Posted December 16, 2008 12:17 am - Updated December 16, 2008 01:17 am

The upside of an angry mob

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

While helping cover the civil unrest Sunday at Cherry Tree Crossing housing project, I thought I should position myself amid the crowd of people yelling at deputies and hurling rocks and bottles at patrol cars. I'd just arrived and wasn't quite sure what all the ruckus was over. The people milling around a package store on the opposite side of 15th Street weren’t giving me much, and I figured those confronting police would have more to say.

About 100 people had amassed at a chain-link fence fronting the road, which deputies were standing along in a line. Most of the people were behind the fence on the housing project side, pushing against it and occasionally throwing things. Some in the crowd had spilled over to the street side, pointing fingers at deputies and screaming accusations at them.

I crossed 15th Street, approaching the fence with the deputies’ backs to me. I asked the officers near a gap in the fence, a little ways up from the thick part of the crowd, if I could go through. They said yes, one giving me a look that said, “Are you nuts?”

I went in and made my way into the horde. Things went fine at first. People seemed eager to talk, relating what they believed happened earlier between Justin Elmore and the Richmond County Sheriff’s deputies who shot him.

As I made my way toward the crowded area of the fence I saw what looked like a photo that would sum up the scene – a close view of residents berating police officers. I remembered that fellow reporter Michelle Guffey, on the other side of 15th Street, had a camera.

I went out through the gap in the fence and called to her. She joined me and we went back in, me showing her the spot where I thought we could take a good picture.

That’s where it all went wrong.

People looking toward the deputies started turning around and facing us. I heard sarcastic things yelled about news reporters. A man with a furious expression came toward us from the direction of the fence. There was me, broad-shouldered and 6-feet, 2-inches tall, and Michelle, who’s 5 feet, 4 inches. Who did this man who reeked of alcohol choose to confront? Michelle, of course.

He got close to her face and yelled something about the news media never paying people like him any attention.

“You wanna’ talk to me?” he screamed. “You wanna’ hear what I got to say?”

I got between him and Michelle, forcefully telling him that hearing what he had to say was our reason for being there.

At this point, with a circle forming around us, a sinking feeling came over me that I'd felt once before. When I was in Iraq in 2003, I rode with a Marine artillery unit to a camp in a field on the outskirts of Baghdad, where cannons were aimed into the city. On a road off in the distance I saw a line of civilians walking in front of a building with Saddam Hussein’s portrait on a wall. I thought that would make a great picture too, so I left the Marines, walked about 200 yards, then crouched down on the side of the road and started snapping away. Some of the men took notice and stopped walking, their eyes fixed on me. A group of them started moving in my direction, one man with a hand behind his back. I thought of how far away the Marines were and realized I’d made a huge mistake, that I'd lost control of the situation, that I'd gone too far and was about to be swallowed and devoured by a news story. In that case, though, it turned out all those men wanted to do was tell me in scant English how happy they were that Saddam was out of power.

The situation at Cherry Tree Crossing wasn’t turning out so well. Someone slapped my notebook out of my hand, brushing my cheek with the blow.

“Naw, naw, naw,” I heard men yelling, admonishing whoever had done that.

Then several men and women rushed to our side, forming a shield around us. They put arms around us and led us back to the gap in the fence. When we got there a deputy brisked Michelle away.

I asked one of the men who’d walked us out if he wanted to talk, and he did. An eyewitness to the shooting approached and gave me her account.

I can’t stop thinking of how easily that foray could have turned out much, much worse. People were drinking. And as we found out a little later when shots rang out from within the housing project, people had guns too.

To those who led us out, whoever you are, thank you.