Hundreds demonstrate peacefully in embattled Ferguson, Mo.
Boisterous yet peaceful demonstrations continued as night fell in Ferguson on Thursday under the lower-key supervision of police in standard uniforms. There were no assault rifles, riot gear or armored personnel vehicles that had inflamed tensions over the last week in this St. Louis suburb that has seethed with anger over the police killing of an unarmed black man.
Hundreds gathered near the site where police had fired tear gas and rubber bullets into unruly crowds for four straight nights in a show of force that was nationally criticized.
Hours earlier, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon put the State Highway Patrol in charge of security over local law enforcement agencies and placed Capt. Ronald Johnson, who is black and who grew up in Ferguson, in charge. By Thursday night there was a sea change.
People cheered as cars passed, horns honking, as if the hometown team had just won a championship. One demonstrator galloped down the street on a horse with his fist in the air. There were chants and demands for justice for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot and killed by a police officer. But there was also laughter. The sidewalks were so full that people spilled into the edges of the streets, grinning and shaking each others’ hands.
At the center of it all was Johnson, who walked with the crowd and said in a televised interview that “sometimes you just need to let people speak.”
After the unrest Wednesday night, Johnson said, he “prayed for a better day, and we got a better day.” He told demonstrators they could stay as long as they wanted, as long as they kept the streets clear and avoided trouble, because police “will protect the safety of the community.”
Holding up a photo of Brown, Johnson said, “This is why we are here.”
Shortly before 8 p.m., protesters outside a burned convenience store approached police cars and began yelling. But several representatives of the Black Panthers stepped in and urged the crowd to move back — and Johnson emerged to mingle with the crowd. Scores of bystanders obliged, while chanting and waving signs, and the police cars proceeded up the street without incident.
Kiarra Jones, 37, was impressed.
The accountant from St. Louis grew up here, and had joined protesters Sunday who were confronted by police.
“This is much more relaxed, a much calmer environment,” she said. “There’s police present, but it’s not an aggressive presence, intimidating the crowd.”
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, among those jailed by police Wednesday, chatted with people. Others in the crowd began cheering. The charred convenience store, a victim of rioting earlier in the week, had been festooned with pastel chalk graffiti: “RIP Mike” and “Black men matter.” Dozens of children drew in chalk on the parking lot, danced and played hopscotch.
“I hope there’s a fair investigation, that justice can be served and police brutality, not just against blacks, can be stopped,” Jones said.
Angela Smith, 39, of Ferguson stood beaming on the sidewalk, preaching to everybody who passed.
“Better than yesterday, y’all!” Smith said to a woman while holding a bright pink sign reading, “No justice, no peace.”
Another woman approached. “Feels like our ‘hood, our home again!” Smith told her. “There’s no invaders telling us we can’t protest.”
“Mmm-hmm,” the woman responded. She was followed by two police officers, one whom was shaking hands with a young man in shorts and a Cardinals baseball cap.
“This is what we needed,” Smith said. “This is the first day we get to start healing. And I hope these young people appreciate that.”
About six girls passed on the sidewalk, cheering and laughing as car horns honked. “The babies are not crying today!” Smith said, watching the girls.
Outside of the ruined husk of QuikTrip, the torched convenience store, police officers and officials mingled with demonstrators, chatting and joking.
“What I’m seeing is hopefully a catalyst for change,” said St. Louis Det. Kevin Bentley, who said he normally worked undercover but was spending the night in uniform. “Nothing wrong with protest. This country was founded on protest.”
On a grassy patch near the parking lot, Stephen Wood, 51, surveyed the crowd chanting “hands up!” He felt satisfied, as if a burden was being lifted.
“This is needed. People need to learn to come together,” said Wood, a factory worker who lives in nearby Delaware, Mo.
He too had joined protesters Sunday and watched the peaceful gathering deteriorate into clashes with police in riot gear and the looting of business.
“It looked like Beirut out here. Most of us are common people — we go to work and do common things. To come out here and see something like Iraq is frightening,” he said.
The rioting, he figures, was a necessary evil.
“When people are oppressed and they want to be heard, they go to an extreme,” Wood said, his voice hoarse from chanting.
“What good is the Constitution; what good are these laws if we don’t use them?” he said.
Wood called Brown a martyr, and said Thursday night’s gathering was a celebration of his potential. “We’re cheering on a hero who didn’t get a chance to be who he was going to be.”
Earlier, Brown’s family attended a separate demonstration at the Arch in St. Louis, their first rally since he was killed.
Eric Davis, Brown’s cousin, who was with Brown’s mother and sister, told CNN that the family wanted to “come out to a very peaceful demonstration.” They had not attended previous demonstrations because they “didn’t want to get tear-gassed or shot with a rubber bullet.”
Davis said the family was still looking for answers. “We’re in the dark, and that’s a hard thing to do when you’ve lost a child,” he said.
Davis said the family spoke with U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday. He assured them that the Justice Department would have a hand in the investigation into Brown’s death.
“We have no trust in the Ferguson Police Department,” Davis said.
Justice Department officials talked with several witnesses to the shooting and are pushing ahead with a possible federal prosecution of the officer who shot Brown.
The Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments had been the lead law enforcement presence in the city since the shooting. Clashes between law enforcement officers and protesters intensified as the week wore on and images of crowds being tear-gassed evoked outrage nationwide.
President Obama on Thursday said there was “no excuse” for excessive force by police or for looting or violence aimed at law enforcement. Obama said the police had a responsibility to be “open and transparent” about the events that led up to the shooting of Brown.
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