The first rule of hostile environment training is not to run towards danger. Always walk. Keep assessing your environment.
So when I saw smoke billowing from what’s left of the QuikTrip petrol station in Ferguson, hit by night after night of rioting, my journo senses were tingling. A fire in a petrol station can’t be a good thing. That ranks as danger in my book.
Then one sense organ took over: My nose. This smoke did not have the burning, bitter tang of tear gas. Nor that thick acrid feel of something plastic or poisonous going up in black fringed flames.
No, it smelt to me of burgers.
Beneath the roof of the garage forecourt, Chef Da Da – famous in the St Louis area for his wings, I’m told – was doing his thing.
He had a double grill chock full of charcoal hooked up to the back of a smart Lincoln 4×4. And his dedicated team was churning out chargrilled burgers and hotdogs.
“This is my way of supporting what’s happening here,” he said. “Some people loot, some people step back and watch – I cook.
“What’s the best way of bringing people together? Food.”
It was Saturday morning. After a quiet night on Thursday, trouble had flared again on Friday as a result of a controversial decision by local police to accuse Michael Brown of carrying out a strong-arm robbery. Rather than trying to explain how the unarmed teenager could be shot dead by a police officer, the local consensus is that the local force would rather launch a smear campaign against the victim.
Each morning has brought calm. Locals have stopped by the site joining work gangs clearing rubbish. Plenty more have arrived from around St Louis, Missouri and further afield bringing food or sodas. Three mobile toilets have been set up.
From across the road came a thunderous, throbbing roar. Three biker gangs – Dominant Breed, Outcast and Uncommon Brotherhood – were revving their engines. It made for a fearsome noise. And a fearsome sight, all leathers and denim, bandannas and skull facemasks.
So I was ever so slightly disappointed to find that Brian Watts was a softly spoken soldier rather than a greasy renegade. He asked that I refer to motorbike “clubs” rather than “gangs”.
His reason for coming was simple.
“It’s a case of showing support,” he said. “It’s to show the people here that they are not alone.”
You sense though that many in Ferguson do feel they are alone. It is a tough place to live.
While affluent whites moved far out into the suburbs, places like Ferguson were left for black families pushed from St Louis by creeping gentrification. (The local paper, The St Louis Post-Dispatch, has a good overview on disproportionate levels of crime around the area where Brown was shot.)
The police have not kept up with the changing demographic. The best known statistic of the past week must be that in a city where two thirds of the population is African-American there are still only three black faces among 53 local police officers.
Everyone has a story about being on the wrong side of the police: The mother who said her seven-year-old son had been held alone in a jail cell, or the young white man who said he routinely had to park his car for a few minutes so that his following black friends could catch up after being pulled over.
So while almost all the people I meet are protesting peacefully, some, in a quiet thoughtful moment, will wonder whether the images of tear gas and wooden bullets might at least keep Ferguson and Michael Brown in the public mind for a little longer.
For the truth is that the violence that I have seen has been the work of a tiny minority. But would I be here if there had just been singing and dancing? Would Barack Obama have intervened?
And it has done something else – it has brought together three rival social clubs to cook burgers and hotdogs in a wrecked garage forecourt.
“Normally we are rivals,” said Tonya Hamp, of Night Fox, laughing as she pointed out members of Day Fox and Wild Thangz, handing out crisps and wrapping hotdogs in foil.
She wafted smoke from my face and handed me a fresh burger from Chef Da Da’s grill.
It was plain. No frills. But it was beautifully charred on the outside and still juicy on the inside despite being a little more well done than I would have liked.
Standing in the morning sun, surrounded by people pulling together, it tasted just fine.