FERGUSON, Missouri — The police haven’t been able to stop it. Neither have the pastors, or the thousands of mostly peaceful protesters that have filled the city’s streets for more than a week.
Tear gas, gunshots and other forms of violence have become a nightly routine in Ferguson, as peaceful protests sparked by the killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a Ferguson cop devolve into tense clashes with police.
With so much blame to consider and the consequences of ongoing violence on both sides of the line so costly, one must wonder, Who owns the night?
The sense of volatility is felt most acutely when the sun falls over this otherwise leafy, albeit poor St. Louis suburb. Brazen young men squeeze gunshots off into the air. And an aggressive and highly militarized deployment of officers, many with assault rifles slung over their shoulders, has sent waves of tear gas and rubber bullets over protestors for little more than hurling plastic bottles at them.As early as the wee hours of Wednesday morning, after hours of peaceful protests, teams of police with guns drawn took down, extracted and arrested several rowdy protesters. There was no tear gas this time, but teams of officers chased down some in the crowd, even hitting one man in the face with the butt of his shotgun as the officer’s team wrestled the man to the ground. Officers sprayed mace on others, including one woman who screamed out that she didn’t deserve to be treated like an animal.
Some have blamed provocateurs itching for a fight with law enforcement. The police chief has blamed anarchists. Protestors blame antagonistic officers. And Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, the man in charge of crowd control operations, blames a small but reckless band of criminals for hijacking the peace.
Many in the streets remain defiant, saying they are sending the police a message.
“It’s been more than a long day coming,” said Rico Batemen, 23. “Everybody’s always been about f— the police. But they killed Mike Brown in our own backyard and we finally saying something and it feels good.”
As the sun sets each night, law enforcement and community activists scramble to keep folks calm. A hodgepodge of clergy, pro-black groups and local officials have tried to maneuver with and around law enforcement as police leaders have fumbled with various strategies to put out the fires on W. Florissant Avenue, the heart of the protests.
“There is an element at night that contributes to the crime and it’s called the police officers,” someone shouted at Capt. Johnson during a walk and talk during protests this week. “In the daytime you bring out real reasonable and patient police. When the light is out, at night, they bring out these guys who are very aggressive.”
Another woman said she doesn’t feel safe in Ferguson. She lambasted Johnson saying, “When the stuff gets hard he runs.”
Johnson, in his signature style, looked directly in the woman’s face.
“You said that I disappear. No I don’t,” he said. “Whenever I’m here at night and this stuff just starts, I don’t send the card down here. I get in the car. And last night when that came I ran out into the middle of the street. And I got tear gas in my eyes.”
Divides of all kinds have deepened in the wake of Brown’s killing and the protests that have followed. Deep racial and generational chasms have been exposed, as an older generation of black leaders has struggled to harness the wild fire energy of the angry and marginalized black youth who have taken up Brown’s cause en masse.
“The reason that you’re seeing the acts of aggression, is we were raised as young black men to have pride if we have nothing else,” said Mack Williams, part of the sea of protestors surrounded by police in riot gear early on Wednesday morning. “To defend your manhood even when you don’t necessarily understand what manhood is, you defend what your concept of manhood is at all cost.”
Williams, who attended nearby Normandy High School, which has been failing for years, said the disconnect between the youth and society is exacerbated by generational gaps.
“When we have a 50% unemployment rate for individuals in this area over the age of 18, what are they coming out of high school to? They have nothing to belong to but the streets.” Williams said.
Ferguson’s extremely segregated white political system has been scrutinized since the Brown shooting. The city operates under what is essentially an apartheid system where blacks are relegated to failing schools and excluded from positions of power. While nearly 70% of the city is black, there isn’t a single African American on the school board. There’s only one black city council person out of six. And the police department, which many black residents say has a long history of unfair treatment toward them, is about 97% white. Of 53 officers only three are black.
All these conditions have created a monster of a problem for law enforcement. There has been sporadic looting during nighttime protests, standoffs with police escalated under a short-lived curfew, and store owners who may be closing up shop in the wake of rioting.
“This kind of reaction could take place in any city that has been depleted of resources,” said Malik Ahmed, founder of A Better Family Life. “Protest is unique and expected in American society when people feel aggrieved or they feel the basis of injustice. The fact that this killing seems so cold-blooded, it has hit a never with everybody, which is producing what you see.”
Ahmed said heavy-handed police tactics have lit a fuse that authorities are now having trouble extinguishing. Police have descended upon protestors with armored vehicles, percussion grenades and rubber bullets. They’ve fired tear gas into crowds of families, young children and largely peaceful protestors. Police say that much of the force has been in response to people menacing the officers. While such incidents appear to be few, peaceful protestors have all been subject to the department’s violent response.
“Suppressing people and their rights is not good. On the other hand violence, unwarranted violence, could get a lot of people injured,” Ahmed said.
