The sound of this stranger's distress was drowned out by a mass arrest taking place several feet away. Looking up for a moment, I could already see dozens of protesters in various stages of detainment. The area swarmed with police uniforms.
It was "Moral Monday," a day of planned civil disobedience to mark the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's death, and I was there, in a church parking lot in Earth City, trying to take photos and gather reporting on the arrests. Earlier, a group of 57 protesters — including prominent clergy members and several leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement — stationed themselves in front of the St. Louis federal building and demanded the Department of Justice do more to fix the racial biases poisoning the justice system. They were all arrested.
I spent the rest of the day following a group of activists, led by Alexis Templeton and Brittany Ferrell, who sought to pull off a much bolder act of protest: They aimed to block all eight lanes of I-70 during rush-hour traffic. During a planning meeting, organizers said their strategy would place white allies at the frontlines of the highway shutdown. There they would likely be arrested first, thus providing time for others to escape. The message was both bitter and powerful: For once, white bodies would protect black ones.
The woman in my arms, Melissa Ritchey, was one of those white allies. I cradled her head as tremors shook her body. I didn't know what to do. All the street medics had been arrested.
I had arrived at the staging area around 4:30 p.m. Although I've reported on two previous highway shutdowns (only one that succeeded), this one already felt different.
The plan called for coordinated maneuvers between two teams of protesters. First were the drivers. They would each occupy a lane and slow to a stop, bringing traffic in both directions to a standstill. The second team would meet at the parking lot of Faith Church in Earth City, which borders a grassy hill abutting the highway. Once the drivers were in position, the protesters would quickly run up the hill and link arms across the lanes.
The plan, it turns out, worked quite well. When I got to the top of the hill, fifteen or so protesters had already formed a human chain across the eastbound lane, and dozens more were arriving. They set down yellow-painted cardboard boxes stenciled with "Ferguson Is Everywhere," creating a rough picket line stretching across the highway. Protest chants competed with car horns.
But not all drivers were content with just venting their anger. I watched a middle-aged woman in an SUV nudge forward into the line of protesters, who then surrounded the vehicle and began shouting through her driver's side window. The SUV accelerated, plowing through the line and crushing a "Ferguson Is Everywhere" box beneath its tires.
The police weren't far behind, either.
Roughly twenty minutes after the protesters took the roadway, a contingent of officers from St. Louis County Police Department and the Missouri Highway Patrol troopers arrived to push them back. More police cruisers seemed to arrive every second. Shouting orders to disperse, officers quickly corralled the still-chanting crowd to the shoulder. At first, only a few protesters were arrested.
I hung around taking photos of the action, and then headed down the hill. Police cruisers had already arrived in the parking lot, cutting off the protesters' escape route. But it wasn't until most of the protesters had cleared the highway and were walking back to their cars that the mass arrests began. I watched officers trip a legal observer to the ground. By the end of the afternoon, more than 63 people had been arrested.
A few protesters ran. Among them was Melissa Ritchey, a 36-year-old married mother from west county and a frequent protester. When I arrived at the edge of the parking lot, she was there too, watching the arrests and sobbing. Then she began shaking, and I put down my camera and placed a hand on her back. Then she fell into my arms.
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