What Civil Unrest Is Really Like: We Survived the Ferguson Riots
by Karen Morris
When I mention the year 2014 do any events stand out in your mind? Some of you may think of births of family members or special anniversaries or incredible vacations that you took. You know the kind, the ones you wish you could take every year because they were just that amazing? Yeah, I love those too.
But when I think of 2014, two things come to mind. Let’s start with the second event.
We moved (usually a fun thing) in November of 2014.
But the reason we moved was because of another event that began in August of 2014 and continued through the end of 2014 and beyond. The first thing that I will always think of when I hear, “the year 2014” are the images of destruction from my town of Ferguson, Missouri – images of the riots that we saw and experienced first hand while driving down streets where ruin ran rampant (say that five times fast).
Businesses were destroyed. Personal property was demolished. It wasn’t even safe to leave your house depending on where in Ferguson you lived.
Some Background Details
We considered moving to Ferguson in the fall of 2001. We were expecting twins and decided to buy a house in an affordable suburb of St. Louis. We had friends who lived in the area, and they liked it. What greater reference to the quality of the community than someone who already lives there, right? We found a great starter house on the corner of two of Ferguson’s four main streets.
The house we chose to purchase had a small backyard, a decent sized front yard, and room for the two children we were expecting at the time to play. We purchased the house in December of 2001 and lived there between 2001 and 2014. We had our twins the following summer, and over the years, we added three more children to our family. In August of 2014, our children’s ages were 12, 12, 8,7, and 3.
How It All Started
We pulled into our driveway on the afternoon of August 10, 2014, having just gotten back from a trip out of town. After tucking the kids into bed, I got some things in order and started working on a project at my desk when a friend of mine messaged me asking if I was all right. Okay, that was a rather odd question out of the blue. I told her I was fine and asked her why she was asking. She told me that there were riots going on in Ferguson.
That one sentence changed the course of my life – literally.
I knew my friend, and I trusted her. But you know that feeling…the one that says, “It can’t be as bad as she’s making it out to be.” Yeah, it’s real, and it’s called normalcy bias. According to Wikipedia (which I’ve been told never to quote):
“Normalcy bias is a belief people hold when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the likelihood of a disaster and its possible effects, because people believe that things will always function the way things normally have functioned.” (source)
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was exactly what was going on in my head – it can’t be THAT bad because nothing like this had ever happened to me before. BUT since I knew she wouldn’t lie to me, I opened a new tab on my browser and started looking up “Riots in Ferguson.”
One of the local news stations was running live coverage on their website. I watched for a moment. Then I called my husband over, and both of us watched, aghast at what we were seeing. There was a wall of police and a mass of rioters. As we watched and listened online we saw and heard screaming and yelling, threatening gestures, profanities being hurled. I saw one side moved forward and the other side moved back. Then both groups shifted toward either the left or the right. It was almost like watching a sinister dance. But this was a dance that took a dark turn fast.
That night things got out of control. Businesses were burned stores were looted, most of them were still about a mile away from us. We watched and we were saddened, but there was no reason to believe that but the events were going to get closer to us. We were safe, right?
Yeah, there was that normalcy bias again.
You’ll notice three main North/South streets, West Florissant (this is the street right off of which Michael Brown was shot and where the riots started), Elizabeth (the street we lived on) and N. Florissant (the west most of the main North/South streets). The main East/West street that you see had several different names, Chambers and Hereford are two shown on the map.
Our house was on the corner of Chambers and Elizabeth.
Despite what happened during the night, during the next day, things felt rather normal. The sun was shining, kids were walking to the school across the corner from our house, cars were driving by where we lived just like usual. But it was an uneasy, eerie feeling. It was like the calm that occurs when the eye of a hurricane passes over you and the sun comes out like life is happy and normal and there’s nothing to worry about until the second half of the hurricane hits you.
But of course, night follows day. And with the next night, there was more unrest. Again, thankfully, it was mostly contained about a mile from us.
The riots didn’t stop.
This cycle of fairly calm days and vicious nights continued the next few days. By Wednesday, we had seen that this wasn’t going to go away quickly. The protests seemed to be growing each evening – at least a little. So Thursday, I packed several suitcases and put them in the back of the van – where they stayed. Bug Out Bags are okay, but if you know there’s a good chance you’re going to have to leave for a few days (or permanently if our house was burned) it’s better to have three changes of clothes and night clothes for each person than to have just one.
The question started growing in our minds. When do we leave? We knew our family needed to be protected, but how close to our house is too close? I’ve read articles where people talk about ‘buggin out’ like there is that one right moment to bug out. Anything before that is just worry. Anything after that is foolishness.
There is no cut and dried “perfect time to leave” while you are living in a dangerous situation. The struggle is a real. You don’t want to leave too soon and foolishly waste resources or overtake friend’s houses unnecessarily. On the other hand, you don’t want to get caught in the middle of the turmoil and not be able to make it out with your family. The truth is there is no way to know when it is the exact right time to leave until after that moment happens.
