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In Ferguson, civil rights group works in shadow of youth movement

As a brash, young generation has expanded protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the older, traditional NAACP pulls levers behind the scenes.
People protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo on Aug. 18, 2014. (Photo by Charlie Riedel/AP)
People protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo on Aug. 18, 2014.

As a brash young generation has emerged to play a critical role in the dramatically expanded protests in support of slain black teenager Michael Brown Jr. — at times denouncing traditional black community leaders — the NAACP played a quiet role as go-between for witnesses, elected officials and the police.

The St. Louis chapter of the group says it has relocated some fearful witnesses, helped others make ends meet in the wake of losing jobs during the fallout from the teen’s death, and is raising funds to further shield witnesses whose full identities and testimony could be released if a grand jury decides not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Brown.

“Many of them are scared out of their minds,” Adolphus Pruitt, president of the NAACP’s St. Louis Branch told msnbc on Monday. “These witnesses, we are the ones who’ve been protecting them. They are not in the federal witness protection program, they are with the NAACP protection program.”

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch said his office will make public all evidence seen by the grand jury if it decides not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s shooting death on Aug. 9. McCulloch said he expects the jury to return a decision by mid-November.

In recent weeks there have been a number of leaks that seem favorable to Wilson’s assertions that Brown was the aggressor the day he shot the unarmed, black teen and that he did so after Brown reached for Wilson’s weapon.

Pruitt said the NAACP has paid for housing and transportation cost of witnesses, some of whom are elderly and others who have lost work because of how complicated their lives have become in the fallout from the teen’s death. 

“We are getting geared up for the possibility of an indictment or non-indictment,” Pruitt said. “If they are saying that they are going to release all of their testimony, all the things they said to the grand jury, their names, addresses, will be out there. You’re going to have some young black kids who think they didn’t testify strong enough against the cop. Or have them going back to their jobs and have to deal with white people who might think they didn’t testify enough support for Darren Wilson.”

“We have protected them as much as possible on the front end,” Pruitt said. “And now we’re figuring out how to protect them on the back end. Because some of them live in the complex [where Brown was shot and killed] and are elderly.”

RELATED: Tales of employment woe plague some Ferguson protesters

In the hours and days after Brown’s death witnesses and Brown’s family began reaching out to the NAACP, Pruitt said. One by one the witnesses began trickling in. Some said they had seen the killing from start to finish. Others said they saw just a snippet of it. One witness, Dorian Johnson, said he stood just feet away as Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown, Johnson's friend.

Pruitt said his office contacted the Department of Justice regarding the case well before the department announced its own investigation into the case. He said his organization had connected witnesses and Brown’s family with legal counsel and has even formed a sort of witness protection program. The NAACP said it footed the initial bill to have Johnson relocated from the apartment complex where he lived and where Brown was killed on Aug. 9.

Johnson was the first of several witnesses to speak out publicly about what they saw the day of the shooting. In an exclusive interview with msnbc, Johnson laid out a narrative echoed publicly by a half-dozen other witnesses. He said that Wilson stopped him and Brown as they walked in the middle of the street, demanded the pair “get the F— on the sidewalk.” After Brown and Johnson refused, he said Wilson slammed on his breaks, backed up his SUV nearly hitting them, before exchanging threatening words and then grabbing Brown by the neck. Moments later, Johnson said he saw a flash from Wilson’s gun and then blood on his friend. Johnson said that Brown took off running after the gunfire and that Wilson gave chase, firing at Brown from behind. The deadly shots came as Brown turned with his hands up in surrender, Johnson and no fewer than five eyewitnesses said.

Police say Wilson shot and killed Brown after the teen reached for Wilson’s weapon during a physical altercation, causing Wilson to fear for his life.

Johnson became a central figure in the case and the burgeoning protests calling for Wilson’s arrest. Freeman Bosley, Johnson’s attorney, told msnbc that Johnson feared reprisal from the police. Once Wilson spoke with federal investigators, he said the determination was made to take him underground. “He is now a federal witness,” Bosley said at the time. “He has been moved to a safe house for his own protection.”

“When Dorian first came out, we couldn’t leave him there,” Pruitt said. “He lived up in there. We took him and housed him in a hotel located next to the FBI headquarters. If the local police come for you, we told him, you go in there.”

RELATED: Group calls for DOJ inquiry into treatment of press in Ferguson

Pruitt said that the NAACP works on a wide range of regional issues from police brutality to workplace discrimination and securing grants and other funding to help economic growth in minority communities. Each month, he said his office handles 100 or so various complaints from people.

He said the group had been active from the outset of the Brown killing, mostly behind the scenes, from high-level meetings with the Department of Justice and local officials to putting political pressure on key players like St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch and Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.

Few know it, but Pruitt said after Brown’s body was left out in the street for more than four hours under the baking sun, his group negotiated the release of the teen’s body to his family.

At the moment, Pruitt said his group is helping to “protect” about five witnesses to Brown’s shooting. Mainly, he said, they’re offering them “aid and comfort.”

Ferguson's generation gap

Despite the ongoing efforts, the NAACP and old-school clergy and activist have come under fire from leaders of a more impatient generation of protesters. Critics of the NAACP and other traditional black community leaders say a largely older generation of leaders abandoned the youth who took up the frontlines in the protests for justice for Michael Brown.

As the protests grew increasingly violent with snarling police dogs, tear gas and rubber bullets sprayed into mostly peaceful crowds of protesters, there indeed seemed to be a clearly defined generation gap.

The generation gap among protesters seemed to grow wider for weeks and came to a head during a mass mobilization effort earlier this month called Ferguson October, in which protesters from all over the country traveled to Ferguson to join local activists in a so-called Weekend of Resistance which included a wide range of intricately planned acts of civil disobedience and mass arrests.

During a mass, inter-faith, protest service sponsored in part by the NAACP, a mostly young crowd heckled Cornell William Brooks, the group’s national president. "This ain't your grandparents' civil rights movement," Tef Poe, a St. Louis based rapper who has emerged as one of the protest movements young leaders, said after taking the stage during that service earlier this month. “For us, this is not an academic issue,” he said. “Y’all did not show up.”

Tef Poe said the people who stood by him and others who took to the streets night after night following Brown’s killing, facing off with heavily-armed police, were young men mostly, some with their shirts off and bandannas tied around their faces.

The at times raucous crowd that night cheered loudly as Tef Poe walked off stage.

The public shaming was somewhat of an embarrassment for the NAACP as the young speakers openly questioned the older group’s relevance.

Brooks later told VICE News that there was a lesson to be learned from the episode.

“It was a good moment and here’s why: they were right,” Brooks said. “I immediately noticed when I came onto the stage that most people on the state were 35 and older and most in the audience were 25 and younger, and that imbalance of generational perspective hurt credibility that their concerns would be heard.”

Pruitt on Monday said while there may seem to be a broad generation gap at play, the NAACP has the experience and connections with the power structure that many young protesters simply don’t have. The group’s lobbying efforts with state government alone, he said, have brought hundreds of millions of dollars and countless opportunities back to the region that are then aimed squarely at minority communities.

“I think it’s unfair when people listen to the young folks and question us about what we’re doing, if you’re not going back to them and saying here is what they’ve been doing,” Pruitt said. “Right now their opinion is based on what they think they know. We can talk about a lot of stuff that we do, but unless you are reading the papers or are engaged with city government or county government, you wouldn’t know it.”