St. Louis Rapper Tef Poe Describes the Scene on the Ground in Ferguson, Missouri
As protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of Michael Brown, Tef Poe offers a view from the ground.
[Ed. note: The scenes coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, this week in the wake of a police officer killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown have captured the attention of Noisey's editors and dominated our social media feeds. VICE News is in Ferguson now, but one of the most prominent people on the ground sharing depictions of the protests unfolding in town and the heavy police force being brought to bear on the protesters is St. Louis rapper and Noisey favorite Tef Poe. Tef has been in Ferguson since shortly after Michael's death on Saturday. We called him up to get a picture of what's going on in Ferguson. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of his remarks in a phone conversation with Noisey's Kyle Kramer.]
Today I haven't been out. I had to go do a show in Memphis, and then I'll be back in St. Louis probably about two o'clock tomorrow. Last night, man, was probably one of the craziest nights of my life. I woke up, I had a regular day, we had a peaceful protest walking down the street, and then it escalated. The police brought out tanks and armored vehicles. By sundown the street looked like we were in a scene from Full Metal Jacket.
There's a lot of organized protests going on. I've organized a few myself. A few of the community leaders have organized some. It's not as chaotic as the mainstream media tries to portray. To be honest you can sit around in Ferguson for eight hours before you see an incident. The incidents usually occur when the police show up. Of course, the police are out always right now, but I mean when the armored trucks and the body armor and the tear gas and the rubber bullets come out, that's when the crowd just goes irate. People at this point are really attempting to push the peaceful protest aspect of it. A lot of people are ashamed by the riots, but at the same time, a few of us realize the only reason this thing got national coverage is because of the riot. So it's a double-edged sword. It was the ultimate outcry for help. I just think it's crazy the way that the Ferguson PD is treating its actual citizens at this moment it time. I can't even wrap my mind around it. I can't even find the words to describe the things that we're seeing on the ground.
The way St. Louis is designed—people don't understand that—the only thing that separates the county from the city is basically a line. You put your toe over it you're in the city, you put your toe over it you're in the county. We wouldn't consider Ferguson like its actual own subdivision even though it is.
You can't dodge it in St. Louis right now. Martial law was declared in Ferguson, so you can't avoid that in St. Louis. You can't drive into certain portions of north county. Highways are blocked off. People have seen tanks being brought into the downtown area to be used in Ferguson. Even though the violence and the police presence is omnipresent throughout the city, the closer you get to Ferguson you start noticing the brutality of the police state. All municipalities have been working in Ferguson, and that's just something that's pretty unprecedented.
For people like myself, the primary goal has been to give the younger people an outlet that makes sense to them without getting hurt. The older folks, they come out during the day, they do the marches, they pray, they sing, and then they go home. And we need the prayer, we need the marches, but the police state won't de-escalate if we don't confront it, so a lot of the young people have been finding ways to confront it and expose it rather than go home at night and let them have their way.
Sunday, when everything really hit the fan, we organized one of the earliest counter-protests that there was at the time, and there really was kind of a trickle effect. There was a press conference at the police station in the morning. A bunch of people went out there. They were outraged, they didn't know what to do, they were confused. Everybody was just lost. We had been out there a few hours at that point, and the church eventually came, and they put on their show. It was lights, camera, action. They took the stage over, and after that, they pretty much left. We had been out there for hours upon hours at that time, and people were getting restless, and people really just wanted some answers. Which we still haven't gotten the answers. We decided that we were going to cut off traffic in front of the police station and we were just going to sit down in the middle of the street. And for the duration of that day no traffic would be allowed to flow through in front of the police station.
It started with two regular guys. I don't even know their names. They were standing in the street, and they were like 'you know, we're going to stand here and block traffic.' And we didn't know what to do. Nobody knew what to do, and I saw those two guys standing in the street. And I told all my friends 'let's just go support these dudes.' Initially people were shocked by it. They were like 'you guys need to get out of the street. The police are going to shoot you.' The police chief himself asked us to get out of the street, and we replied to him 'you left Michael Brown in the street for four and a half hours, so we're not getting out of the street.' We sat down. State [senator] Maria Chappelle-Nadal ended up joining us, and it became one of the first signs of people exercising their right to assemble peacefully. But unfortunately, that was also the same night that the vigil was held over at Canfeld on the same street that Michael Brown was shot on. And that exploded into a riot.