We waited, wondered if we should leave, and watched. Friday night though, we had a lot more to watch. That night the riots broke out in the area of Ferguson in which they had previously been contained. Rioting, looting, and burning spread all the way from the area in which it started north almost two miles to the highway.
It also spread across the city over to New Florissant road. Our Walgreens, Little Caesars, and Shop & Save (our grocery store) were all on different corners of the intersection of West Florissant and Chambers/Hereford. They were only about one quarter to one half a mile from our house. All of them were looted.
Again, we felt that torn feeling. Do we stay or do we leave at 1 am? Do we wake up the kids and wake up our friends? My parents also lived in Ferguson, so it’s not like we could go to their house for a few nights to escape the turmoil. We hated to be a burden on friends outside the area. I know it sounds silly. Our friends would have been happy to put us up, but that really does weigh on your decision. Going to a hotel wasn’t really an option. That cost a lot of money that at the time we didn’t have.
We stayed that night and didn’t sleep much. As the next day dawned though, we witnessed the destruction.
Then everything changed.
There was something else that was evident the next morning too. Now that the riots had turned more violent and moved to the other side of our house, I had lost my sense of security. That might sound like a “DUH,” moment, but until something like this happens, it’s hard to realize just how deep your sense of security had been and just how much is now gone. It was that ‘normalcy bias’ that I talked about earlier. It was then that I realized things weren’t going to get better quickly.
With our sense of security gone, practical things changed for us. we could no longer sit out on our porch swing. Our children weren’t allowed outside. The blinds were kept pulled all day long. We didn’t leave the house unless we absolutely had to. At night we could literally smell the tear gas that was being hurled at people.
On the night of Monday, August 18th, everything exploded again. Hundreds of protesters gathered in Ferguson. Rioters threw bottles at police before the group charged the officers. Almost 100 people were arrested that night. The next morning, we called our friends, loaded our children into the car and decided that it was time for us to leave for a few days.
We spent three days with friends about thirty minutes from Ferguson as things continued. After three nights of being away, when Governor Nixon recalled the national guard from Ferguson, we found that our house was still standing and there was no physical damage to the property. We decided we really needed to return home.
Things would never be the same.
Upon our return, our attitude changed further. It’s amazing the things you take for granted like the stores at which you shop. I stopped shopping at my usual stores because I didn’t want to shop in the area. I would travel five to eight miles out of town to go to a store when it had a counterpart less than a mile from me.
We found a park near my husband’s work and ate lunch with him and to let the kids play because they weren’t going to play outside at home. We did what we could to give the kids a sense of normalcy since we were living in this nightmare for months on end.
The atmosphere during the following days continued to change as well. Gunshots in the streets became more frequent. We had heard them on occasion over the previous thirteen years that we had lived there, but NEVER like we heard after August 9th. There were fewer kids walking to school. Police sirens were heard crossing our corner almost hourly.
It was about this time that my husband and I began to talk about relocating. We had been casually talking about the possibility of a job with a company located in central Illinois. We decided that this was the time to get more pointed and committed to the discussion with them. We didn’t know how we were going to sell a house in the middle of a zone torn by riots, but we knew we couldn’t continue living this way with five children.
The unrest went on far longer than most people realized.
What might surprise many readers is that the riots really lasted a LONG time for us. There was unrest almost every night for months.
One night, I had to be out teaching a class. When I came home, the kids all told me about how the protesters had walked from the Memorial on West Florissant north to Chambers/Hereford where they turned west, and then when they reached North (New) Florissant, they turned south and went to the police station. This took them right by our front yard. As a matter of fact, the crowd was so big that there were some who overflowed into our yard. The police had a helicopter with its searchlight/spotlight pointed into our front yard to watch the protesters at one point. It was a sensational event for a couple of my children, but it really frightened several of my children.
Some of our children started to exhibit signs of emotional trauma. Incidents of bed-wetting increased, and our youngest child even refused to sleep in a bed by himself. We had children that were frightened to go out to the car if it wasn’t in the garage.
Between August and October, when we were home, we lived exclusively indoors. We continued to take multiple trips each week to parks near my husband’s work. The kids would play, and my husband would join us for lunch. We had a library that we loved to go to where the kids didn’t have to worry about whispering. We went there at least once a week. It was hard helping the kids find a sense of normal in the midst of daily turmoil. They had seen some very frightening events first hand.
But time continued on. Despite the fact that there was still unrest almost every night, television stations stopped broadcasting about the riots. Everyone was tired of hearing of hearing about them, so all of a sudden, in the media, it was like the riots didn’t exist
But they did for us.
By this time our house was on the market (of course without a prospect on the horizon). We were getting close to a job deal with the company in central Illinois. Moving was starting to look like a real possibility.
Once we reached October, there was a whole month of activities planned by activists called, “Ferguson, October.” Fortunately, the events of “Ferguson October” were listed online. When we were checking it out, we saw that there was going to be a big event in Ferguson in for an entire weekend. Again, we were torn, but we didn’t need our children to be subjected to any more of the violence, so we decided to pack up and leave the town for the weekend. We stayed with some friends in Illinois. Not much came of that weekend, though.
