After watching unrest in August transform a small St. Louis suburb into a symbol of racial tension in the United States, I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Ferguson, Missouri, on November 20, 2014.
My first few days were spent exploring the town and meeting its residents. I visited Canfield Drive where Michael Brown, a black teenager, was shot dead by a white police officer, and suddenly all of the images I had seen in August felt that much more real.
The town itself was quiet, despite a sense of anxiousness that permeated the air. It was as if all of Ferguson was playing a waiting game. I met people who felt very strongly on both sides of the debate. No matter what side they were on, the pure emotion out there was almost overwhelming. One thing seemed certain: The issue in Ferguson, and throughout the United States, was deeply rooted. It certainly wasn’t going to be solved overnight.
Monday arrived with the news that a decision from the grand jury would be announced that night, putting the city on its toes. Protestors gathered outside the police department on South Florissant Road to listen to St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announce that there would be no indictment. As the announcement blared from car radios, shock and pain was evident on the faces of the protestors. Disbelief mixed with anger, and people stood around the police station, not knowing what to do.
About forty-five minutes later the atmosphere had completely changed. Rioting and looting began. I watched as local businesses’ windows were smashed and buildings were set on fire. Parts of the city were thrown into total chaos, and I was struck by how fast things went downhill. I photographed into the night and the next morning, witnessing an extreme range of emotions. I saw anger on the faces of young men as they threw chairs through a burning building on West Florissant Avenue. I saw frustration on the faces of emergency workers as they were shot at while trying to put out fires. Outside of a looted restaurant, I met a woman with tears streaming down her face. Through sobs, she told me this was not how America was supposed to be.
Looking back two months later this statement stays with me. Growing up, I was inspired by photos from the Civil Rights Movement. Never did I think I would be capturing images in the year 2014 that drew such parallels to those images made in the 1960s. Witnessing Ferguson firsthand made it very clear that racial issues throughout the United States persist today; not only in Ferguson, but throughout the entire country, as seen through deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. How we fix these deep-rooted issues is yet to be discovered, because I don’t think this is how America is supposed to be.
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Andrew Renneisen is an American freelance documentary photographer based in Brooklyn, New York, focusing on underreported social issues. Andrew’s work has been published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Stern Magazine and Rolling Stone, among others.