FERGUSON, Missouri – Hoping to channel outrage into political action, more than a thousand people – including veterans from the 1960s civil era era and young children – braved near-record heat Saturday to take over the street that has become ground zero of racial unrest here.
There were no shootings, fire, tear gas, or Molotov cocktail, and six people were arrested.
“I want to extend a special thanks to a group of people who today called out in a single voice of peace and unity,” Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson said early Sunday morning. “We were honored to walk with these citizens who are committed to healing this community.”
The march, organized by the NAACP, looked nothing like many of the demonstrations of the past two weeks, with neat columns of marchers wearing matching t-shirts and chanting in unison. Volunteers armed with black trash bags collected rubbish, leaving a spotless street in their wake.
Their message: Remember Michael Brown at the ballot box. “Ain’t no power like people power ‘cause people have power to vote,” they chanted. Another refrain: “Courage will not skip this generation.”
In another sign of how much has changed, police joined the march, instead of trying to stop it. Johnson, who has been in charge of the scene for more than a week, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, and about 15 other officers joined the line.
Starting at the same parking lot that has housed the police and National Guard, they marched down Florissant Ave, the main site of unrest, and up Canfield to the apartment complex where Brown was shot. They marched first in silence to represent the need to keep the peace until more info is known about the shooting. Then they returned to Florissant to chant.
The orderliness of the march shows “we want our community back,” said Andreal Hoosman, who sits on the executive board of the St. Louis County NAACP.
After the march, a very sweaty Johnson shook hands, hugged, and posed for pictures with activists. “I think today the nation will see what this community is all about,” he told one man. Asked if he planned to speak at Brown’s funeral, Johnson said he wanted to leave space for the Brown family to mourn.
After the marchers returned to the parking lot and starting breaking up, two silver SUVs pulled up. Gov. Jay Nixon stepped out and dove into the crowd. The first thing he did was give Jazminique Holley, president of the Missouri NAACP for Youth and College, a big hug.
“It was very, very good to see him because a lot of our young people feel like he’s not on our side. And they feel ignored by him,” Holley told msnbc. “So for me to have that personal moment, I can now speak on his behalf and say that he cares.”
Less than ten minutes later, however, and without taking any questions from the press, Nixon climbed back into his SUV and drove away. Staffers said he wanted to focus on interacting with the people, not out-of-town reporters.
Reddit Hudson, a former St. Louis Metropolitan police officer and a regional organizer for the NAACP, said the march demonstrated that people are committed to continuing the fight after the cameras leave. “I’ve been shot at,” he said. “And there are too many officers out there that will violate your human rights and civil rights and civil liberties with impunity across the country, because they expect no sanction.”
The march also brought out some families, black and white alike. Scott Intagliata, a white man, came from St. Louis with his 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son because he said it was “important” for them to see it.
The heat, reaching 100 degrees in the middle of the day, was oppressive on the exposed blacktop. But Alfred Long of St. Louis said he didn’t mind. “When you’re fighting for a cause, no circumstances or situations should stop you. You gotta fight when it’s cold, fight when it’s hot, not just when you’re comfortable,” he said.
Meanwhile, earlier in the day just outside of Ferguson’s city limits, the high school Brown attended held its first football game of the season. Unlike most sporting events here where fans fill the stadium, only a few loyal spectators on Saturday braved the treacherous sun. For those who did, there was a clear sense of hope that the unrest roiling the nearby town would soon subside.
“We’ve got to still support the kids, that’s the only way things can get back to normal for them,” said Sharhon Thompson, the mother of a Normandy football player. “We’ve got to stay positive.”
“He’s gonna give his all just for Ferguson,” Kevin Black said of his son. “They’re fighting for their life, they’re playing for this.”