FERGUSON, Missouri — It took seven University of Pennsylvania students piled into a rental van nearly 16 hours to drive to St. Louis. They had raised $600 in three days from a Go Fund Me account that was supposed to last them through the weekend. They slept wherever they could crash for free — the basement of a St. Louis couple’s home, or packed on the floor of a church at night.
But once in Ferguson, it was nothing like the war zone they had seen splashed on their television screens exactly two months earlier.
Instead of armored vehicles blocking suburban intersections and stoking chaos in the streets, police squad cars were escorting peaceful marches that were careful organized and tailored during the day. Instead of training assault rifles on the faces of protesters, officers were standing idly by, at times even joking around with anyone within earshot.
“I guess we are feeding off of what we saw in August,” 22-year-old Laura Krasovitzky said one night in Ferguson. “We all came because we saw the footage on TV of what happened. I think people were shocked because this was happening in the U.S.”
Without the heavily militarized law enforcement response to what started as local outrage over the killing of a young black teen by a white police officer, young people like Krasovitzky may never have joined in demonstrations held months later. But as calls for the officer’s arrest grow more desperate, the movement takes on a greater meaning for supporters hundreds of miles away who seek an end to police violence.
Krasovitzky and her crew of classmates came to Ferguson to join in solidarity with those who felt not only that the teen’s death was unjust, but that the circumstances of the killing represent a pervasive problem with police forces across the country, one that carried deep racial undertones. Rather than simply stand by, the students were given a chance to join the rallies calling for justice through the “Weekend of Resistance” — a four-day protest spurred by the death of Michael Brown, who was unarmed when he was shot by a Ferguson police officer. That officer, Darren Wilson, remains free while a St. Louis grand jury investigates whether he should be charged with a crime.
National groups had stepped in to plan the four-day event, organizing rallies and marches to keep the movement alive. They set up a website offering a forum for local residents to offer couches or beds for visitors, and connected people from across the country who needed a ride to the Midwest.
Hundreds of people poured into the city – far short of the thousands organizers had projected – representing a diverse coalition of trade unions, student associations, religious groups and concerned citizens. Still, the disconnect between the die-hard protesters who had camped out for nearly 60 days and the activists who were now joining months later was difficult to overcome.
“As students from Penn., the main question we all have is what was our role there. A lot of us felt like spectators,” Krasovitzky said. “It was awesome to go and be there in solidarity — we went to the events, we went to the protests — but it still feels a little like it was not ours.”
That divide between the local activists and those joining events just for the weekend was on full display last Sunday night when audience members at an interfaith event heckled black leaders who came to St. Louis to urge for peaceful demonstrations in the face of police crackdowns.
“The brother with the suit and tie on isn’t the guy who’s protecting me,” local rapper Tef Poe said to the crowd after he had been called onstage to speak. “It’s the dude with tattoos on his face that look like Chief Keef.”
That same division was on display during the protests last weekend. By the time the group of University of Pennsylvania students arrived in Clayton, where the first organized march was to take place, police officers had already blocked off the streets with barricades to neatly contain the protests. Volunteers wearing neon vests walked along the center of the street, acting as a human boundary between the oncoming traffic and the crowd of barely a few hundred participants who marched the predetermined eight-block route. Though pockets of protesters continued to brave the brutal rain while chanting at the phalanx of police guarding the county prosecutor’s office, the demonstration wrapped up in less than two hours.
The students were running on little sleep, having arrived in town in the dead of night just hours before the first scheduled march. A St. Louis couple had posted online offering a place for the group to sleep in their basement. They pasted signs around the house leading the students to the door, and left a note reminding the young people “Don’t forget to lock up when you leave.”
Undeterred by the rain, the students were buzzing for more action. “Wait for tonight,” one said, pacing excitedly around the group of protesters still milling about. “The social injustice is what brought us here. Just wait for tonight.”
Krasovitzky said they were frustrated by how controlled the atmosphere was during the day.
“If protesters aren’t willing to get out of their comfort zones, it’s actually a joke to authorities,” she said. “They’re more effective when it gets more radicalized or more intense.”