The hungry crowd, eager to dig into the trays of fried turkey, collard greens and creamy tres leches cake, had traveled far for their Thanksgiving meal.
Some were hundreds or thousands of miles from home, but inside a St. Louis-area church it seemed like a family dinner. Most of the people didn’t know one another until three months ago. Now, they were united by both their outrage over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown and their thankfulness for Cat Daniels, who has fed them since August.
They call her “Momma Cat,” and she has been serving Sunday meals to demonstrators outside the Ferguson Police Department’s headquarters nearly every week since Brown was shot by Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.
Daniels, 53, of nearby Florissant, has tried to calm the scene with plates of food.
“Momma Cat does have quite a bit of influence,” said pastor Henry Logan, a Ferguson activist who has been working with Daniels since August. “She does it one meal at a time.”
After months of protests — punctuated at times by tear gas and violence — Ferguson seemed to take a deep breath Thursday as protesters, police and weary residents sought chances to gather over Thanksgiving dinner.
The fires that erupted Monday after a grand jury declined to indict Wilson were gone. The holiday was cold and quiet — at least for a few hours.
“It’s a day to breathe, to love one another, to share and give thanks for what we have and what we will have,” said Daniels, surrounded by roasted turkey and other dishes she spent a sleepless night cooking.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon shared Thanksgiving dinner with National Guard troops after deploying more than 2,000 soldiers to keep the city secure, including the tattered riot zone of West Florissant Avenue, still barricaded and under guard as a crime scene.
“I would ask Missourians to join me in thanking these officers and Guardsmen as they spend time away from their families this Thanksgiving weekend,” Nixon said.
Members of Veterans for Peace, some who joined protests, looked beyond the Brown shooting — attending a fundraiser to help provide meals to impoverished St. Louis schoolchildren. Many churches held services before sending congregants off to their family gatherings.
Daniels, who began preparing her Thanksgiving feast Wednesday, said she wanted to find a way to join the national discussion about race and police since Brown’s death. She was moved to aid in the demonstrations by what she perceives as the institutional mistreatment of black people by law enforcement in St. Louis County.
“A hundred and 11 days ago we didn’t know each other, but y’all my family,” Daniels said to the more than 100 people who packed into St. Luke’s basement.
A frequent presence at rallies, Daniels does as much marching as she can. Sitting in her living room in Florissant, a St. Louis suburb, she clutches at a balky knee, and her voice is hoarse from chanting.
She was outside the Ferguson Police Department headquarters Monday and held her phone high, live-streaming the prosecutor’s announcement for the crowd to hear. She left before the violence erupted.
“I can’t sit down. I have to be on the right side of history. But it’s not my fight these days. … This is you guys’ fight, your age group, the young people,” Daniels said of the younger generation. “It’s our duty, it’s our role, to have your back. Make sure that you guys are going about it the right way.”
To do that, Daniels turned to one thing she believes can unite any group of people, regardless of what they think or where they come from.
“Food has a healing power,” said Daniels, who punctuated most sentences with a smile or a knowing laugh. “Food can heal your soul.”
Most Sundays since August, Daniels has been behind a row of chafing dishes and cooking pans along a buffet-style line on South Florissant Road, dishing out plates and counsel to anyone who walks up to the parking lot across from the police station.
At first Daniels paid for most of the food out of her pocket, but as the weeks wore on she has accepted donations from the dozens of activists she feeds each week.
Raised by Southern-born parents who both knew their way around a kitchen, Daniels says she has been cooking from a young age and received her first formal training at a vocational high school in New York City.
She put her career on hold for years while she raised a family and moved around the country with her husband, Perez, a military veteran. They moved to Florissant in 2012, and Daniels has been attending classes at the Culinary Institute of St. Louis and cooking meals for doctors at DePaul Health Center.
Daniels says her passion is cake design, but she serves up Southern-style comfort foods on Sundays. Police officers have yet to walk across the street for a meal, Daniels said, but if anyone with a badge and gun joins the buffet line she’ll gladly fix them a plate.
“If one of those officers walked across that street? [I’d say] here, have a meal, because that’s who I am,” Daniels said. “God gave me a gift, and if I don’t take this gift that God gave me and use it for the betterment of others, what was I given the gift for?”
A great-grandmother, Daniels has been a matriarch, therapist, chef and friend to demonstrators who traveled to Ferguson from around the country. Ask most of them about Cat Daniels and they’ll look at you sideways. But mention Momma Cat, and their eyes brighten.
“She’s definitely one of the mother hens,” said Biko Baker, a demonstrator from Milwaukee who has been in Ferguson since mid-August. “When you’ve got 35- and 40-year-old people calling you Momma, you’ve done something.”
Baker said the Thanksgiving dinner served at St. Luke’s AME Church near St. Louis came at a crucial juncture for the demonstrators. “Right now, given the extreme fear and exhaustion that exists in the activist community, Momma Cat gives us an opportunity for people to come together and heal,” Baker said.
The Sunday dinners have also provided a meeting space for the various coalitions that have formed since August. Members of groups such as Lost Voices, Don’t Shoot and Hands Up United can all come together and recap what happened during a particular week and discuss upcoming rallies.
Logan, the pastor, said the conversations sparked over mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese Thursday would help the activists find a way to move forward after the decision.
“It’s a way of bringing us collectively back together and getting us refocused on why we’re here and what we’re doing and actually to have the conversation on what’s the next step in what we do,” he said. “Because at some point, we have to get past this verdict.”
Before she found herself serving as one of the demonstrators’ main chefs and counselors, Daniels and her husband were considering selling their house and moving away from an area she considers fiercely divided along racial and economic lines. But after Brown’s death, Daniels said, she knew she had to do something.
Maybe she didn’t belong on the front lines, but she could at least keep the front lines fed.
“I’m not no professional protester. I’m not an activist,” Daniels said. “We had to get active. We had to say, that’s enough.”