FERGUSON, Missouri — When James Williams was about 12 years old, a team of St. Louis County police officers stormed his family’s home to serve a warrant and ended up shooting and killing his mother.
Not long after the police arrived at their home in nearby Wellston, Williams says they found his mother standing at the top of the steps. Words were exchanged. They thought she had a gun and opened fire. Turns out, Williams says, she was carrying little more than a telephone.
“They shot my mom four times,” Williams said. “All of this with the police out here just brings that story back.”
For the last several nights, this small suburban town has been under siege by protesters, looters and police armed with assault rifles and paramilitary style uniforms. Police and protesters have collided as protests following the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer, has devolved into a week’s worth of violent clashes.
Many on the front lines of battles with police are young, African-American men like Williams, now 23, who see the police as untrustworthy adversaries. And the more violent the push-back by police, with a near nightly barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets, the more concentrated and coordinated the violence from some factions of residents gets.
President Obama addressed that very issue in a press conference Monday afternoon:
“In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” the president said, urging protesters to remain peaceful. “While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown,” said Obama, “giving into that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos. It undermines rather than advancing justice.”
In the wake of a state-imposed curfew, which was removed on Monday, some in the crowds have fired on police and plotted ambushes, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which is in charge of crowd control. The more interaction there is between police and protesters, it seems, the more emboldened those who oppose the police have become. Each night, as the vast majority of protesters fade from the streets, the remaining holders-on are more aggressive. Most of them are young, black men; nearly all of them are angry and some are armed, witnesses and the police say.
Among the most violent clashes came late Sunday night, as police say groups were organized in their attacks, shooting at police and throwing Molotov cocktails. Gov. Jay Nixon has since mobilized the National Guard to come to Ferguson. But many people believe the National Guard would only exacerbate an already volatile situation.
“I hate to say it but depending on how they handle it, it’s going be urban warfare out here,” said Eddie Gramz, 30. “Some people got guns, so if the police flex, you already know what it is.”Malik Shabazz, president of Black Lawyers for Justice, who is one of a handful of community leaders praised by police for helping maintain order and enforcing the previous nights’ curfew, said law enforcement needs to allow more time for homegrown leaders to work with protesters before bringing in the guard.
“We don’t need the people antagonized by the escalation of the National Guard,” Shabazz said on Monday afternoon.
Many have complained that older black leaders have abandoned the area’s young people during their rebellion against authority in the wake of Brown’s death.
“It’s like a pot of boiling water and we’re all just watching it just boil over,” said Tommy Chatman-Bey, who in his 60s and has urged the city’s youth to remain calm. “They’re over there at the church listening to a speech while thousands of young people are in the streets demanding to be heard.”
Chatman-Bey shook his head. “They left these kids out by themselves,” he said.But a collection of organizations, including the New Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, Black Lawyers for Justice and other pro-black organizations have stepped up efforts to court peace and accord among the young people here. They’ve recruited volunteers to help get folks off the streets by sunset; they’re trying to arrange a town hall-style youth meeting; but most of all, they are trying to harness the energy of a generation that they believe is self-destructive and hampering the movement for justice in Brown’s killing.
“The clock is ticking and we don’t have a lot of time,” said Shabazz, adding that the arrival of the National Guard could further escalate tensions. He and others are going to stand with protesters throughout the night, he said, to urge peace and prevent the likes of Sunday’s violence.
“If there’s going to be gassing in the streets of Ferguson tonight, they’re not going to be gassing women and children,” Shabazz said.
Meanwhile, the police have preemptively cracked down on protesters along W. Florissant Ave., particularly at the Quick Trip store that has become ground-zero for the protests.
On Monday afternoon, officers with the state highway patrol gruffly ordered that a couple dozen people gathered there had to move, warning that anyone who refused including reporters, would be arrested for “refusal to disperse.” One officer who identified himself as John Smith said protesters gathered at the Quick Trip contributed to the possibility of rioting and thus, had to be broken up.
As officers barked orders, James Williams stared back at them.
“Even with them killing my mother and all that, I know my rights and I do have respect for the law. But the things they do and the way they disrespect you is why it is the way it is,” he said, as an officer yelled at him to “Go! Go! Go!” “No grown man or grown woman wants to be talked to like that,” he said.
“You could get a lot from people if you just came with a little more respect,” he said.