After completing Teach for America in St. Louis this spring, Meghan Flannery became co-director of the North Campus, a non-profit in the city run by Alderman Antonio French. When protests began last week in nearby Ferguson over the police killing of Michael Brown, French showed up to tweet non-stop commentary and video coverage, much of it before mainstream media outlets arrived on the scene. Flannery joined French in Ferguson early last week and was arrested during a peaceful protest last Wednesday night. I spoke with her about her experience and the status of the protests today.
What motivated you to participate in the Ferguson protests? Had you been to Ferguson before?
I’m sure that I’ve driven through Ferguson before, but hadn’t really processed it. The way St. Louis is set up is there is St. Louis city and then there’s St. Louis county, and Ferguson is in the county. All of my work is focused in the city, but when Mike Brown was shot, Antonio, who has a background in journalism, decided he just needed to get up there and get the story told unbiasedly. And he was really the only person who was out there filming what was going on, he was posting Tweets and Vines, and he was really the only elected official doing something like that. And it’s not even his territory. The reason he’s there is because the issues in the county are the same as the issues in the city, with tensions between the African-American population, which in Ferguson is two-thirds African-Americans population, and the police force, which has 53 officers, and only three of them are African-American. So there’s really terrible racial tension between the community and the police officers. And Antonio knows this and wanted to expose it and let the facts come out. When he went on Saturday, I was at home in Wisconsin when it happened and I came back and on Monday immediately went out with him to help with the reporting side of things. And from there, we’ve been down here, we’re calling it Ground Zero, all hours of every day since then, just trying to report the facts, and second of all, Antonio became a source of information, and my job has evolved into more a publicist, just trying to get him from interview to interview.
You were arrested in Ferguson. What was that experience like?
[It happened] last Wednesday. My counterpart Liz, the co-director of the North Campus, and I have been out with Antonio all the time. That particular night, we have concerts in the park back in the city that Antonio puts on, and we had been organizing that and making sure the event went well. After the event was over, around 9:30 or so, we decided we wanted to go back out to Ferguson, just to check out how things were going.
There are basically two sites where protesting has been happening: at the QuikTrip, which is around the corner from where Mike Brown was shot, and then the other site is the Ferguson police station. The Ferguson police station has been entirely peaceful—there’s no police presence, nothing has ever escalated over there. So we went over there to see how that was going. While we were on our way, Antonio’s wife called us and told us that she just got a call from him and that he was in jail.
Antonio had gotten arrested at the other site because he wasn’t moving his car fast enough, or something ridiculous. He had been moved to the Ferguson police station, where we were. So, we obviously knew that him being our boss, we should probably stay there and find out more information and at least be there when he got out. We were there for awhile. The protest was still completely peaceful, calm. The crowd grew to about 50 people. All of a sudden, around 11:30 or so, four big tanks drive down the street and maybe 50 police officers who were dressed like soldiers, essentially—they looked like army men—they roll up down the street and line up on the street and block us and tell us, you must disperse, otherwise you will be subject to arrest.
Immediately after that happened, the whole crowd dropped to their knees and put their hands up and said, “We’re not doing anything illegal, we’re on the sidewalk. We’re not taunting. We’re not doing anything illegal. We don’t have to leave.”
Then they came back on the loudspeaker again: “You must disperse, otherwise you will be subject to arrest.” So at that point, about half the crowd decided to go. Usually when these tanks roll in is when the tear gas starts happening. I experienced tear gas a couple days prior to that, and it’s not fun. That’s why the crowd started dispersing.
Eventually it was down to six of us, and the six of us walked down the block and sat down on the sidewalk. We had just a cell phone out, and my other hand was up in a peace sign. At that point, the entire crowd had gone besides the six of us. And they came back on the loudspeaker and said, “This is your final warning.” At that point, I looked over at Liz and we decided it’s time to go, we’ve proved our point. We get up to walk to our car with another girl who needed a ride. Liz and the other girl get into my car, close the door, buckle their seatbelts, and I’m walking around to the other side of my car, and I open my car door, and suddenly about seven to ten of these soldiers surround the car and tell us that we’re being arrested. They open up my car door, pull the two girls out, tell them they’re being arrested, and then [arrest] three guys who were with us but walking to their car as well. They arrest us, take us across the street to the Ferguson police station, and put us in holding cells. We ended up staying there for about eight hours.
Antonio was in the same police station a couple of cells over. They put the three girls in one holding cell, and the three guys in another holding cell. They booked us and told us we were charged with a noise violation and failure to comply with a police order.
The jail was unbearably cold. There was no toilet paper in our jail cell, so we had to request it about five times until they finally gave it to us.
Antonio was being held for a 24-hour period, and they didn’t tell us how long we were going be there. They let Antonio out, and when he left, he went to get money for our bail. He had to post $300 in bail to get us out. Antonio got out maybe around 9 o’clock, he posted bail for Liz at about 10, and I ended up getting out around 11 o’ clock. So, we spent about eight hours in prison.
When we get out, there were a whole bunch of reporters, because everyone had been following Antonio on social media, and when he stopped tweeting and posting vines, they were like, “What happened to Antonio?” and everyone was kind of keyed up about that.
I still have the charges, but we’re going to hire attorneys, and hopefully the charges will be dropped. And I’ve heard that we’re trying to get some class action civil suits together.
So, you have continued to be in Ferguson and reporting on the protests since?
My parents weren’t thrilled that I had gone to jail and then decided to keep protesting, but it’s a story that needs to be told. If getting arrested for one night for unjust reasons is going to contribute to that story being told, I’m alright with that.
The bottom line is, Antonio is also very protective over us. When things start to get kind of ugly at nighttime—when the sun sets is when things start to get ugly—we remove ourselves from the situation, especially because Antonio has taken this role as peacekeeper. He’s a liaison between the police and the community, so he stays in the area to keep the peace. Liz and I don’t really feel like we want to go to jail, so we’ve been either going back to the car or removing ourselves from the situation. But still trying to be here at least all day so we can continue reporting and getting Antonio to his interviews.
Various outlets are reporting that Tuesday night’s protests and the arrival of Eric Holder on Wednesday have served as a turning point -- the New York Times headline said tensions are easing and focus is shifting toward the investigation. Is this an accurate characterization?
Yeah, I think so. I’m not sure if it got into the news, but there was another shooting [Tuesday], and so that’s where our focus has been.
[Pastor Renita Lamkin] made a really good statement about the kind of protesting that’s going on and the different types of protesters that exist right now [in response to the Police Chief Thomas Jackson’s “We can’t tell them apart” statement]—there’s protesters, there’s rioters, there’s what she calls liberators, all different types of people who are here, and I think the shift has moved from the protesters who are here to get justice and searching for justice on any scale, whether it’s just for Mike Brown, or the whole community. They’ve moved some of their protesting and demonstrating to Clayton, where the district attorney’s office is. They’ve moved to safer locations. The protesting that’s been going on at ground zero turns ugly every day, so putting themselves in danger there is not a good idea, and they are starting to realize that.