ferguson essay feature

The Hand That Takes: An Indictment of Ferguson

At first, there were four arms around me, my hands up; two lifting me, two guiding me face first towards the pavement. Four more officers piled around me. I turned my head back, hearing my wife screaming my name, no; my name again, no! I turned my head in time to watch two other officers pull her to the ground, more encircling her in seconds. One put his knee on her injured back, her crying out in pain, asking him to stop; one on her neck, to pin her down. To protect themselves. To protect themselves?

I was completely clear in that moment. I wasn’t scared, nor exactly surpised. I spoke to them calmly, “That’s my wife. Will you please let her go? Keep me if you want, but please let her go.” I told them we were attempting to leave, that she was only still there because a man whom she had been treating for his mace-burned eyes couldn’t see to drive and needed a ride out of Ferguson. That she was trying to get more people home, away from the protests. She had stayed behind to help him and his sister and now they were being pulled one way as she lay five feet to my left, herself in need of help that neither they nor I could offer.

Now I realize I went to Ferguson that night naive. That I have, in fact, attended dozens of actions since August naively. I assumed that since I was such a calm, reasonable person with no aggression towards the police, a middle-class white male without a record or an itch for making a point, so clearly not a threat to them or anyone, that I would never be harmed. I’ve engaged police at protests, even thanked them personally for not escalating past actions, for allowing us to peacefully express our society’s failures and pose possible paths forward.

When family or friends had told me at other times to be safe when we’ve attended various protests, I honestly didn’t know what they meant. Did they mean stay safe because of other protestors, whom I’ve found to be among the most complex, yet considerate group of people I’ve ever encountered? Did they mean from police, whom I’ve never seen as a threat to me personally (white privilege 101)? In the space of a moment, however, I understood, ALL PROTESTORS ARE SEEN AS CRIMINALS TO THEM and, as such, there was plenty to stay safe from. That I too need protection from a body that seems bent on harming those that oppose it – peacefully or not.


And I said: OK, who is this really? And the voice said:

This is the hand, the hand that takes […]

And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice. And when justice is gone, there’s always force.

-Laurie Anderson, O Superman

We were escorted to an open garage, an unheated storage area littered with boxes, Powerade bottles and a dozen other detained protestors. There was an empty bottle of Remy Martin on the table and the inside of a Paychex envelope at my feet.

The last two people they dragged into our holding area, now around 27 degrees and depressing, were two journalists from Tokyo Broadcasting Corporation who we found out later had been maced, then pulled from their car while also trying to leave the scene. First day in America, our automatic arms. The driver, who got the Thanksgiving dinner portion of pepper spray, was sobbing uncontrollably, unable to see. He sat there for the next several hours, repeatedly saying “water please; water, please.” The solace he received was an officer saying that “you’ll get to enjoy it in your cell for the next eight hours.” The six others standing around collecting overtime laughed.

We, too, must have been laughing. Rolling on the floor laughing. Laughing until we couldn’t stop, until we couldn’t breathe. Uncontrollably laughing, ending in a fit of coughs. Water, please. Water.


Non-lethal weapons, also called less-lethal weaponsless-than-lethal weapons, non-deadly weaponscompliance weapons, or pain-inducing weapons are weapons intended to be less likely to kill a living target than conventional weapons. It is often understood that accidental, incidental, and correlative casualties are risked wherever force is applied, but non-lethal weapons try to minimise the risk as much as possible. Non-lethal weapons are used in combat situations to limit the escalation of conflict where employment of lethal force is prohibited or undesirable, where rules of engagement require minimum casualties, or where policy restricts the use of conventional force. [via Wikipedia]

Our wait outside in the open garage was ending, some snow starting to fall. The troops reconvened, their shifts ending soon. Less Lethal read the toy-orange gun strapped to one officer’s chest. I had seen a few earlier, behind the line of riot shields, an oddity in the sea of black. A middle aged man holding one now like he’s playing Halo in his hobby garage.

Less Lethal. Not quite lethal, but enough to, for example, stop a hulking black man without ending his life? Something that would make you feel older than five fighting Hulk Hogan? Something that would produce less protests, perhaps. Compliance weapons, ones that wouldn’t cause your citizens to shudder, to take to the streets to protest you. Weapons that enable you to do your job, but not play God. (Christ have Mercy) Weapons that would enable me to stay at the Thanksgiving dinner I was at four hours earlier instead of here, shivering and indignant, a child of you, America, a friend of you, America, in chains like the slaves you shipped here for your comfort. (Christ have mercy, really I can’t even…)


Screen shot of the transcription of Darren Wilson's debriefing.

