Reporting from Ferguson, the St. Louis Suburb That Has Become America’s Latest Racial Hotspot
Last night, I walked out of the Target in Ferguson, Missouri, to find my car behind police tape. Cops in riot gear were extending their security perimeter around West Florissant Avenue, where protests over the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown turned into looting and riots Sunday night and clashes with police on Monday.
“You better hurry up and go get it,” a man in a group parked near me said. The cops let me retrieve my vehicle after a stern warning (complete with a rifle being waved around) to go left and not right when I reached the edge of the lot. Five minutes later I heard four tear gas canister volleys. Ten seconds after that a 20-something black man in a caravan of Ferguson residents came over.
“We going,” he said. “You coming?”
What followed was a raucous four-hour stretch marked by smoked out streets and rage. By midnight, West Florissant was littered with rocks, broken glass, spent tear gas canisters and pepper balls. As we approached the police line from the north, cops were flying everywhere and people were honking and and screaming. After hearing the canisters fly, people were angry enough to run stoplights, ignore cop cars and speed across town to make it to ground zero and figure out what was happening.
Brown, as you may have heard, was killed Saturday by a St. Louis County police officer. One protestor told me his death was the “spark that lit the fire,” one that’s been long smoldering in this St. Louis suburb, where relations between residents and police aren’t so hot. The details surrounding the 18-year-old’s death have been the subject of much contention, but whether Brown was shot between seven and ten times, as his cousin Sabrina Webb and many others claimed Monday, or whether it was less than that doesn’t really matter here. Nor does the fact that police maintain Brown struggled with the as-of-yet unnamed officer. What is gnawing at emotions and bubbling up at protests where many chanted “black power” Monday is the fact that Brown was unarmed and was apparently approached by the officer for jaywalking.
"They thought he was somebody else," Webb told me after pleading through a bullhorn that protestors not resort to the looting that resulted in damage to several businesses Sunday night. "It was racial profiling."
In our attention-deficit throw-away society, very seldom is there room for the little guy (or gal) to say their piece in the spotlight. Our new series, Profiles by VICE, aims to change that. Profiles by VICE is a weekly distillation of our eccentric and idiosyncratic world. In each episode we take an intimate look at issues, people, and communities that burrow deep into the underbellies of society.
If this piques your interest—and we can’t see why it wouldn’t, unless you’re one of those humans who’s not interested in other humans, in which case we don’t know what to tell you other than, “Get your head out of your ass”—watch the series trailer here, and check out this handy episode guide:
Slut-Shaming Preacher: We travel to Arizona to meet up with campus preacher Brother Dean Saxton, a student at the University of Arizona, whose “You Deserve Rape” sign has caused outrage among the student body.
An Inside Look at the Exotic Animal Trade: We travel to Ohio to rescue a cougar, then to Texas for an exotic livestock auction and undercover visit to a gaming ranch where the animals are sold and hunted for up to $15,000 a piece.
Reserection: The Penis Implant: We travel to Miami (obviously) to speak to one of the leading penis doctors in the country and find out what it scosts to get your penis operated on.
My Homie Sells Homies: We travel to New York City’s forgotten borough, Staten Island, to find out how a guy named Sugarman created a small vending-machine empire—and how he subsequently lost it, one quarter at a time.
Blind Gunslinger: We travel to North Dakota to meet Carey McWilliams, the first completely blind person in the US to acquire a concealed-carry permit.
Prison, Bling Ring, and Redemption: We travel to Los Angeles and talk to Alexis Neiers about her struggles with addiction, her criminal involvement in the real-life Bling Ring, and her new life as a sober mother.
Teenage Bullfighters: We travel to Merida, on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, to meet Michelito Lagravere, who at 14, became the youngest bullfighter ever.
At 27, Carey McWilliams became the first totally blind person in the USA to acquire a conceal and carry permit. Despite weapons training during his ROTC years, McWilliams has faced opposition to his right to bear arms from both the media and public officials.
Once fervently against hunting, McWilliams now views hunting as a way to connect to a system greater than himself and cope with PTSD brought on by a recent violent dog attack. In his down time, he carries a loaded pistol to the grocery store.
