FADER photographer Alex Welsh spent three nights in Ferguson, MO, snapping flicks of the rigid stand-offs and eerie chills that overtook the small town in the wake of 19-year-old Michael Brown's murder. Here, Welsh shares a slideshow of images of Brown's life, from his high school to hometown streets, and recounts his experiences, in his own words, with protestors and police, including a robbery which left him a camera short.
ALEX WELSH: I got to Ferguson last Thursday, the peaceful night. There wasn’t a heavy police presence. People were partying, just driving their cars up and down streets, kind of like a sideshow. But people were definitely angry, though it was also a jovial atmosphere and unity. People from the neighborhood were telling me that youth and rival gangs were coming together with no beef, with no problem.
I felt very welcomed. Everybody was very hospitable. When media covers issues like this, in a community that is largely neglected in its representation in the media, residents have a pragmatic feeling: they’re grateful that you're there, but they know it will disappear once the news story is over. Some people expressed that to me: “You’re coming and you’re going, and we welcome you, but we have to live here when you’re gone.” Which it true. But for the most part people embraced the media, even though they understood it was temporary.
I’ve worked with kids in gangs for five years now, and even when I have intimate relationships with kids on the street, I know they have a hard time expressing their anger. But here, people really gave these kids this avenue to talk constructively and eloquently about their anger. There were two kids sitting on a Monte Carlo with 26-inch rims. I walked up and smiled, and asked if I could take their picture. So they raised their hands—everyone raises their hands. At first, I was trying to get something other than that, but I realized this is what they want to communicate. There is a powerful imagery in the portrait.
They had a friend recently that was gunned down in north St. Louis. They talked about how all of their friends have been victims of police brutality. They said they have friends that have been killed by the police. He told me, “We already know how to get down and we have to stick together. Because they’re killing innocent people, we have a right to protest and we have an authority to protest.”
As for the militarization of the police, people respond physiologically to that force. Without it, there isn’t a place to direct their anger. As soon as the police come in and have guns pointed at the community, shooting tear gas, everything escalates. Members of the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers were trying to keep the peace and tell people to go home, while any of the violence came from angry kids throwing Molotov cocktails. Or looting.
99% of the time I felt safe; I didn’t feel threatened, although at night, people talked about looters turning against photographers. Some photographers had been robbed; some had had bottles smashed on their face. At 11PM on Saturday, I went to my car, which was parked on a side street. I realized there were two kids across the street that were walking beside me, their faces covered in T-shirts. But everyone had their faces covered in bandanas. As soon as I got to my car, they confronted me, and took my camera and my bag. I negotiated keeping one camera somehow. It wasn’t super aggressive, with weapons pointed at me. But it felt more opportunistic than anything. I totally understand it; I’ve been jacked before.
After my camera was stolen, I left, but still I felt cautiously optimistic. I felt the police response was progressing in a way that was smarter. But when I got to my hotel and read my Twitter feed, I saw reports of tear gas. It was said to be one of the more violent nights, and now it’s escalating. I don’t know how crazy this is going to get. I think what will change it is if this cop [Darren Wilson] is brought to justice.