
— -- The police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9 has turned the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, into a battleground, setting off more than a week’s worth of unrest in the St. Louis suburb.
While some have used the teen’s death as an excuse for looting and other violence--the locals now call the QuikTrip store that was burned down “ground zero” -- many protesters say they are peaceful, but accuse police of using excessive force. Police say a “growing number of individuals” have fired on them, putting Ferguson residents and businesses at risk, and they are trying to clear the streets.
Violent clashes led the Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to call in the state’s National Guard and install a curfew over the weekend. The governor’s midnight curfew was in place on Saturday and Sunday, but it wasn’t enough to quell the violence.
In the hours before and after the curfew was in place, “Nightline” embedded with rapper and young activist Brian Lohmann, who goes by the name Haiku.
His documentation on social media from the streets of Ferguson has turned the 29-year-old St. Louis resident into a sort of viral sensation.
“The way that the media was portraying the riots they made it seem like the protesters, the people that came out here trying to get justice for Mike Brown were the ones behind QuickTrip being burned down, and all the other stores being looted,” Haiku said. “So, my documentation from that point was to show that that wasn’t us. We were one of the main groups protesting. We’ve been out here every night. And everyone kind of rallies behind us. So as long as I keep the camera going, and I’m not rioting, and I’m not looting, then everyone knows that that’s not us.”
Since he started posting photos and short clips of rallies and clashes on Instagram last week, Haiku’s following went from 300 followers to almost 8,000. He also regularly uses Facebook and Twitter.
“Really my primary goal on social media was to show initially the amount of, the extent of force that the police were using against us. I mean, tear gas, they’re shooting us with rubber bullets, they come at us in riot gear,” he said. “Once we started getting in the encounters with the police where we were getting tear-gassed and things like that, it needed to be documented.”
Haiku said he wanted to document what was happening in Ferguson because he wanted to show that many of the protesters are peaceful. Many activists have taken to marching with their hands raised as a symbol of support for Brown, based on initial witness reports that the unarmed teen had his hands raised when the officer fired.
“The first night of protesting, actually, not even protesting, we were rallying at a memorial for [Brown],” he said. “Candles were lit, people had their hands up, signs. Everyone came in peace. For some reason the police decided to stand and provide a blockade against us, and not let us move forward. That riled the crowd up tremendously.”
Saturday night--hours before the state-mandated curfew was put in place--Haiku said he believed it would help things calm down.
Saturday, 11:49 p.m. – 9 minutes before curfew – Haiku had just left a meeting with protesters who were planning to stay out.
“I already know that the police are on stand-by because we actually left to have this meeting about what we were going to do, and they had different areas blocked off when we tried to come back,” he said. “My phone is blazing off the hook. I got people telling me ‘Let’s go!’”
On Sunday, Haiku hit the streets again, and came across more protests, one of which he said felt more like a block party.
“Earlier in the morning in the daylight, people were out here protesting you know but right now you’ve got a lot of partying,” he said. “I’m starting to get the feeling from a lot of people you know that are here for their own agenda and coming out with signs of their own Twitter address and you know their shirts promoting something and they’re passing out flyers for this and that … and it’s not – they’re starting to forget what the cause is.”
“The reason that we’re out here is because this is the scene where the execution of Mike Brown took place and we want justice, we want his killer arrested,” he added. “I don’t get that feeling from a lot of people out here, it just doesn’t have that protest feeling.”
Sunday was also the day the results of Brown’s private autopsy were released, revealing that he had been shot six times by officer Darren Wilson. Even still, Haiku thought protesters would heed the curfew on Sunday night, more so than they did Saturday night.
“I think the police have established that they are not bluffing about curfew so I don’t think there’s going to be as much of a turnout after midnight tonight like there was last night.”
Sunday evening, as the second midnight curfew approached, Haiku documented police gathering to prepare for another night of violent clashes.
“It looks like the police are positioning themselves to block off West Florence once again--it looks like they’re trying to clear everybody off of these side streets, give them some time to do that before they actually block it off.”
And clashes between police and protesters did break out. While marching peacefully Sunday, Haiku met up with a friend, who was fresh from a standoff with police.
Haiku said he will not stop documenting the protests on the streets of Ferguson.
“I’m going to stand with the people,” he said. “I’m going to stand with the people because it basically is going to boil down to the police, who have been excessive, and they don’t care about me, because they’ve already gassed me, they’ve already shot people standing next to me, so if it comes down to choosing sides I’m choosing the people.”