Transcription of Darren Wilson’s initial debriefing after shooting Michael Brown.

We asked what we were being charged for, how long would we be held. “Probably just through the night,” they said. “The charges probably won’t stand.”

Dozens of officers cycled through. The guy who hit on my wife, asking her name (I unwisely asked him “Don’t you already have her number??”); the other who asked her, “What’s a pretty girl like you doing in such a dangerous place?” And the one white woman sent down to do the paperwork. (It should go without saying that the rest were white men, you know – like me.)

When the time came to process us, the commanding officer asked, “Who wants them?” — meaning who wanted to be the arresting officer, the actual arresting officers nowhere to be found. This made sense, since half an hour earlier, we had heard them say that their orders when making arrests was to “just go grab one.” To arrest without distinction. To make a point, perhaps, or just to punish. To warn us of what happens when you speak up, when you show up. The confusion of who arrested who was understandably jumbled. So many new faces, same every night these days.

The lazy casualness of it all: their understanding that they were making illegal arrests that would be thrown out; that they break basic human rights treaties in front of the world; that they didn’t mind us hearing them talk about it knowingly; that they enjoyed mocking us – my wife and I, the 21 year old college student studying criminal justice to become a detective, the press from Germany and Japan, the kid from North City, the sales rep from St. Charles, the middle aged man who they had hurt bringing in, the ones I don’t really even remember. It haunts me because they were casual like criminals who know they are going to get away with it.

After the arresting officers were allocated accordingly, one asked, “What should we charge them with?” The other responded, “Unlawful assembly, or assaulting an officer — whatever you want to charge them with.”

It should be said here that despite the fact that this is the internet where I know that anything goes; that I’m a writer and I’m processing my trauma with humor — these are direct quotes. Disappointingly so. Painfully so. If you know me, ask me to my face and watch me wince.

I was eventually charged with “Interfering.” That journalist, fresh off the plane from Tokyo, he got assaulting an officer. When I walked out into the early morning Clayton air, he was still there. Now? Who knows…

We are playing legal roulette against the house and someone always loses. The scale of the loss is all that shifts. Six hours and your dignity. Your comfortable white privilege. Your warm shower without mace dripping down your face causing you to wail on the bathroom walls and curse yourself and them all over again. Your ability to see police lights and not shiver through your spine. Your frail grasp on believing America is still a just society capable of righting its wrongs. Your tendency to look the other way. Your comfort to say nothing. Your ability to hear that a black kid was killed in your city and think first that he may have deserved it.

I am happy to have lost this round because at least I can no longer be naive. America, don’t you know you are killing yourself? Don’t you know your own sons? Hear my voice. And the voice said: We keep proclaiming peace when there is none.

Mike Brown, I’m sorry, we are with you. Akai Gurley, I am sorry. Tamir Rice, son, I AM SORRY. FORGIVE US.


This is a first-hand account of my arrest on Tuesday, November 25th by the St. Louis County Police outside of the Ferguson Police Department. If you don’t know what to do in response, find a protest and go. If you want to find some other way to support, below are a list of vetted places to donate to. Jail Support, for one, picked us and the other detainees up from the jail and gave us water, rides to our cars, and much-needed solace.

Organize MO/Jail Support

Deray and Netta, (@deray and @Nettaaaaaaaa) voices on the ground everyday.

Lost Voices

There are 15 comments

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  1. Anonymous

    That’s interesting that they just snatched you up with no warnings. You would think they would tell you to vacate the area or something on a PA.

    • James McAnally

      The police had declared the peaceful protest an “unlawful assembly” as they have done at almost every protest I’ve attended. The crowd disbursed accordingly, but the police had circled the parking lot where the protests were taking place, so there was no way out and we were arrested once we paused to help someone out who couldn’t see to leave himself. The fact that they had provoked this exact event in a series of escalations from the police to the protestors only adds insult to the entire situation. But, yes, there were “warnings,” which in my opinion do not constitute rightful action, but I want to at least make the events clear so we can talk about what actually happened.

