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The plan was actually I was just going out there to be nosy, I wanted to see what, you know, what a protest was looking like because I had called my brother and he said he said they're protesting. And, you know, I didn't know what a protest was. I knew what it was, but I had never seen one in person. I read about them in school, so I wanted to see one in person.
This is Edward Crawford on August 11, 2014, just a few days after 18 year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Edward Crawford went to his first protest.
It was a lot of people angry. I seen signs here, people chanting, using profanity. I mean, they were mad, you know, that the emotion was at all time, right? It was overwhelming. There were people crying. I don't know if those relatives or friends of my grandmother was. It was it was different, it was something I never experienced in my life. That's how he described his first day of demonstrations when he went back out the next night, August 12th.
It was a different story. The people out there, like they were protesting, they were angry at the police and the police were angry at the people that were protesting, you know, so I was like both sides were antagonizing each other.
And, you know, the police, they were out there to do their jobs. But the people, you know, I guess they were out there to be heard.
The police at some point, they started lining up with riot gear. What did that look like to you? Is that when things started to seem like scary or that things were changing, that looked like something you'd see on a movie?
They were very tactical. You know, you can tell that they have been through very prestigious training, you know, like the formation. Even when they move, you know, they move all on one. It seemed like they were, you know, on one beaten. If if you you know, if that's what you got, I don't know. But it was organized and they were chanting like, go home.
This is not a lawful protest anymore. Please return home. And then there were people saying, like, this is home.
This whole scene was well documented in the media at the time. The conflict between protesters and law enforcement reached fever pitch.
And when the protesters refused to disperse, the police started firing at the crowd with rubber bullets, wooden pallets and tear gas canisters.
So when they shot the tear gas, it landed and landed fairly close. And the sound of I don't know, I'm pretty sure you haven't heard tear shot. It's a loud sounds like a grenade is going off when he shot. And. It's it's when it's when it's first shot, it's it's like a real smoky in the sky and then you can follow the smoke trail and you'll see where it lands and it landed fairly close to me.
What did it look like when it landed? How big is that? Like a spray paint can?
No, it's actually smaller. It's like a 12 ounce soda can. And it was smoking. Yeah. At the time it was look like fire.
What did it feel like when you picked it up? It was it was room temperature, it wasn't hot, it really didn't have a distinctive, you know, feeling like two or if you touched, you know, that, OK, this is not good.
What did you do with it? I threw it out of the way. Either just out of the way or did you throw it? Which way did you throw it?
I really didn't aim for direction because I didn't have time to even think to where I was going to throw it.
But did you throw it the way that it had come? Possibly did. And so the way that had come was where the police were. I mean, I guess you could say that. My name is Robert Cohen. I'm staff typographer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I've been in St. Louis for 16 years. I've been a photojournalist for about 30 years. That kind of saw it unfolding.
Some of the first pictures I shot was Ed reaching down for the canister. And as he's reaching down, the sparks are flying out of it and he actually leaves his feet. He just kind of jumps out of the way because as he as he's reaching down, the sparks are starting to fly. And so he kind of jumps out of the way and then reaches back down again and throws it. And, you know, I'm at this point, I'm just trying to get things into focus.
And quite frankly, I'm looking at my watch because we have a potential headline in the newspaper the next morning, which was going to reflect something like a calm night in Ferguson. And here we are pushing midnight and the whole night has changed radically.
Robert hurried to his car to start to edit the photographs he'd taken of Ed and Ed, who had no idea he'd been photographed, hurried to his friend's car to try to get out of there.
The two men hadn't met, at least not yet anyway. I'm Phoebe Judge. This is criminal. As a serious shot, my friend, she was like, OK, let's go. You know, it's getting is getting dangerous. Let's go. Ran through the crowds to his friend's car, which was parked in a nearby church parking lot. But police were right behind him and they were they were yelling, stop. So I hurry up. And I like to call it a lot the back as I got into the car and now I'm on the passenger side.
I tried to crawl up as the driver's side, but at that time, I can see now that the car is surrounded because I don't see the light anymore.
Mm hmm. And the car was basically rocking. There were all around the car and they were hitting it.
And I guess one officer bust the window and open the door one and then another officer grabbed him by the shirt and by the hair and they swung me to the ground. Meanwhile, Robert was sitting in his car with his laptop, editing the photographs he'd taken of Ed and rushing to get them to his editor before the newspaper's deadline. When you look at the series, we've got them up on our site. It's almost like a flip book. You can see ad jumping over the burning gas canister on the ground, the space under his feet and legs illuminated by the sparks and smoke.
Then you can see the moment where Ed reaches down with what looks like no hesitation and picks up the burning canister. Those pictures are powerful in their own right to see a person grab this ball of fire, but it was one of the last pictures that Robert took that made him realize he'd captured something special. It's Ed in a full baseball pitcher stance. His body is arched backwards, his arms stretched out and made right by that burning man in his hand.
I did not, you know, the symbolism that that holds so strong in this image, with the exception of, you know, the action to act of defiance and now fighting back and, you know, all the themes a lot of people talk about.
It's held together by the fact that he's got an American flag shirt on. I did not see that shirt. I did not see that shirt while I was photographing. I you know, all I see is a man come out of nowhere and pick up this canister and throw it back. And so I didn't actually appreciate, you know, that extra nugget until I was at my car whipping open my laptop, really trying to make deadline.
