By Katelyn Roudebush
Parked between two burning buildings surrounded by protesters and heavily armed police, Al Jazeera America reporter Lori Jane Gliha crouched down in her car as sounds of gunfire rang out from all directions in Ferguson, Missouri.
“All I could hear were loud booms” she said.
It was November 24, 2014, just hours after a grand jury announced that officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown.
“That was the most scared I have ever been,” Gliha said.
She was wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet and became worried about the propane tank in the backseat as the flames from the burning buildings grew closer.
“I didn’t know what to do. I had no training,” Gliha said.
She was able to escape the danger.
“Taking a hostile environment training months later, made me realize I was doing some things very wrong that could’ve put me in a lot of danger,” she said.
Gilha spoke with the War Reporting class about her experience in Ferguson, which was essentially a conflict zone. She had covered the Ferguson unrest since the day Brown was killed three months earlier and recalls a discussion with her editors before leaving for Missouri about whether to bring a gas mask.
“I thought it was kind of silly,” Gliha said. “Why would I need a gas mask? I have covered incidents but never used a gas mask. Glad I had it, because I needed it.””
Her first time in Ferguson, she and her producer arrived at night with hundreds of people protesting in the street, some of them wearing bandanas. Several roads were blocked by cement barriers and tear gas canisters littered the sidewalks. She said riot police had their guns pointed at the crowd.
“There wasn’t a safe space, both sides were chaotic,” Gliha said. “Police said, ‘move back!’ I didn’t know what to do. Everyone had their hands up. The police had their guns up. It was very tense the first time we went.”
Gilha understood that the protests sparked by the killing of Michael Brown were part of a long-rooted issue of injustice in the community. She says one of her editors questioned whether she should cover the story since she is a White woman with blonde hair.
“I could not ignore my own upbringing, my own race, in covering a community that I did not grow up in,” she said. “I stayed open minded and respectful in the concerns and needs of the community. There were some anti-journalism feelings– people asking why weren’t we here before. We weren’t just there to do people shouting in the street. We were there to do behind the scenes.”
Gliha admits the media presence had an impact on the story.
“If there was a person with a bullhorn out in the street, media would rush over to cover it,” Gliha said. “Then something else would happen somewhere else and media would rush over to cover that. I wondered, are we creating this? Would there be all of this chaos if media wasn’t here?”
Gliha spent several weeks in Ferguson and returned a year later. She produced a special report “Ferguson Then and Now,” where she talked to townspeople about what had changed. She says looking back, the best way to report is to get as many perspectives as possible.
“I don’t ever believe there’s only two sides of a story, there could be 40 sides,” Gliha said. “There are so many people looking at things in so many different ways. Not all protesters are the same, not all police are the same. It’s not one against the other, it’s a broad perspective.”