From street-artist paintings on boards protecting store windows to signs bearing the now iconic statement, “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot,” cultural images from the Ferguson protests have become firmly established in recent Missouri history. So much so that the Missouri History Museum is gathering images and items cataloguing the unrest that followed the August shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
The museum in St. Louis’ Forest Park is in the process of gathering not only physical artifacts from Ferguson, but Twitter feeds, oral histories from protesters, residents and police, and even cellphone videos. It’s all meant to give future generations a real-time perspective from those affected by the shooting and the aftermath that included protests, riots, and the strained relations between police and minority communities.
The items aren’t being collected for a specific exhibition and will mostly be used for research. The goal is to seize on history as it happens.
“This is a rare example of being at a point where history is made all around you,” said Chris Gordon, Library and Collections director for the museum. “We’re standing in the midst of it, and we haven’t had that chance very often. Documenting everything we can – getting all sides, all perspectives – is very important.”
Aside from its regular exhibits, the expansive museum offers a public library housing an array of documents, relics and written words from events dating back more than two hundred years, including the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Louisiana Purchase.
The historical significance of what happened in Ferguson quickly became evident. Brown, 18 and black, was fatally shot on Aug. 9 after a confrontation with a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Brown was unarmed, and some witnesses said he was trying to surrender. Wilson said Brown was threatening his life.
A day after the shooting, protesters flooded the streets near the site. Several businesses were damaged and looted.
Anger percolated in the community for months, and escalated on Nov. 24 after St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch announced that a grand jury would not indict Wilson. Furious protesters swarmed streets across the St. Louis area, spurring a nationwide movement protesting police brutality. Some protests became violent. A dozen Ferguson-area businesses were destroyed in fires and other businesses were damaged.
The shootings and unrest made the St. Louis region a focal point of media attention, with images of police in riot gear facing off with angry protesters dominating headlines and news broadcasts around the world.
Gordon said the museum has already collected T-shirts, protest signs, buttons. Photos have been taken of a makeshift memorial for Brown in the street where he was killed. And efforts are in place to secure graffiti art, still highly visible in Ferguson. Plywood boards over store windows still contain messages such as, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to Justice everywhere,” and “Stop the Violence.”
On a recent chilly morning, Carol Snyder of Lehighton, Pennsylvania, walked along South Florissant Road snapping photos of the plywood art with her phone as her husband, James, followed along in the car.
Standing in front of a plywood sheet painted with the words, “Hands Up Let’s Pray,” the 60-year-old retired physical therapist felt a mixture of sadness and hope.
“I do hope for a brighter future,” she said. “I do hope for peace for the people here in Ferguson and throughout the United States.”
Some items have been hard for Gordon to procure. He has failed to find a spent tear gas canister or rubber bullet – items used by police when the protests turned violent. He is also pursuing buttons, T-shirts and signs showing support for Wilson, but they are hard to come by because there were not so many demonstrations in the officer’s favor.
The museum is not just collecting physical items. Museum officials are working with Washington University, where researchers are collecting cellphone video along with Tweets, emails, Facebook posting and other social media related to unrest in Ferguson and St. Louis for a project called “Documenting Ferguson.”
It is unclear if any of the items will ever be put on display.
“The biggest portion of this will be for research purposes,” Gordon said. “Our hope is to preserve this for future generations so they can get a clearer picture of what actually happened.”