FERGUSON, Mo.— Capt. Ron Johnson has a son just a few years older than Michael Brown Jr. was when Brown was shot and killed by a policeman over the summer. Johnson said his 21-year-old son often wears his pants slung low and admits that his boy has a few more tattoos than he’d prefer.
“But I also know that the way that he dresses and his tattoos aren’t defining his character,” said Johnson, the Missouri State Highway Patrol captain who has become one of the most recognized faces in the turbulent aftermath of the unarmed teen's fatal shooting by a white Ferguson police officer in August.
“I tell him to remember that his actions will define his character, and if his actions mimic some of the beliefs that people may have because of the tattoos and the pants, then you need to change that,” Johnson said of the conversations he's had with his son in recent weeks.
When mass protests broke out across the region in the wake of Brown's killing, and grew increasingly violent, the Missouri State Highway Patrol took over policing of the protests. Johnson would often march with protesters in solidarity, hold impromptu walk and talks with whomever wanted his ear, and weathered waves of criticism and insults. Yet, at least publicly he has remained stoic and consistently open about the need to heal, and for the entire community to move forward with or without an indictment of the officer who killed Brown.
Any day now, a grand jury is expected to announce its decision on whether or not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s killing. And as an unusual, November chill settles over the city, protesters, police and residents all seem to be bracing for what could be a return of the fiery, sometimes violent protests that broke out after Brown’s Aug. 9 shooting death.
Local police have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on riot gear and weaponry. Local businesses have boarded up their windows. Protesters and activist groups have been planning their next moves.
“I feel like the community, this is a constant preparation that we’re doing,” said Brittany Ferrell, a protester with Millennial Activists United, an organization formed in the wake of Brown’s death. “We’re prepared as much as we can be, you know. And let’s say the non-indictment drops tomorrow, we know exactly what we need to do.”
The St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office has said it will give local schools three hours' advanced notice of the grand jury’s announcement if it comes during the school week and 24 hours notice on a weekend.
"[L]et’s say the non-indictment drops tomorrow, we know exactly what we need to do."'
On Thursday morning, Johnson told a classroom of about 25 black boys pretty much the same thing he told his son: Reach for your potential, don’t let others define you, don’t let yourselves or your family down.
Johnson’s message to a freshman physical education class at McCluer South-Berkeley High School was part father-son talk, part pep talk. But there also seemed to be another motivation.
Johnson knows how fragile the calm in Ferguson remains, and that those same young men who shook his hand and asked to have their photos taken with him could very well take to the streets again, the way many undoubtedly did during the summer.
For weeks now, Johnson has slipped under the radar and embarked on a quiet listening/talking tour. He has met with gang members, clergy and classrooms full of students that -- more often than not -- are young and black just like Brown and Johnson's own son.
“A lot of things have happened in Ferguson. And it has told us that a lot of things need to change in Ferguson, in North County and in this country,” Johnson said, having traded his police uniform for a pair of Timberland boots, blue jeans and a long sleeve gray T-shirt. “Because sometimes, when I look like this, or when I’m on my motorcycle … sometimes I get stopped. And all of a sudden, when I tell them that I’m a policeman, nobody tells me why I got stopped, we talk about the nice motorcycle I got. And that bothers me.”
“Every man deserves the right to walk down the street, if he is not doing anything wrong, all he deserves from a policeman is the wave of a hand,” Johnson said, “Just walking down the street, because you look different, because your pants are hanging a little bit low is not a reason for anybody to question you or stop you.”
"Just walking down the street, because you look different, because your pants are hanging a little bit low is not a reason for anybody to question you or stop you."'
Police said the fatal confrontation between Wilson and Brown began with a simple stop in the middle of a street, not terribly far from McCluer South-Berkeley High School. Police said Wilson confronted Brown and a friend as the two walked down the middle of a small, two-lane street that runs through an apartment complex, ordering them to the sidewalk.
The friend, Dorian Johnson, said Wilson told them to get the “f---” out of the street. Johnson said he told Wilson that the two were headed to his nearby apartment. That’s when Wilson slammed on his breaks and screeched back at them.
Wilson and Brown then tussled through the officer’s driver’s side window, police and witnesses said.