VICE headed to North Dakota to witness life as America’s foremost blind outdoorsman and gun enthusiast.
The Dangers of Calling the Police on the Mentally Ill
After any mass killing comes the wave of stories that ask why no one saw the tragedy coming. Those who knew Elliot Rodger—who killed six people on May 23 in Santa Barbara, California—were likely aware he was disturbed. The 22-year-old had been under psychiatric care since the age of eight, according to the New York Times; Rodger suffered from anxiety, depression, and likely high-functioning autism, and he became progressively more and more isolated as he went through adolescence.
From what I’ve read, his parents tried to help him as best they could: His mother even called the cops when she found his distressing YouTube videos. On April 30, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies questioned Rodger—who managed to talk them out of searching his apartment—but they apparently never actually watched the videos before deciding he wasn’t a threat to anyone else, nor did they check the relevant databases to see if he was a gun owner. It’s easy to criticize the authorities for not divining that this reclusive loner was more violent than other reclusive loners, or to tut-tut at Rodger’s parents for not persuading the police to respond more aggressively, but doing so ignores the serious consequences of calling the cops on a mentally ill relative, and how limited law enforcement’s responses are.
On May 28, the Washington Post published an article on Bill and Tricia Lammers, who in 2012 turned in their 20-year-old mentally ill son Blaec for planning to shoot up a Walmart. Was it a good decision? Sure—except Blaec is now serving a 15-year prison sentence, and it’s not as if his psychiatric problems will have been healed when he gets out. That just underscores the inflexibility of the criminal justice system: All the cops can do, in cases like that of the Lammers, is charge someone for a crime, which in many cases means they’ll spend a long time behind bars.
Around a quarter of people in the US suffer from some type of mental illness, and about 6 percent are dealing with a serious disorder. If a disturbed person’s family thinks he is planning to do something horrific, it can be very difficult to convince medical professionals to help him against his will. That means that the cops are summoned to deal with situations where a psychiatric expert is needed “The mental-health system is totally broken,” Bill Lammers told the Post. “Calling the police is the only option.”
We devoted an entire issue of the magazine to Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia’s sprawling 35,000-plus word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. It’s a companion piece of sorts; watch the documentary and read the issue or vice versa. But you won’t get a full scope of the situation without doing both.
An 89-Year-Old Drug Mule Is Threatening to Kill Himself Rather Than Face Jail Time
Leo Sharp is an 89-year-old drug mule. He pleaded guilty last fall to trucking 200 pounds of cocaine across the country for the Sinaloa Cartel. Now, he’s awaiting sentencing next week on May 7, his 90th birthday. He told a news crew in no uncertain terms that if given jail time, “I’m just gonna end it all. Period.” If that’s too ambiguous for you, he clarified: “I’m gonna get a goddamned gun and shoot myself in the mouth or the ear, one or the other.” So if he means it, that’s happening this coming Wednesday.
The Bundy Ranch Standoff Was Only the Beginning for America’s Right-Wing Militias
For two decades the US government has tried to get Cliven Bundy to remove his cows from federal land, and for two decades the Nevada rancher has steadfastly refused, defying court orders and attempts to negotiate a settlement for the $1.1 million he owes in federal grazing fees. Finally, last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took matters into its own hands and started seizing cattle that had been illegally grazing on government property. Things went downhill from there.
For right-wing militias and paramilitary groups founded around a collective paranoid belief that the federal government is just looking for an excuse to impose martial law, images of armed federal agents forcibly seizing cows basically means it’s DEFCON 1. By Saturday, as many as 1,000 anti-BLM protestors from as far away as Virginia, New Hampshire, and Georgia had set up camp in Bunkerville, an arid patch of land where the BLM was rounding up the Bundy cattle. Packing handguns and assault rifles, the protesters carried signs featuring slogans like “Tyranny Is Alive,” “Where’s the Justice?” and “Militia Sighn In [sic],” and many said they were prepared for a shoot-out with the federal government. The mood was such that even Glenn Beck was wary of the crowd, announcing on his show that “there’s about 10 or 15 percent of the people who are talking about this online that are truly frightening.”