On the heels of early morning looting last Friday, Gov. Jay Nixon issued a state of emergency on Saturday and declared a mandatory curfew between midnight and 5 a.m. The move angered protestors who berated Nixon and Johnson at an afternoon press conference announcing the curfew. Johnson insisted police would not deploy tear gas or militarized vehicles to enforce the curfew.
As the curfew approached on Saturday night, the crowd of protestors began to thin. But it also became more concentrated – the die-hards and rabble rousers who tend to take a more antagonistic stance against police. By early Sunday chants of “No justice, no curfew” began to rise from the crowd. The protestors were quickly beaten back by tear gas and rubber bullets.
Eventually, police in riot gear cracked down on the defiant few and fired rounds of smoke and tear gas – contradicting Johnson’s assurance earlier in the day that they would not take such extreme measures.
Police described that night’s clashes as the most violent since Brown was killed, saying groups of criminals were shooting at police and throwing Molotov cocktails. In response, Gov. Nixon mobilized the National Guard. There have been reports that gunmen were trying to attack a police command center set up in the parking lot of a shopping center at one end of Florissant.
The next day, police delivered commands from a bullhorn: “This is the police department. You are violating the state-imposed curfew. You must disperse immediately or be subject to arrest and or other actions.” Other actions have come to mean gassing, rubber bullets and flash bang grenades.
On Monday, Nixon suspended the midnight curfew.
The parking lot of a burned out Quick Trip store had been ground-zero for the protests. But police have been enforcing a no standing rule, meaning protestors could not assemble in one place at all. So people have been marching up and down Florissant Avenue. The energy at times has been palpable, with people streaming up and down the street chanting and demanding justice for Brown.
A collection of community groups and pro-black has tried to cool tensions and bridge the generational divides.
The group included members of the New Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam and Black Lawyers for Justice. Representatives say they hope to sow seeds of peace and accord among young people and have been actively recruiting volunteers to help get folks off the streets by sunset – high time for the worst violence.
“The clock is ticking and we don’t have a lot of time,” Malik Shabazz, president of Black Lawyers for Justice. “If there’s going to be gassing in the streets of Ferguson tonight, they’re not going to be gassing women and children.”
On Monday night, an eerie calm blanketed W. Florissant Ave. There was still chanting and still hundreds of protestors. But the crowd seemed much less aggravated.
It was a welcomed break from the madness that had consumed nearly every other day preceding it since August 9, when Brown was killed. The 18-year-old was shot at least 6 times by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson during an altercation whose specifics are still in dispute. The police say Brown tried to take Wilson’s gun. A number of witnesses said they saw Brown trying to flee and Wilson firing on him as he ran.
At about 9:30 pm Monday night, Capt. Johnson surveyed the scene.
“The young people are listening, they are walking and being peaceful. And so that’s a positive sign,” he said. “I think we are doing a better job. I think they are seeing us in a better light, because we are talking and they are seeing the human side of us.”
It was still early. And Johnson allowed that the situation is always tenuous, always minute-by-minute. Some people, he said, were looking to cause a confrontation to prod police action.
Tonight felt different, Johnson said.
“I think we have more community leaders, people in the community, some are just mothers and fathers, sisters and daughters are out here helping to ask people to go and lead and protest in peace,” he said. “With all of that out there and we’re just standing here giving the opportunity in the area for that to happen I think they are going to turn that corner.”
Just then, over his shoulder, a group of protesters broke from the peaceful stream flowing up and down the sidewalks and took over the street. They locked arms with shouts of “this is our city” and “crooked ass cops” and “f— the police.”
Police, already with riot gear on, fell in formation across the street. A frenzy began to spread through the crowd as the group, separate from the other protestors, began to swell. The line of officers began to fill out.
From a few yards away, Malik Shabazz looked incensed.
“Come on y’all,” he yelled into a bull horn. “You’re wasting your time. This s— is stupid. We don’t want to get gassed tonight.”
“If you’re a real solder,” he said, “follow me.”
Many did. But the core of the group stayed defiant. Someone from the crowd threw a bottle at officers. At that very moment an armored truck pulled up, and then another. And an officer yelled out, “mask up!” The officers all slid gas masks on. It was time.
By the end of the night, when the sting of tear gas had lifted, 78 people had been arrested, two people had been injured by gunfire and police say people threw Molotov cocktails and fired on them. No officers were hit. And none of the cocktails had apparently exploded.
As the last of the peaceful protestors were allowed past the police barricades, Shabazz and Johnson wore a similarly worn face. They looked exhausted, their shirts drenched and their faces heavy.
Shabazz walked into the night with his bullhorn. Johnson walked toward the police command center.
Just then he saw a woman with a trash bag cleaning up the detritus of the battle of wills that had played for hours earlier.
“Why are you out here doing this,” Johnson asked.
The woman, Tavera Bevley, looked up with a tired smile. Because she cares and believes things will get better, she said.
“When they got to throwing tear gas, I went way up there and I was praying and I was loud. I was praying for peace and that the Lord heals and gives everybody peace of mind because that’s what we need,” she said.