ONE OF THE EARLIEST MEMORIES I can recall in the birth of my political consciousness came on a blustery fall night, when I was a sophomore in high school. The exact details remain murky, almost indistinguishable in my memory from the countless weekend nights I spent at my dad’s house in that era. But one variation, looking back now, set that night apart from all the others. Not long after sunset, my dad, his friend and I had sunken into the ripped leather couches set adjacent to the TV, the living room littered with empty cans of beer, unfolded Taco Bell wrappers, the camo hunting equipment and shotguns in their plastic padlocked cases all laid out on the dusty, leather cover of the pool table. As my dad and his friend nursed Bud Lights, we sat back, talked, and watched a riot unfold on CNN.
Ferguson, at over a thousand miles away from us, had never once before figured into my mind. Now it was a lightning rod in the national imagination. Footage of that chaotic night—one of several disturbances that convulsed the Missouri town in the year after Michael Brown was killed, though I regret not remembering which one it was—was being live-streamed onto the TV from a news helicopter circling above town. Panning shots captured scenes of people, far below, running over cars, piling like amoebas into intersections where they brought traffic to a standstill, gathering in crowds that stretched out of sight around the police station. Darren Wilson, the officer who pumped seven bullets into the black boys back, was to be proclaimed innocent. And there were police everywhere: stolid lines of officers in tactical military gear, silhouetted by floodlights against a backdrop of armored vehicles and snipers. The livestream would be intercut with an anchor with a microphone, shuffling crowds of people chanting behind them, assuring that those carrying out peaceful protests constituted the majority. But the footage always returned to the helicopter, to the broken windows and overturned cars and raging flames of incinerated buildings. To the hazy scrim of teargas. Ferguson, an American town, burning.