This series of posts is my best, brief recollection of the first 24 hours of St. John’s as a sanctuary church after the Michael Brown grand jury decision. It is a bit jumbled and definitely incomplete, but you will understand why once you read them.
We went through the dining hall and walked out to the sidewalk steps in order to look up to the street corner, some 100 paces up the block. The intersection of Grand and Arsenal was chock-a-block with hundreds of demonstrators. They had stopped all traffic and were chanting slogans to the beat of drums.
The Rev. Susan Nanny and the Rev. John Stratton donned the orange clergy vests provided by the clergy coalition and headed up the street into the crowd, prepared to employ the de-escalation techniques we had learned in seminars. (Police have their riot training, the demonstrators their civil disobedience training, clergy our de-escalation training.) The rest of us, along with lay ministers Geoffrey Pruitt, Kathleen Dimmich, and Annie Wainscott, stayed at the hall, ready to manage the site.
Some stressed demonstrators began to trickle in when Teresa+ got a text message from Susan Nanny+: “I need help.” Teresa+ texted back, “Where are you?”, but she did not get a reply. Worrisome.
We heard via our communications director – a fellow with a laptop hooked to Live-Feed and two cell phones scanning social media – that a “shoving match” was going on between the demonstrators and the police. The police had pushed the demonstrators up Grand Ave. to the Highway 44 overpass and were making arrests. We could see some of the action live on the laptop.
The communications guru looked at one of his phones and announced, “They say the police just raided St. Mark’s in Ferguson. They’re arresting everyone inside.” St. Mark’s was another sanctuary church. The news struck us like someone had just been shot. He looked up apologetically and added, “That’s what they say, anyway…” Teresa+ texted Susan Nanny+ again: “Where are you?” No answer.
There is a coffeehouse on the corner of Grand and Arsenal called MoKaBe’s, a landmark in the neighborhood and a designated safe space for the demonstrations. We got a call for help from someone there; they were overwhelmed with demonstrators and needed a medic. Deacon Susan Naylor, an RN and former EMT, drafted a couple of workers to help her carry med equipment to MoKaBe’s, and we slipped them all out our back door and up the alley to avoid the police, who were now patrolling up and down Arsenal.
I returned from the alley to find Teresa+ putting on an orange vest. I asked, “Going outside?” She replied, “Susan Nanny+ is not answering.” During our de-escalation training, we were told never to go anywhere alone, but by two or more, so I put on a florescent orange vest and hat and start trudging up Arsenal with Teresa+.
With clergy collars and orange vests as our only protection, we made our way to the corner of Grand and Arsenal, right outside MoKaBe’s. The intersection was once again jammed with hundreds of people, all chanting obscenities at the police. Apparently, the police had retreated from Highway 44 down to just south of Grand and Arsenal, and the crowd had retaken lost territory. Teresa+ and I scanned the crowd for Susan Nanning+, but it was impossible to see anyone in the crowd – too crowded, too dark. To our right, MoKaBe’s was a crush of people, both inside the shop and outside on the patio.
Red and blue lights began to flicker south of the crowd, and the biggest, meanest-looking vehicle I have ever seen slowly rolled around the corner. It was shiny black, covered with lights and dark windows. A voice over a loudspeaker was issuing orders to the crowd, but I could not make out what it was saying, as the chanting was drowning it out. Then we heard the pops.
Several rapid pops, like gun fire, rang out over the intersection, and people began to scream and run in every direction. Many of them ran straight down Arsenal, directly at Teresa+ and me, so we both sprinted back down the street along with them, back to St. John’s. I started shouting, “Head for the church! The church is a sanctuary!”, and I glanced over my shoulder to see tear gas canisters being lobbed onto the patio of MoKaBe’s. I realized that Deacon Susan Naylor was still inside.