    • James McAnally

      Linda, the final sentence was a means of taking collective responsibility for allowing the circumstances that led to the death of Mike Brown, Akai Gurley (the unarmed man recently shot in New York while walking down the stairs) and, perhaps most of all, Tamir Rice (the 12 year old killed in Cleveland while playing with toy gun). We as a society often wait until after a crisis to respond, when it is already too late for victims. Warning signs have existed for years and recent protests are among the first large-scale responses to them in our generation. It is a form of taking responsibility, at least for myself, for not acting sooner. Whatever changes are brought about at this point do not make up for the loss of life of these and uncounted other victims.

  2. James McAnally

    Editorial Note: To leave a new comment on this piece, you must include an email address or proof of identity. No further anonymous comments will be posted. I am committed to civil discourse and I will gladly address any questions regarding the details of the events this essay depicts, but only with those willing to comment as individuals themselves.

    Thank you for understanding this necessary policy to protect what I view as a meaningful opportunity to engage with those who both agree and disagree with me in a productive way.

  3. Amy Reidel

    Just letting you know that I am here. I have read this. I’m [again] sickened by it and [again] don’t know what to say. Anger and disgust just keep coming out in speechless tears.

    Question: Will this experience prevent you from attending further protests?

    • James McAnally

      Thanks, Amy. In all honesty, I am much more likely to continue protesting and to do so for a more sustained period after this incident. I would typically attempt to mediate in less public ways than taking to the streets if I thought those means could possibly be effective. Knowing that my experience is not unique but is, if anything, not nearly as severe as most (particularly for people of color), this process has confirmed the necessity of public protests until public action has been taken. The protests have brought about dialogue and awareness perhaps, but to date no real policy shifts or accountability on the part of our local and national leaders. Until that happens, I will remember these events as a means to draw me out of my house and into action.

  4. Brenda

    James, these protest were fueled by outside political race baiters. The intent of the protest was never meant to be peaceful, just as the one back in August was not . I think anyone attending these law-breaking, hate filled protest could only expect to be treated the same as the overwhelming majority of those that were there to only loot, and destroy property . What was accomplished …….nothing positive !! I would be among the first to stand for ones right to a peaceful protest and dialogue with reasonable people to achieve better relations but that was never the case here. There are those among us that profit on causing strife and discord and those are the ones to fear !!

    • James McAnally

      Brenda, unsurprisingly perhaps, I would disagree with your categorization of the protests and protestors on almost every point so I will try to assess each thing individually with the hope of bringing some clarity to the conversation.

      First, the idea that this is a political issue is completely false. Many have twisted this into some kind of conservative vs. liberal issue. The reality is that the politicians actively being challenged are all Democrats – the Governor, the President, the County Prosecutor, the County Executive. This is a civil rights issue, a social issue, but it is not a political issue.

      “The protest was never meant to be peaceful.” – I’m sorry, but I cannot accept that as someone who has been active at protests since August, nor I imagine the now hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors around the world would accept your blanket statement about us, our motives, or our methods. The protests were not organized by a central body, but by normal citizens. I’ve seen some of the most moving actions on the part of the protestors to protect one another, to risk harm for justice, to protect businesses from those who wanted to make protests violent, and so on.

      “Overwhelming majority…were there to only loot” This is one of the most common misconceptions about the protests and one I don’t fully understand. There have been daily protests for the last 116 days, yet looting and damage occurred only a handful of times. The media doesn’t talk about the peaceful protests, only the fireworks after a major confrontation. It doesn’t talk about how the looting has always been stopped by other protestors, but that police do not typically step in until after it has occurred. Even the police agree on that point, but that is not the story that people hear, unfortunately.

      If you would be “among the first to stand for…peaceful protest and dialogue,” I would ask you to do so in whatever way you can. There are meetings taking place in community centers and churches seeking ways to reconcile and work for both justice and peace. You can write letters to representatives asking for reform. There are numerous ways to stand for peaceful action, so lead people towards that and work towards it yourself because this issue isn’t going away without action on the part of us all.

  5. Anonymous

    I do not desire to counter your comment because obviously we see the same situation from different perspectives. I see all people made in God’s image . He sent His Son to die on a cross for all , therefore ,as a believer , I am compelled to love my neighbor regardless of color. I will probably not protest on the streets but I will encourage peace and love within my sphere of influence and not present my opinions but the teachings of Jesus , which is Truth !!!

    • James McAnally

      I wish it were fiction. I wish this didn’t happen to me or anyone. I wish we didn’t need to protest. I wish our system worked how it should. Reality in the streets of Ferguson right now, however, doesn’t require fiction.

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