August 22, 2014


I was in Los Angeles setting ancient Confucian odes to music when a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen named Michael Brown. I earn a living editing a major African American newspaper in Saint Louis, which means that I have to be on guard, at all times, for breaking news affecting our community. Ferguson is right in our backyard. This was our story.

My family’s flight home was the next day, and there wouldn’t have been a way to rebook flights that gave me much more time in Saint Louis. Anyway, I’m a managing editor, a.k.a. a reporter of last resort. The only staff person available was our young community reporter, Bridjes O’Neil, so I got in touch with her and said fate would have it that this was her story. I had no way of knowing that Ferguson would soon become everyone’s story. Everyone in the small newsroom at the St. Louis American was soon reporting on the fast-moving events in Ferguson, and then it seemed like every journalist on the face of the earth was working on this story—and reporting live from black neighborhoods that, during virtually every other phase of the news cycle, only our newspaper gives a hoot about.

So, in equally short order, everyone on our staff suddenly became a national and international broadcast reporter. There were days I did broadcast reports on three continents. I was talking to CNN and BBC affiliates every day for a week before I decided to back off and concentrate on our own deadlines. Michael Brown pushed me into the twenty-first century. I had been reluctantly industry-standard on social media before this incident, but I didn’t live and die on Twitter, stressing out over the instant delivery of information, measuring deadlines by the second. Now, I’m there, first tweeting my reporting and culling of information long before it sees print, and detouring over for a pit stop on our website, if time and sleep-deprivation allow.

Sleeplessness is defining our Ferguson Summer, our Saint Louis Arab Spring. Our newspaper staff and all of our community sources—who are now also Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow’s sources—quickly fell into the same sleeping pattern: nights of no sleep, alternating with nights with two hours of sleep. You can tell at a glance what point anyone is on the cycle.

When I am totally without sleep, I feel fearful and defeated, like the military-industrial state is about to start a wasting operation that knocks flat this protest movement, and then the next one that gets in its way. I’d say that sounds paranoid, but we have now seen police in riot gear marching down on peaceful protestors, bearing assault rifles aimed at the people. The worst dreams of a paranoid person like me came true on national television, shot live in our backyard.

But when I’ve had two hours of sleep—like I did last night—I think, hallelujah. Poor people who have been abused by the police forever finally woke up, stood up. The community stood up with them, and then the world stood up with them. And I am proud to be standing with them.

Chris King is managing editor of the St. Louis American. He also translates poetry into other media with Poetry Scores. Follow on Twitter @chriskingstl.