FERGUSON, Mo. – Protesters who have for days lined a busy suburban St. Louis street not far from the place where a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager have walked from nearby apartments, driven from neighboring communities and flown in from states hundreds of miles away. Some are young parents carrying infants. Others, college students. Retirees. Professionals taking a break from their jobs.
They have chanted, marched, shouted, danced on vehicles and – though most have remained peaceful – also looted and vandalized stores during late-night clashes with armored police who have fired smoke canisters and tear gas into the crowds.
The demonstrators are demanding justice for 18-year-old Michael Brown, which they say can only be accomplished if Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson is charged and convicted for the shooting. Many also cite larger causes.
Some vent frustration about what they describe as a pattern of harassment and intimidation of black residents by police – not just in Ferguson, but in numerous other predominantly low-income minority communities. Others see an opportunity to participate in what they consider a modern civil rights movement.
“Being black in America is basically being born with a target,” said Keyon Watkins, a 26-year-old college graduate with a computer science degree who joined in the protests on a late weekend night. “All of this is just built-up, pent-up aggression by being mistreated on a daily basis.”
As Watkins stood on the curb of West Florissant Avenue, a parade of vehicles slowly passed by – some with teenagers dancing atop the hoods, some blaring music profaning police, many honking their horns in what has become a sounding call for the protest.
On another night, the rap musician Stackz drove up in a new white Corvette, parked it in the street and joined in the protest. Though he now lives in Atlanta, he grew up in the neighborhood.
“This happened right in my area. It was a must to be here,” said Stackz, who said his real name was Demarco Williams.
Police said Brown was walking with a friend down nearby Canfield Drive when Wilson stopped them because they were in the middle of the street. They say a scuffle ensued, Wilson was injured and Brown was shot. Witnesses said the teenager had his hands in the air as Wilson fired multiple rounds.
So the protesters chant “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” while raising their own arms. They write the words on posters, and print them on T-shirts.
Some of the protesters said they previously were shot by police, or know relatives and friends who were. Michael Johnson, 42, lifted up his shirt to show the scars on his torso he said he received when he was shot by a St. Louis police officer at age 18, during a confrontation that he said never resulted in charges against him or the officer. Because of the injuries, he said, he had to abandon his dream of joining the Marines.
“That one night cost me my whole future,” said Johnson, standing in front of a looted and burnt-out convenience store. “If I got to die tonight, I don’t mind … I’m dying for a cause.”
There have been no reports of protesters dying in their clashes with police.
After several tumultuous nights, police tried to change their tactics. State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson took command of security from local authorities and walked the streets side-by-side with the protesters. So did celebrity civil rights activists, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The festive atmosphere lasted only one night, and protests again turned violent during the weekend, prompting Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to declare a state of emergency and impose a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew in Ferguson. Some who defied the curfew clashed again with police early Sunday, but Johnson again encouraged peaceful demonstrations for the nights to come.
LaVon Stennis-Williams flew in from Omaha, Neb., to join the protest with her daughter who is attending law school at Saint Louis University. Stennis-Williams, 52, wanted to experience the civil rights movement that she heard about as a child in the 1960s.
“I felt like it was an obligation to come here and be a part of this,” she said. “Maybe this will be a catalyst of change in this country to get people to become more tolerant and more respectful of their civil rights.”