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Ferguson McDonald's a haven amid protests and tear gas

Amid protests in Ferguson, the golden arches rise. McDonald's is a local haven
Protesters blasted with tear gas get milk from McDonald's to pour onto their eyes

Maybe the real story is how the windows at McDonald’s survived as long as they did.

Candice Dotson, 38, watched them break Sunday night as a group of frightened protesters fleeing barrages of tear gas from the police tried to slam their way through the locked doors of the fast-food outlet.

"A bunch of guys were banging on the doors, saying, ‘Let the kids in, let the kids in!'" said Dotson, who was seeking safety for herself and her 11-year-old son. As the crowd smashed through the glass and surged inside, several workers fled to the back and locked themselves in the storage room.

Amid the clouds of tear gas and hurtling bottle rockets that have turned this stretch of strip malls into a scene of mayhem through much of the past week, the one image rising above the turbulence has been the golden arches of the McDonald’s.

Amid the nightly, often violent protests in connection with the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9, a local outlet of the familiar fast-food chain has served as a port in the storm, serving up hamburgers and air conditioning, electricity for tapped-out cellphones and Wi-Fi for reporters transmitting news.

When a protester blasted with tear gas comes moaning through the door, there are bottles of soothing McDonald’s milk to pour onto his or her eyes.

"The other night, I saw a dude put his hands up and get hit with a rubber bullet in the leg," said Laronn Beckun, 21, who has worked at the restaurant for the last four months. "I saw my little brother get hit with tear gas."

Before the turmoil landed on its front doorstep, the McDonald’s on West Florissant Avenue occupied a cozy niche, one of the few fast-food options in walking distance of nearby neighborhoods.

In quieter days, it served as a breakfast spot for retirees and a hangout for kids. High school students showed up for a snack after school and in the evening to play cards. Local clubs sometimes used it for meetings.

Among the regulars was Brown, the tall, lumbering youth whose fatal clash with a white police officer a week ago plunged the city into turmoil. He was, a counter worker said, an occasional customer.

"He'd usually get the McChicken, medium fries, medium drink," remembered classmate and friend DeMarco Watson, 18, who has worked at the restaurant for almost a year.

Over the last week, the restaurant has developed a new clientele: reporters looking for a place to file their stories (two of them were arrested last week when police officers entered the restaurant), curious citizens hoping to watch the evening’s protests from behind the perhaps illusory safety of the large plate glass windows, weary cops looking for a cup of coffee and a brief blast of air conditioning.

"We were looking for a place to get food, get a bathroom," Craig Taylor, 27, explained as he lifted his forehead from the tabletop where he was dozing earlier this week. He and a friend had driven in from Chicago the night before to be part of the demonstrations.

The restaurant’s large-screen TV offers a perfect venue for watching the news with its images of protesters marching through the streets, arms raised, chanting, "Hands up, don’t shoot!" -- the slogan popularized after a witness said Brown had raised his arms in surrender as he was felled by six bullets outside a nearby apartment complex.

It was tuned to the news this week when President Obama delivered his own remarks about the events in Ferguson. "Our president is about to speak! Our president is about to speak!" an older local resident boomed from his table, striding quickly over to turn up the volume.

When the station cut away from the speech, CNN anchor Don Lemon piped up. "Change it to CNN," he said.

Lately, the restaurant has taken on the appearance of a battered frontier outpost.

The side windows were smashed by demonstrators Sunday, and by Wednesday, they were boarded up.

The workforce, in any case, was gradually being lured outside. One employee "just quit to be in the riot," Beckun said. Ifama Kellin, another worker, took off after her shift one recent night to join the protests, still wearing her uniform.

Kellin was wearing a "Justice for Michael Brown -- Hands up!" button pinned to her shirt one recent evening as she stood outside the store's smashed windows, smoking a cigarette in the August heat.

"It's my people," she explained, holding up a picture on her phone of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, standing in the McDonald’s.

She told how recently a man had come up to the counter to order and yelled, "Hands up!'"

She was stunned at first. Then the man said, "You're supposed to say, 'Don't shoot!' "

Kellin said her manager stood there and looked at him.

"So I said, 'Don't shoot!’ "

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