The police have been very aggressive over there. I kind of knew that was going to happen because I was there the night before—literally a few moments after his body was picked up—and the police aggression was still there. I think the police might have thought that once they got his body off the street that people might have declined from engaging them and go in the house and calm down. But you have to understand, people literally saw this kid laying in the street for almost five hours. He didn't have a weapon. Everybody in the community knows he wasn't a thug. I didn't know him personally, but my brother knew him. My brother called me crying because he was like 'this is the last person that you would have to shoot this many times.' It's just a real tragic incident.
I've been out every day. I don't even have a voice any more. I've got to go do some shows, and my voice is gone. We've been out, sun up [to] sundown. I've seen it grow from bad to unimaginable.
Last night, they locked up all Antonio French, who is one of the leading voices in the media for the counter movement to be positive, to have a peaceful protest. I’ve been trying to follow his lead with the social media and informing people across the nation and on a worldwide level what’s happening. I think we both understood that it’s important to get on social media and expose what’s happening because it’s the only tool we have here. We can’t fight back. We can’t punch back. We have to show the brutal nature of what they’re doing. I firmly believe with all of my heart that Ferguson is working on a massive cover-up. That’s the primary reason we haven’t gotten any facts. They’re building this story. They’re crafting it. They’re vetting the witnesses. They’re vetting their witnesses. They’re coming up with things to discredit certain aspects of Mike Brown’s personality. They’re going to try to run his name through the mud and they may not even charge the officer at the end of the day. But you know, last night, they locked up Antonio and prior to them locking Antonio up we had a peaceful assemble. People came out. Of course, people are angry because you just killed an innocent teenager so you have to allow people to be angry. But at the same time, we’re being peaceful.
The hottest area in the entire thing is the area where—the QuickTrip. The QuickTrip has become this weird, cosmic cathedral type of place. It’s almost like holy ground. Young Jeezy came there the other day and took a picture in front of the QuickTrip. We were out there last night when the cops came with the tanks and the M-16s. I saw some people I’ve been knowing all of my life—for 15 years or better—standing there by armored trucks with M-16s pointed at their chests. They don’t have guns. They have their hands up. They’re not being belligerent. They’re not being irate. And they have these weapons pointed at them. Right now, to be honest, I’m really upset because I feel like the police force is mocking us. I feel like, you know, we’re assembling in peace and they’re mocking the fact that we can’t fight back with weaponry. I’ve seen pictures where they aim guns at people and another officer stands to the side with their hands in the air, mocking the chant that we’ve been chanting. The “Hands up, don’t shoot,” chant. At first, I was sad. I cried twice the day after the riots. I cried twice that morning. Now I’m angry at the fact that they’re doing this as if they can get away with it. It took it from me feeling personal about Mike’s death to now I feel personal about the demise of the Ferguson Police Department. People like myself absolutely will not stop until we gain progress on making them pay for this. Even if they do whatever they’re going to do in the judicial system and they don’t charge the officer, the community will absolutely guaranteed that the Ferguson Police Department pays for this. I can vow with every breath in my body that everything I do will be aimed at that they pay for mocking us, for killing one of our own. I really mean that.
This isn’t a new issue. The culture of St. Louis is, for black males, you can drive in the city. You might get pulled over but for the most part, if everything’s cool—you don’t have any warrants and you’re not breaking any laws to a crazy degree—you’ll be okay. But in St. Louis County, no matter what you do, no matter how squeaky clean you are, there’s still a chance that you’ll go to jail. There’s still a chance that they’ll beat you. There’s still a chance that they’ll plant drugs on you. City cops do the same, but they’re a little bit more discreet with it. County cops have absolutely no range of morality and it’s been a problem for years. It’s not a brand new problem. There are cops that told my father, “I didn’t you, but I’m going to blow your son’s brains out.” And it’s just acceptable.
One thing I really wanted to say, too, is that St. Louis isn’t really that unified of a city. There’s a lot of segregation amongst us in St. Louis. For different reasons—not just racial—it’s a segregated city. The thing what I like about St. Louis is that when it’s go time, we know how to pull it together. The fact that you have unarmed citizens, for the most part, be escalating a military-type police force should speak volumes to the world. Of course, they get on the news and they say that the citizens are shooting and the citizens are doing this, but for the most part—and no one has as many guns as they have, there is no way we can match their weaponry. Even if one or two people do shoot, it doesn’t even remotely equal up to the amount of brute force they have. What you have is people linking together and bonding together and running out this military-like police force. On the ground, it’s actually quite amazing to witness, and that’s the aspect of this that I hope we can carry on into the future. The unity aspect. The sticking together aspect. I hope that’s the lesson we ultimately learn from this.
Follow Tef Poe on Twitter — @tefpoe