The people you meet on West Florissant (and what they think about the press)

It’s hot on Thursday night, the heavy Missouri humidity back after an unusually cool summer. Up and down West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, people wipe the sweat from their heads, faces and necks.

Tammy Norman, though, is not dressed for a protest. She walks up to the roped-off area in a parking lot where CNN’s set up under a white tent, with tangles of cords and cameras and men standing like guards outside. She holds her phone and a disposable camera.

St. Louis resident Tammy Norman came out Thursday night to get a photo with Anderson Cooper.

St. Louis resident Tammy Norman came out Thursday night to get a photo with Anderson Cooper.

“I see exactly who I came to see,” she says as she moves closer. Her hair’s pulled back in a neat ponytail and she wears a black and white houndstooth dress.

Norman, who lives in St. Louis and works for the post office, has come here to protest before. But tonight, she’s here to see Anderson Cooper.

“I think he’s a very good reporter,” she says. “He makes me understand what he’s reporting about. He makes me understand and he gives a lot of good information. I watch him almost every day. This is why I’m here today.”

Cooper’s presence here, along with the rest of the mainstream media, is showing the world there was an injustice, she says.

“They want to know about what happened and they want to report and let everyone know every side of the story.”

What happens when they leave?

Crime happens all the time here, she says. Where she lives, people shoot all the time. She has to duck down on the floor. Still, she watches CNN every evening after work, she watches their coverage in other countries, too, including Iraq.

“It’s crazy all over,” she says. “It’s just crazy.”

Norman waits as Cooper talks live with Van Jones, cohost of CNN’s “Crossfire.”

“I got one with Don Lemon,” she says and opens her phone to show the selfie they snapped.

Tammy Norman's selfie with Don Lemon. She loves to take photos, and her daughter told her recently that it's finally paying off. (Photo by Kristen Hare)

Tammy Norman’s selfie with Don Lemon. She loves to take photos, and her daughter told her recently that it’s finally paying off. (Photo by Kristen Hare)

When the broadcast is over, Jones walks toward a waiting car. Norman moves over and calls out to him. He walks back and shakes her hand, the wire rope between them.

“I love you and Anderson Cooper,” she says.

The two talk about what’s happening here for a while, about faith and community. They laugh and nod. She checks to see if he’s married. (He is.) They snap a few photos together. (Norman hands her disposable camera to me, so I got to be her photographer.) Then, she asks if he can help her get a photo with Cooper. Jones gives her his number and says to text him in a bit. He’ll try and help her out.

“I will still be watching you all the time,” she says.

Not far from the CNN tent, Gwen Stewart stands with a sign that reads “Step down McCullouch” in red and blue. How does she feel about the media presence here in Ferguson?

“They’ve been OK, as far as I’m concerned,” she says. “They got arrested and everything. They’ve been treated very badly, as far as I know.”

After journalists were arrested, the president started paying attention to what’s happening here, says Stewart, who lives in unincorporated St. Louis County.

“They treated the media very badly here. I couldn’t believe it. That’s one of our greatest freedoms — freedom of the press and freedom of speech.”

Leonard E. Bell Jr. joins in the conversation. He agrees.

“When you start trying to mess with those two rights, then yeah, you’ve got a big problem.”

On the two nights I was in Ferguson (after all the really big stuff happened), there were basically three groups present, possibly in equal numbers — police, protesters and the press. We each had a kind of uniform, police in their gear, protesters wearing shirts or carrying signs calling for justice, and press with tags around our necks, notebooks, backpacks and cameras. The police didn’t really talk to each other. They just watched. Some protesters spoke about change and voting and education as they passed. And the common greeting for journalists, I found, was “Hey, who are you with?”

I asked this to Clarence Williams, who stood on the side watching protesters march. He wore a hat and a backpack, khaki pants and a lanyard around his neck.

But he’s not a journalist, he said.

“I have to look like the media to protect myself.”

His press pass was a folded brochure tucked in a clear pocket that no one had yet questioned. He had a friend film the whole time we talked using his Samsung Galaxy S3. The press, he said, is not showing things here as they really are. They’re not showing the whole story.

He was here when protesters clashed with police and says people’s civil rights have been violated. Maybe he’s a protesting journalist, he says. He’s hoping to share the videos he has shot here and to travel to other places where there’s trouble and show people what’s happening.

“This,” he says, holding his brochure pass, “allows me to get closer to the story.”

Clarence Williams' homemade press pass. (Photo by Kristen Hare)

Clarence Williams’ homemade press pass. (Photo by Kristen Hare)

It’s after 10:30 p.m. and the press, police and protesters line West Florissant Avenue in clusters, some talking, some watching, some marching. In front of the sign for Sam’s Meat Market and Liquor, a group of men freestyle, women in the clumped crowd belt out melodies. Many gathered in the circle lean in to the sounds.

They attract people, then they attract the media, who hold up video cameras with bright lights shining. Eventually, they attract the police. Suddenly the police walk into the street, where they stand in a loose semicircle. Police cars follow. Some peacekeepers shout out to the group, begging people to keep moving. On other nights, this is how things have escalated.

Someone in the crowd gets on a bullhorn.

“Media, can you please keep moving? Can we keep moving? Media included. Can we please keep moving?”

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