FERGUSON, Mo. — The red and white gas station at the corner of West Florissant Avenue and Northwinds Estates Drive was the victim of a rumor.
On Sunday, there was a false report that employees of the gas station had called 911 to report that Michael Brown, whose fatal shooting by police 11 days ago precipitated the crisis in the city, had robbed the place. Enraged protesters burned the gas station to the ground.
Destroyed, it sat unattended for days, emerging as the depressing backdrop for cable news live reports — a sign of the chaos and destruction that engulfs the streets of Ferguson after each nightfall.
There has not been any single location more central to the unrest in Ferguson as the looted service station.
But then, on Thursday afternoon, it was transformed as a group of hundreds of protesters decided it would be their staging ground.
“This is our place. This is what we’ve got,” Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a state senator who has been central in staging many of the daytime protests, said during an interview outside of the QuikTrip this week. This was their Tahrir Square, their Tiananmen Square. The place each night where they would make their stand. “These people have no other place, so they’ve made it their own,” said Chappelle-Nadal.
Capt. Ron Johnson, who as head of the Missouri State Highway Patrol is now overseeing all crowd control, engaged the marchers: “Just wanna know where you are going,” he declared.
“Up to the QuikTrip and then stopping,” said the man with the megaphone. And, for the next three days, the QuikTrip served as the meeting place, the rallying point, the town square for the thousands of people descending on Ferguson each night.
It also serves as ground zero for the daytime protests, with residents setting poster board down on the asphalt as they share markers to make signs. Just two blocks behind it is the memorial of candles and signs at the spot where Brown’s body lay after he was shot.
And, it sits at the center of the stretch of West Florissant Avenue that has been the nightly battleground between officers and protesters, serving as the barrier between the stretch of strip malls and businesses to the south and residential side streets to the north.
For days, a constant stream of noise emanated from the small lot. One night, a punk rock band set up and performed. The next, a crew of breakdancers. On Saturday afternoon, it was a troupe of silent performance artists who performed a play in the lot’s back corner.
“We drove overnight and came straight here,” said Lanna Hutson, 25, a University of Arkansas student who drove here with her roommate, Paige Moore, 20, to join the protests.
They went to the QuikTrip “because this is where the people are. Where else would we have gone?”
As she spoke on Saturday, she held a sign declaring “We must unite.” Organizers handed out water and sandwiches; a group of New Black Panthers directed traffic in along the street.
Between spirited chants of “No justice, no peace” and “Hands up, don’t shoot,” residents plastered what were once gas pumps with signs.
“His name was Michael Brown,” stated one.
“RIP Mike Brown,” said another.
On the large metal post that once displayed the red and white QT logo, one person spray-painted “The QT People’s Park. Liberated 8/10/14.”
But on Monday, police cleared the lot, removing the dozens of people who had been gathered there for days. The signs were torn down.
And on Tuesday morning, a newly constructed wire fence protected the gas station at the corner. A group of men in hard hats and yellow vests worked to pick up debris and drain the gasoline from tanks beneath the pavement. They moved quickly, and silently.
A single news crew shot a stand-up on the corner. But after a few takes, they left. Nothing happening here anymore.
The lot is private property, so the protesters had no right to assemble there. As rapidly as it had sprouted, it was gone.