Soon after, Officer Wilson shot and killed Brown, 18, after what police say was a struggle over Wilson’s weapon. Police have said Wilson told them he feared for his life, according to a New York Times report citing anonymous government officials briefed on the case. A half-dozen eyewitnesses to the shooting refute the police narrative, claiming instead that Wilson fired on Brown as the teen attempted to flee the officer, delivering the fatal gunshots as Brown turned to surrender with his hands up.
Faith in the community's youth
Johnson said he has faith in the young people in the community, despite their anger and frustration over Brown’s death, a sometimes inadequate justice system and all the other hurdles too many of them face.
“There’s a lot of anticipation of the grand jury’s announcement. But I don’t believe it is going to be as bad as some anticipate. And I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as some want it to be,” Johnson said. “I believe this community is not going to let those that are stuck on destroying this community, the businesses, the homes, those that are creating fear are going to allow that. And I think you’re going to see a community that says you know what, we are angry, but this is still our house and you’re not going to tear it down.”
“I think we are going to see better times,” he said.
At a press conference earlier in the week, Gov. Jay Nixon, flanked by Johnson and the state’s director of public safety, Daniel Isom, said in no uncertain terms that “violence will not be tolerated” in light of the grand jury’s decision.
“Violence will not be tolerated,” Nixon said. “Residents and businesses of this region will be protected.”
For many supporters of Brown’s, the governor’s words struck an incendiary cord, as if the thousands of mostly peaceful protesters were being blamed for violence they believe was provoked by the heavy-handed response to the protests by police.
“Who are you protecting?” Alexis Templeton, another activist with the millennial group said of Nixon’s pronouncement. “Apparently we’re supposed to feel American, like the people Jay Nixon is gearing up the police, law enforcement to protect.”
Daniel Isom, director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said many of his days are spent meeting with government officials as well as community groups, business leaders and police, and that those conversations are meant to build on many of the gains that have come on the heels of the mass protests, including very real structural changes that many hope will bridge the wide social and cultural divides exposed by Brown’s killing.
“The first step is you create a space for dialogue and trust, and that is what law enforcement has been doing constantly. They have been going to schools, as you see we are here today. They have been going to community meetings. They’ve been meeting with activist groups,” said Isom, who is African American and was tapped by Gov. Nixon to lead the department in September as the region was embroiled in unrest weeks after Brown’s shooting.
“I think all of that sets a tone that says our message is keeping people safe, protecting property and allowing people to have their constitutional rights. I think when you have that relationship with protesters, then it makes it much more manageable once you get out in the streets,” he said. “It’s hard to have those conversations out in the street, but if you prepare beforehand, I think you’ll be in a better position to do that.”
Capt. Johnson said on many a hot summer evening, he marched right alongside the protesters to show solidarity with them and the communities they come from, the same neighborhood's he grew up in.
“I tell people that I respect your right to protest, and early on that’s why I got out and I marched down W. Florissant with the protesters, to symbolize that I respect your right and the things that you are protesting," Johnson told msnbc. "You’re protesting for me also -- to make me better, and make my life better for me and my family and my friends in this community.”
Back in front of the class, Johnson stood before the young male students and told them about how he grew up in the area and played football at a rival high school. He talked about breaking down the walls between young people like them and police officers like him, even the ones whose skin is different than theirs. Johnson relayed stories of his own about being stopped by the police and how it made him feel.
“There’s nothing wrong with being angry,” he told them. “We all get angry but it’s what you do with that anger that matters.”
As Johnson stood before that class of black boys, he asked if anyone had any questions. “From a police officer standpoint, how do you really feel about Darren Wilson?” one of the students asked.
“I would be telling you a lie if I said I didn’t have an opinion,” Johnson said. “I realize it’s tough being a policeman. But I also realize it’s also tough being a black man.”
As Johnson wrapped up, the class offered tepid handclaps. Some of the boys shook his hand as they streamed out of the classroom. Others whipped out their cell phones and had their friends take their pictures with the captain.
“We’re going to be better,” Johnson said later. “Sometimes we get caught up in our lives and we kind of step away from the reality of what we know is there and we accept it. All of this has kind of brought me back to ground zero.”