Criminal: 'It Looked Like Fire'

Dec 11, 2015

It's been more than a year since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The incident drew a wave of news stories and protests that sometimes turned violent.

Criminal host Phoebe Judge talks with a man who became an icon of the demonstrations in Ferguson. That's the subject of this week's episode. Criminal is a podcast recorded at WUNC.

Edward Crawford was an average man living in Missouri who had heard about the protests over Brown's shooting. 

"I knew what a protest was, but I had never seen one in person," Crawford said. "I read about them in school. I wanted to see one in person."

On the first day Crawford attended, it was pretty peaceful. The second day turned more violent, however. 

Policemen were firing tear gas and pepper spray at the protesters, and in the middle of the commotion was Crawford. 

All of a sudden, a tear gas cannister was shot, and it landed at Crawford's feet. Instead of running, he picked it up and threw it. 

"You just threw it out of the way? Or which way did you throw it?" Judge asked Crawford. 

"I really didn't aim for a direction because I didn't even have time to think where I was gonna throw it," Crawford said. 

"But did you throw it the way it had come?" Judge asked. 

"I possibly did," Crawford replied.

While this was all happening, there was a photographer standing nearby. Robert Cohen, a staff photographer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was on hand documenting Crawford's throw. 

"The picture went completely viral, and it's become one of the most iconic photographs taken during these protests," Judge says. 

The photograph captures Crawford hurling the cannister like a pitcher tossing a baseball.

"All the way with his arm extended and back," Judge says. "About to throw this cannister. What's captured is not only the whole scene around him with this burning cannister, but also the fact that Edward Crawford is wearing an American flag shirt."

Crawford and Cohen didn't meet that night, but they did one year later. As a crowd gathered to remember the one-year anniversary of Brown's death, the police once again came out with pepper spray, and Cohen was a direct hit. 

"Everywhere it was touching me was burning," Cohen said. "It's oil-based, which I did not know at the time. Water only makes it worse."

But then Cohen heard a familiar voice. A hand reached down to pick up the camera lens he had dropped. Edward Crawford was there to help.

The photograph of Crawford was eventually part of a group chosen for the Pulitzer Prize. However, it also clearly showed Crawford at the protest and throwing a tear gas cannister, and he was charged with assault. 

His first trial occurred in September, but through all of this, he and Cohen have become friends and speak regularly.

You can hear the rest of the story today at the Criminal website, or by tuning in to WUNC on Sunday afternoon at 5:40 p.m.