It starts at the McDonald’s on West Florissant Avenue, as it should if the purpose is to write about journalists covering Ferguson, Missouri. Wednesday, those journalists and some of the people they’re covering met here, at the place where The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and The Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly were arrested — before journalists getting arrested in Ferguson became a common story.
And they’re here, of course, in the afternoon, plugged in and working. Time’s Washington correspondent Alex Altman sits nearby. So does Ben Casselman, chief economics reporter for FiveThirtyEight. The Boston Globe’s Akilah Johnson stops by. Other journalists sit and stand, cameras and videocameras resting on round high-top tables and the floor.
There are also young people, a few with bandannas around their necks. A couple takes a selfie in a round booth nearby. There’s the crackling sound of the ice machine, soft, hard-to-hear music and the smell of french fries.
The manager here can’t comment on this place that’s become a kind of satellite newsroom, and he can’t give his name, he says, but all are welcome. He stops by the table and gives the journalists a friendly kind of last call.
“We are closing in 10 minutes,” he says, teasing that he wants to give everyone enough time to gather their bags.
When the restaurant closes, it’s still bright outside.
Around sunset, news trucks with satellites perched on top hum in the parking lot at the Northland Shopping Center. Tent after tent contains a square studio with cameras and cords and bright lights on the faces of waiting journalists.
Down the hill on West Florissant, people gather throughout the night — journalists, police, protesters, people who seem to just want to watch all three. CNN’s Anderson Cooper is set up under a white tent, waiting, like the journalists in the parking lot did, to go on air. People stand around watching the news as it’s made and stop as they pass, snapping selfies with Cooper in the background. Slow waves of dark clouds move across the sky.
When the thunderstorm finally starts, some journalists and protesters take cover under the awning of a small strip mall. It’s dark now. The strip mall lights make everything look yellow.
Gloria Lloyd, a reporter with Call Newspapers’ south St. Louis County publication, stands sheltered from the rain. She has worked from here for several nights. “Reporting from here has been like being in a war zone,” she says. Many of the journalists tonight have gas masks in their backpacks or strapped to their belts. Lloyd doesn’t have one.
Nearby, James Woods stands with a few other guys, smoking, talking and looking at their phones. They’re all independent journalists working with DCMediaGroup. They drove for 16 hours to be here, “not for the obvious reason of just filming riot porn,” Woods says.
“What you’re seeing in the media, it’s complete and utter lies,” he says.
Mainstream media choose those few moments, the ones where the worst happens, and shows them, he says, not what happened for the five hours before or after.
They’re media activists, he says, there to balance out the story.
“They don’t want the meat,” he says of the mainstream media, “they just want the sound of the meat sizzling.”
The rain slows to a drizzle and protesters march by chanting. Someone pounds a drum. But many stay under the yellow lights. Seated on the sidewalk are three Iranian men who drove to Ferguson today from Chicago. Hossein Fatemi, a photographer, has shot for major publications around the world. He covered the war in Afghanistan, and his work has gotten him in trouble in Iran, as The New York Times’ Lens blog reported in January. He sits with Kian Amani and Alireza.
“In our country, the government arrested me many times, Hossein, too,” Amani says. “One time they put a knife in my shoulder.”
Like Fatemi, Amani fears returning to Iran. So what do they make of what’s happened in Ferguson? I ask them.
It’s a hard question, Amani says. He’s quiet for a moment and looks out at the street.
“I don’t see equality in the United States for different people from different races, and I think that’s why people are here.”
Even if it’s at different levels, oppression is oppression, Alireza says.
“If we were in Iran now, the first people who would have been arrested are journalists.”
The marching continues, and in front of the protesters are journalists walking backwards, shooting photos and video. Lawrence Bryant, a photojournalist with The St. Louis American, leaves the strip mall and walks down West Florissant Avenue, across the street, toward Ferguson Burger Bar and More. Bryant, who grew up in neighboring Florissant, Missouri, wasn’t supposed to come out tonight. But he had to.
“For me, being here and this being on West Florissant…” He pauses. “It’s on West Florissant,” he says. “This is not even a bad part of town.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Kian Amani’s name.