Robert missed his deadline by just 15 minutes and went home. He decided to post the photo on his personal Twitter feed and went to bed. When he woke up, he knew something was going on. He had about 8000 new Twitter followers. The photo had gone completely viral overnight and taken on a life of its own less than 48 hours after I shot this photo.
I met the Michael Brown Memorial and a man shows up in a T-shirt with Ed's picture on it, and so I'm I'm photographing this man at the memorial dressed.
In my picture, it is bizarre and since that point. There's been hundreds of things sent to me being sent to Ed Turnidge, artist rendering people will just they decide they want to paint this picture and they have a need to send it to us. Two people, one in L.A., one, I don't know where had it tattooed on their body, one on their shoulder, one on their bicep in New Orleans.
There's a big art project, and Ed is four stories tall. It's amazing how people feel the need to to reproduce.
It not only has the photograph that Robert took of Ed become an iconic image of the Ferguson protests, it was also part of a group of photographs taken after the shooting of Michael Brown by photographers at the St. Louis Dispatch that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. You know, a lot of people see the image and they don't know me, but me knowing it's me and it's just, you know, I just sit back and think like, wow, I really appreciate this picture.
And to some extent, I feel like, OK, well, there they appreciate me because they feel what I did was right. So I'm cool with that. On the one year anniversary of Michael Brown's death in August of 2015, people in Ferguson gathered once again for what started off, by all accounts, as a peaceful demonstration. On the night of the second day of protests, however, things got tense between the police and the protesters once again, and Robert Cohen was back out there with his camera.
The police came out very aggressively that night and. They were moving protesters out of the street much more aggressively than they were before, Robert says he was standing with a group of protesters who had, for the most part, complied with the officers requests and gotten out of the street and onto the sidewalk.
But there was one protester that was still yelling at the officers pretty loudly, and the county officer just decided to arrest him. And instead of spraying him with pepper spray alone, he sprayed a pretty wide stream.
And my body, my upper body was just wrenched my arms, my shirt, my hair.
He had photographed a lot of people being tear gassed and pepper sprayed in Ferguson, but this was the first time I had experienced it himself.
I mean, everywhere it was touching me, it was burning. I mean, it it's oil based, which I did not know at the time. And so water only makes it worse. And I was carrying a separate lens in a little fanny pack and it and it the lens jumped out of the fanny pack as I probably just kind of dove out of the way. And I went to reach for the lens to pick it up off the ground and somebody else's hand grabs it before I grab it.
And he says, Are you OK? Are you OK? I was like, I did. I didn't even see it. And I knew it was at and look who's look is bending down to help me out is crazy.
Ed was also at the protest, but this time he was watching from a distance when he saw the police spray the crowd and then he saw Robert almost exactly one year to the day Robert and Ed met again at Ed. Ed, what did what did Robert look at? What did he look like? He was in bad shape.
Yeah, he looked like he looked like he had left a confetti party and it was silly string all over him. But I knew what it was. It was orange pepper spray. And when it initially was shot, I, I think that it got him right in the face, but I didn't know if he had got his eyes. So, of course, you know, he's carrying thousands of dollars of equipment in at that time, he seemed very vulnerable to the typical snatch and grab, which was going on a lot down there that night.
And I'd hate to see that happen to Robert. So, you know, I kind of try to guide him out of the way, out of the crowd and, you know, just make sure he was all right. And he did. You both have come into each other's lives, that a rather important time. Yeah, I.
I feel that is true because any time I see him, he's always going to get you know, he's always going to get a. Hey, Robert, how are you doing. How's it going. You know, he's ah he's always going to be acknowledged on my end. And you know, that's just the utmost respect I have for him.
But the complicated thing is that Robert's Pulitzer Prize winning photo is also undeniable proof that Ed was the guy who threw that tear gas canister.
I'm often asked, am I mad at him for taking that picture? You know, seeing that I'm facing charges and. No, I'm not married.
He did he did an amazing job, and every time I see him, I make sure I show gratitude, you know, because whether he knows it nice, he's changed my life.
St. Louis County prosecutors charged at Crawford with interfering with a police officer an assault. He was in the process of working with his attorney to arrange a plea deal when in May of 2017, he died. He was 27 years old and had four children. His death was ruled a suicide. He died from a gunshot wound to the head in the back seat of a moving car. His family has said they believe that his death was accidental. And over the years, relatives and community members have questioned the circumstances, as The New York Times reported in 2019.
Edward Crawford was, quote, one of at least six activists with connections to Ferguson who have died, some from apparent suicides. Hundreds of people came to Ed Crawford's funeral, including Robert Cohen. Some showed up wearing American flag shirts exactly like the one edwar in the photograph. In his book, They Can't Kill US All. Journalist Wesley Lowery writes about meeting at Crawford at the 2014 protest in Ferguson before the photograph was even taken. Ed Crawford said to him, you're going to write your story and you're going to leave town and nothing is going to change.
Criminalist created by Lauren S'pore and me Neede Wilson is our senior producer, Susanna Roberson is our system producer, audio mix by Michael Rafeal and Rob Byers. Julian Alexander makes original illustrations for each episode of Criminal. You can see them at This is Criminal Dotcom, where we'll have links to Robert Cohen's photographs. We're on Facebook and Twitter at Criminal Show. Criminal is recorded in the studios of North Carolina Public Radio WNYC, where a proud member of Radio Topia from PUREX, a collection of the best podcasts around.
I'm Phoebe Judge.
This is criminal. Radio to from your ex.