Anger and frustration over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer has been expressed through prayer vigils and peaceful protests throughout this St. Louis suburb.
During the daytime.
When the sun goes down, violence has reigned.
In a pattern that has played out night after night since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed Aug. 9 by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, nonviolent gatherings are followed by looting and riots, tear gas and rubber bullets and dozens of arrests.
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No one is more frustrated than local residents and leaders.
“The people causing all the trouble, they aren’t from Ferguson,” said resident Mike Marion, 26. “They’re from all over. They’re not trying to make things better or stand up for Michael Brown. They’re just taking advantage of the situation.”
It was a sentiment shared by dozens of residents interviewed by The Star on Monday afternoon after arguably the worst violence in a week of unrest broke out the night before. While laying much of the blame for the strife at the feet of police, they say peaceful protests are being hijacked by people with other agendas.
“People of Ferguson are getting punished for the actions of outside agitators,” said Kenny Murdock, 47, who hosts a show on a St. Louis radio station.
Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who had been documenting the protests and the security response on social media, pointed via Twitter to a small group of people who “cannot be defined as protesters/demonstrators. They are more like fighters/rebels/insurgents.”
The crowds at night are younger and rowdier, said Laparasena Gandy, 25, who protested Monday across from the Ferguson Police Department.
“All you see on TV is looting and rioting,” Gandy said. “I don’t care what anybody says, when the sun goes down, people just need to go home.”
Gandy said she worried that the message the community is trying to send is getting drowned out by night after night of street violence.
Ken Paulson, the president of the First Amendment Center, based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said it is an unfortunate fact of life that “if the guy next to you is screaming, it’s harder for you to exercise your freedom of speech.”
The key, he said, is that the authorities need to make sure that in containing unlawful behavior, they don’t inadvertently limit the legitimate free speech rights of others.
“You just can’t use disruptive behavior as an excuse to limit free speech,” Paulson said.
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After days of violent clashes between police and protesters, Gov. Jay Nixon late last week turned over control of security to the Missouri Highway Patrol. The strategy to control crowds changed immediately. Gone were armored vehicles and snipers, replaced by uniformed police mingling with crowed.
And for a night, it worked. But more violence the next evening spurred Nixon to declare a state of emergency and establish a curfew.
On Sunday, national civil rights figures, local ministers and police gathered at a church to demand action and plead for peace. But by 9 p.m., protesters had swarmed a command post and Molotov cocktails were thrown at police, officials said.
Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
By Monday morning, Nixon called in the National Guard and police severely restricted protests along West Florissant Avenue, one of the city’s main streets and the epicenter of protests.
“We will not allow vandals, criminal elements, to impact the safety and security of this community,” said Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, whom Nixon tapped to lead Ferguson security efforts.
Among the groups that traveled to Ferguson to participate in the protests is the Revolution Club of Chicago. Community leaders, gathering at a local church last week, singled out the group as primary instigators. Justin Glawe of the Daily Beast reported that members of the group helped gin up support for defying the curfew Saturday night. And numerous protesters said they had seen members of the Revolution Club “embed” with protesters to provoke the police.
“We have a responsibility to be here,” Lou Downey of the Revolution Club told The Star on Monday afternoon. “We are revolutionaries. We’re working to do this in a way that puts an end to the system that for generations has criminalized youth, especially black youth, and rounds them up into prisons.”
Downey said the violence was coming from the police.
“People here are standing up night after night to the rubber bullets and the armored personnel carriers,” he said. “It was something we had to support and join.”
Regardless of who is at fault, years of disconnect between the African-American community and police is exacerbating the problem, said Jerome Jenkins, 47, of Ferguson.
“Police can’t tell the difference between a looter and a protester,” said Jenkins, who has lived in Ferguson 24 years and owns Cathy’s Kitchen downtown. “To them, everybody looks the same.”
Jenkins said police could go a long way in defusing the situation by backing off and giving protesters room to breathe.
“These are angry young men that are reacting to what they are seeing,” he said. “Police are blocking streets. They’re rolling up in armored vehicles. They’ve got dogs and guns. They’re asking us to be peaceful when everything we’re being shown isn’t peaceful.”
James Marsh, the owner of Marsh & Associates, an Illinois-based consulting company that specializes in law enforcement misconduct, disagrees.
“It’s very difficult because you’re talking about the police officers being outnumbered,” he said. “The more police presence, the less the likelihood that there’s going to be an escalation.”
Marion, the 26-year-old Ferguson resident, said police won’t be able to stop the violence. It will be up to community leaders and peaceful protesters, a fact he said was on full display Saturday night, when citizens locked arms in front of businesses to try to stop looters.
“It’s up to us,” he said. “We can’t leave when the sun goes down. Those of us who want to make things better have to stand.”