Ferguson, Missouri: “No justice! No peace! Hands up, don’t shoot!”
A small group of protesters chant this rally cry on South Florissant Avenue, a central road of Ferguson, Missouri. Drivers in passing cars sound their horns in approval.
It’s 8.20pm on Tuesday and the final rays of sunlight have just left the northern St Louis suburb at the heart of nightly civil unrest since the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Saturday in broad daylight. The incident has stirred a nation’s conscience, sparked a debate about the profiling of young black males by police and provoked violent clashes between police and protesters.
This is a peaceful demonstration, with a CNN network vehicle set up in a parking lot behind them and news photographers intermittently taking photos. After seeing a constant stream of images of violent clashes on television, I’m somewhat relieved to see a young black girl holding up the sign ‘We are the prayer warriors!!”
I approach demonstrator Iesha Owens who has been protesting each day in Ferguson since the police shooting. She’s polite but determined to have her voice heard.
“My message I’m trying to get across is for Mike Brown – he needs justice for what happened to him,” Owens says. “And not only just Mike Brown, but Trayvon Martin and anybody else who needs justice needs to be served. The cops have got to stop going around killing people. [The community] feels angry – they’re mad, they’re upset.”
“We want the law (officers) to keep the law, not break the law,” says fellow protester Denise James, who believes prayers rather than violence will help change race relations for the better. “Officers shouldn’t use their authority in the wrong way – treat people like you would want to be treated.”
Residents of this predominantly African-American community are furious that Brown, who was to start college on Monday, was shot multiple times after an altercation with a police officer. The teenager was known as a “gentle giant” by his Normandy High School teachers. The teenager was wearing shorts and thongs and was clearly unarmed, according to witnesses Tiffany Mitchell, Piaget Crenshaw and Dorian Johnson.
After trying to run away from the officer in a patrol car, witnesses say Brown stopped after being hit by a bullet, before putting his hands up. He was then allegedly shot multiple times by the police officer who had pursued him on foot. His body remained on the street for hours before being removed.
The Justice Department and the FBI are currently investigating the shooting.
I drive to nearby West Florissant Avenue and head towards the remains of a Quick Trip convenience store that was looted and burnt to the ground on Sunday night. It was one of number of other retail businesses, including an AutoZone and a Walmart, that were looted and damaged. The Quick Trip has become the rally point for many protesters. But I don’t get far – there is a police road block on Kappel Drive and West Florissant and officers are turning all vehicles around. A black police officer – one of only three in the 53-strong Ferguson department – is talking to the driver of a stopped vehicle. The policeman has his hand on his revolver.
I park nearby and approach a white police officer. He is on edge and asked me why I had been taking photos of the road block. I identify myself as a journalist and he appears irritated, refusing to be interviewed. Monday night had seen rocks thrown at police as well as a lot of verbal abuse, he explains and he is just on traffic duty only. By cordoning off the area it appears the police are trying to reduce the chance of further civil unrest.
The officer tells me to take care on my way home and I wish him the same. Unfortunately, two blocks from where we talk, violence erupts a few hours later. Early on Wednesday, a police officer shoots and critically wounds a man who allegedly drew a handgun near the site of protests. Police disperse demonstrators using tear gas.
Thursday 2pm, Ferguson, St Louis: I am back on West Florissant Avenue. Parking on a side street, I hop out and listen to the familiar sounds of N.W.A’s ode to anti-authority F— da Police emanating from a vehicle that slowly glides by me. I don’t feel particularly comfortable. There is no police roadblock. In fact, there is virtually no police presence as I approach a group of about 70 protesters outside the gutted Quick Trip.
This is surprising – on Wednesday night this location had resembled a war zone. A large riot police force, officers brandishing automatic weapons and SWAT teams confronted about 350 protesters. After ordering the protesters to return home – many of whom shouted back they were already home – police opened fire with tear gas canisters, concussion grenades, smoke bombs and rubber bullets. An al Jazeera television crew were fired on with a tear gas canister, while two journalists – one from The Huffington Post and the other from The Washington Post – were arrested and forcibly removed from a McDonald’s restaurant as they charged their devices and ate dinner.
It was a public relations disaster. Many described it as a militarised response to protests that have been largely peaceful. “Fallujah by the Mississippi,” one commentator dubbed it.
A black woman is on her knees in the middle of the street with her hands raised in front of me now. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” she yells, leading the protesters’ chant as drivers in passing vehicles hit their horns in approval. A charity is handing out food and water in front of the gutted Quick Trip, which is also a petrol station. Television reporters are doing live interviews. A group of young black men dressed in red walk past me but the crowd is largely young black people with a handful of white supporters.
I approach a young black man who is wearing a bandana across his face and Cardinals’ baseball cap and ask to interview him.
“What happened is there was a young man killed – killed, murdered, not restrained, not detained, not any of that – killed by a member of law enforcement. We feel like we’re not going to get justice, because if history repeats itself we have never got justice. We have never, ever got justice.”
“I ain’t got no problem with white people, it is about badges right now. They do whatever the f— they want. So until he (the police officer) goes to jail, this (mass demonstrations) is what you are going to see. Period.”
Are some police reasonable?
“I feel like there are no reasonable police – you guys are blowing children’s brains out at 12 o’clock noon for nothing … we don’t even know (the police officer’s) name. I could tell you five names of the looters – names and faces – but we don’t even know who did this yet and it’s not right.”
This young man and his friends – who are now milling around me – aren’t impressed with President Obama’s response either. Obama has called for a measured, peaceful resolution to the situation in a press conference on Thursday .
“I don’t know him, I don’t have any thoughts on him. Get him the f— out of here. I still ain’t got insurance,” [he said in a reference to Obama’s health insurance scheme].
I move across to talk to 18-year-old Joshua Williams, who has flown in from Texas to join the protests. In contrast, he is sitting alone by a petrol bowser and is softly spoken. Williams explains he always has to be careful talking to police officers as they try to provoke him.
“Even though they have a badge on, they say whatever they want,” he says. “They dare you to say something back to them. We are here to protest for Michael, to give that cop justice. If it was one of us shooting a white man down, there would have been justice.”
William’s says the response by police against protesters, which has included tear gas and rubber bullets, has been for one reason.
“I have been here since day one. I’ve been tear gassed and everything else. They’re trying to scare us away from getting justice for (Michael).”
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