We finally relocated.
Eventually, despite my husband’s well-paying, secure job in St. Peters, Missouri, we moved from Ferguson to a small city in central Illinois in November. November actually ended up having the worst violence of our whole time in Ferguson.
We planned on leaving Ferguson on November 20th, but on November 17th, Governor Nixon declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the verdict in the case of the police officer who shot Michael Brown. No matter what the outcome, violence was anticipated.
When we heard that, we left. We packed up our belongings on November 18th and drove to a friend’s house in central Illinois. We wouldn’t be taking possession of our rental house until November 20th, but all indications were that things were going to get out of hand. Yeah. That was the understatement of the year – and considering the year we had, that says something!
The verdict of not guilty came out of November 24th and carnage ensued.
Shops that had been looted before were now burned. Shops we had used for years on end were gone never to be rebuilt – or at least not rebuilt as the businesses they were in the past. There had been an attempt at a deal between the city of Ferguson to bring in a CVS drug store. With everything that happened, CVS refused to move into the neighborhood. Other stores which hadn’t been destroyed pulled out as well.
We still had to come back to finish cleaning out our house in the hopes of selling it. We saw the devastation first hand again.
This event affected us permanently.
While we missed our house and our neighborhood, we would have missed it even if we had stayed. I have friends who still live in Ferguson and they’ve told me that there is still violence from time to time and that it doesn’t have the same atmosphere as before the riots.
When we moved, our salary was greatly diminished and our expenses were higher, but our children were able to play outside again. It took years for our house to sell and we took an enormous loss. They were able to climb trees in our own yard again. We rarely heard sirens anymore. In many ways, my children were able to bounce back. It was worth every bit the cost of moving and more.
Even now though, four years later, from time to time I still notice residual actions or insecurities that I believe were brought on by what we lived through in Ferguson. Those events changed each of us. They made us a little more streetwise. They brought us a little more sense of awareness around us.
What we learned
So if I could leave you with a few takeaways, they would be these:
- Don’t think it could NEVER happen to you. We lived in a small town surrounded by wonderful people. I would never have dreamed in my wildest nightmares that we’d be enveloped in civil unrest of any magnitude, let alone that magnitude.
- Being ready for the unexpected is a MUST! I have a friend who asked me why in the world she should keep items together (like a BOB or Grab-and-GO bag) in case they had to evacuate. Sure she lives on the Florida peninsula, but they always have some notice before a hurricane, right? This is why. You never know when you literally have five minutes to be out of the house before unrest of one sort or another reaches you.
- Learn to use social media to your advantage. During the whole situation, Twitter was our best friend. We would stalk Twitter and more specifically #Ferguson on Twitter. What we saw either could keep us in our house or evacuate us at a moment’s notice. If we needed to leave the house, we always checked #Ferguson on Twitter. We would be able to see where the protests were and which was the safest way out of the city.
- Having items that you keep in your car all the time is VERY helpful in case you ever need to leave quickly. We keep various tools, foods, drinks, first aid kits and more in our family vehicle. You never know when having them in your car is the difference between you having something and you having nothing.
- Watch for the effects that stressful situations may be having on your children. Learn to notice the differences and do what you can to mitigate what they are going through. If you can’t actually stop what they are going through, then do what you can to help them have a sense of normalcy in the midst of it. For us, routines helped. It was also helpful to learn where we could go that was safe so that our children could get out their energy. Extra time with parents and extra snuggle time with those children who need it is also vital.
I want to leave you with one final thought.
Earlier I mentioned normalcy bias. Ya know what? You most likely have that, even if you’re a prepper. By the time the Ferguson Riots hit, I was a prepper – maybe not a very good one – but a prepper nonetheless. Yeah, I was prepping for some unnamed event out in the future that MIGHT happen to me, but when it did happen to me, in many ways it still didn’t seem real.
There’s another part of Wikipedia’s definition I didn’t mention before,
“This [normalcy bias] may result in situations where people fail to adequately prepare themselves for disasters.” (source)
Don’t be that person. Don’t be that person who doesn’t prepare for anything because they think that everything is just going to be the same as it always was. Don’t be the person who lives in denial of a terrible event ever happening to them.
It can happen to you, and it might happen to you.
I never dreamed that my family would have to face having our home severely damaged by a tornado, or that we’d live through the Ferguson riots, or even that we’d be attacked by a knife-wielding teenager bent on killing everyone at our chess club. We didn’t plan for any of that to happen to us, but it did.
Learn, practice, and prepare yourselves mentally as well as physically, so that if a life-altering event happens to you, you can face it and come through the other side more wise and capable than when you went in.
About the Author
Karen Morris has survived some life-changing events, like the Ferguson riots, an armed standoff with a knife-wielding man during my family’s time at a local homeschool chess club, and an F-4 tornado, Each of these events taught her a new level of self-sufficiency and preparedness. From there, her journey to self-sufficiency started with food storage and grew beyond her wildest imaginings. Find out more about Karen Morris: Her book: A Year Without the Grocery Store Her website: AYearWithouttheGroceryStore.com