FERGUSON, Missouri — The embers were still burning when Ferguson awoke Tuesday morning. Some residents saw the damage wrecked on their hometown illuminated by the first rays of morning light. Others waited until the smoke cleared before they went to examine the aftermath of a night of violent protests. And though many had braced for the potential that officer Darren Wilson wouldn’t be charged in Michael Brown’s death, few said they were prepared for the destruction they saw.
“Organizers were just broken,” Rev. Osagyefo Sekou said Tuesday. “The strongest, most consistent organizers at one point were just silent, tears rolling down their face. We weren’t prepared for that.”
Shell-shocked and dazed, the residents-turned-activists who have been out protesting since the day Brown died — and who take pride in that constancy — emerged from Monday night with a double hit of disappointment. Not only were their pleas for an indictment not met, but they were also devastated to see their message of peace go up in flames.
“Nobody thought it’d be this bad. These buildings are still burning,” said Patricia Bynes, Democratic committeewoman of Ferguson Township. “Peaceful people who want to stay peaceful need to stay home.”
Days and weeks of calm demonstrations and vigils once again unraveled in a matter of moments on Monday night. Just minutes after St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that Wilson would not be indicted, the first glass bottles were being thrown at police. Within a half an hour, there were reports of gun shots near the police department. A crowd of people tried to flip an empty police cruiser. Within an hour, groups were lighting the first flames of a nearby MetroPCS store. People carrying crowbars smashed through the glass door of a convenience store, running away with bottles of alcohol tucked under their arms. Then more gunshots rang out.
“Y’all are f****** up our community,” one girl screamed, tears welling in her eyes as she watched teams of young men use broken pieces of a window frame to smash the remaining shards of glass at a McDonald’s on West Florissant Avenue. A group of people dared one another to steal the flat screen TV hanging on the wall of the fast-food joint. Minutes later only one emerged victorious, hoisting the prize above his head.
The rowdy crowd, made up of more than a hundred young people, including teenagers, moved quickly, breaking into storefront after storefront. Some cautioned that the group should only target businesses that did not have “black owned” painted on the boarded up property. But by that time, it was too late.
Many of the businesses targeted were beloved by those in the neighborhood. Bynes said she adored one boutique that was targeted Monday night, and shopped there often. People always gave her compliments on the items she bought there, she said.
If organizers hoped Monday’s decision would received by a community united in seeking reforms, the destruction wrought quickly dampened their ability to promote a message of change. The weeks of peaceful marches, acts of civil disobedience to block intersections, and messages sent across the nation and abroad were overshadowed by a few moments of violence — caused by just a few opportunistic people.
The situation is a devastating repeat of what was seen in August, when days of peaceful protests would give way to nights filled with unrest caused primarily by a few young people.
“Yesterday was a day and a moment and an expression of pain and grief, but it was not the only moment or the only expression,” said Deray McKesson, a leading organizer in nonviolent actions.
For weeks, groups carefully prepared for the final decision. Survival kits equipped with masks, first aid supplies, water and snacks were handed out to participants. National organizers flew into town to conduct defensive trainings on how to de-escalate violence. Churches provided safe havens near the expected hot spots, while an elaborate communications network kept supporters from Los Angeles to New York in lockstep with protests.
Many were even prepared for a potential non-indictment. Leaked grand jury evidence left a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the possibility that Wilson would not be charged. And for many, the grand jury process only accelerated beliefs that the system was rigged from the beginning.
But conflicting police accounts and eye-witness descriptions outline the events on Aug. 9, when Wilson and Brown engaged in an altercation through the window of the officer’s car. According to documents released from the St. Louis grand jury evidence, Wilson testified that he believed Brown was about to shoot him. His account contradicts six eye-witnesses who said they saw Brown raise his hands in surrender when the officer fired the final fatal shots.
Simmering mistrust over the power structures from the local to the state level led a number of organizers Tuesday morning to question why law enforcement authorities didn’t step in sooner. Amid much of the chaos that followed Monday night’s announcement, police officers were nowhere to be seen. Only after some buildings had been burned to the ground and much of the crowd had dispersed did authorities begin intervening.
“This is a set up,” McKesson said. “The police are going to use last night as a sign of restraint. They just let the place burn.”
In a press conference Tuesday, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said it was “deeply disturbing” that though Missouri was under a state of emergency and the National Guard was in place, they had not been deployed earlier in night. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement that the violence was “unacceptable” and that he will be meeting with the National Guard and law enforcement officials today.
Meanwhile local law enforcement officials have said protesters should expect a greater police presence heading into Tuesday evening. “You will see an intervention much more quickly than you did last night,” St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said earlier in a press conference.
“If you are peaceful, stay home,” Bynes once again stressed after learning of the heightened enforcement. “I don’t think tonight is the last night.”