Ferguson protesters: The peaceful, the elders, the looters, and the ‘militants’

The Missouri National Guard rolls into Ferguson, Mo., but stay back as protesters again tangle with police, who respond with tear gas. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

On one corner of a battered stretch of West Florissant Avenue, the epicenter of ongoing protests, young men pull dark scarves up over their mouths and lob molotov cocktails at police from behind makeshift barricades built of bricks and wood planks. They call the gasoline-filled bottles “poor man’s bombs.”

The young men yell expletives and, with a rebel’s bravado, speak about securing justice for Michael Brown, the black teen fatally shot Aug. 9 by a white police officer, “by any means necessary.”

They are known here as “the militants” — a faction inhabiting the hard-core end of a spectrum that includes online organizers and opportunistic looters — and their numbers have been growing with the severity of their tactics since the shooting.

Each evening, hundreds gather along West Florissant in what has become the most visible and perilous ritual of this St. Louis suburb’s days of frustration following Brown’s death. Dozens have been arrested, many injured by tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets fired by a police force dressed in riot gear and armed with assault rifles.

But the demonstrators are as diverse as their grievances — and in their methods of addressing them.

Some of the men are from the area — Ferguson or surrounding towns also defined in part by the gulf separating the mostly white law enforcement agencies from a mistrusting African American public. Many others — it is hard to quantify the percentage — have arrived by bus and by car from Chicago, Detroit, Brooklyn and elsewhere.

They will not give their names. But their leaders say they are ready to fight, some with guns in their hands. “This is not the time for no peace,” said one man, a 27-year-old who made the trip here from Chicago.

He spoke after a small group of fellow militants held a meeting behind a looted store, sketching out ambitions for the days ahead.

“We are jobless men, and this is our job now — getting justice,” he said. “If that means violence, that’s okay by me. They’ve been doing this to us for years.”

Police on the streets Monday night said some of those wearing red bandannas are members of the Bloods gang.

The militants are one faction of many that have filled Ferguson’s streets each evening since Brown, walking unarmed between a convenience store and his grandmother’s apartment at midday on a Saturday, was shot at least six times and died.

There is a group of “peaceful protesters” that congregates around the QuikTrip, which was looted and burned during the first night of protest. Another gathers near the Ferguson police station. A third, more scattered faction uses Twitter to organize demonstrators.

President Obama announced Monday that Attorney General Eric Holder will travel to Ferguson, Mo., to meet with law enforcement investigating the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer. (AP)

“People have been tweeting, ‘We are ready to die tonight,’ ” said Mary Pat Hector, a national youth organizer with the Rev. Al Sharpton’s national action network. “It is a trending topic.”

Hector traveled from Atlanta, hoping her presence as a non­violent protester would help counter what she described as “so much negative energy.”

Then there are the looters, leaderless men who under cover of nightly political protest target liquor stores, beauty-supply shops and other businesses with inventories easy to sell and in high demand.

Ferguson police officials would not quantify how many looters have been arrested since the Brown shooting but presented a Washington Post reporter with a stack of roughly 50 arrest reports. While some of those arrested for stealing are from Ferguson, a large number have addresses listed in Illinois or in Texas.

“It’s like looting tourism,” an officer commented as he showed the reports. He asked not to be named. “It’s like they are spending their gas money to come down here and steal.”

DeAndre Smith, fresh from looting the QuikTrip on a recent night, told reporters: “I’m proud of us. We deserve this, and this is what’s supposed to happen when there’s injustice in your community. St. Louis — not going to take this anymore.”

Many on the streets share that sentiment and feel, in terms of race relations, this city and its surrounding communities never emerged from the civil rights era. Two-thirds of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents are black, but only three of the police force’s 53 officers are.

“This was a chance to vent about the national treatment of black men across the country,” said Ronnie Natch, a music producer and leader of the “peaceful protesters.”

Natch is 30 years old and has a 10-month-old baby. His wife gives out water and fruit to protesters from their base at the burned-out QuikTrip. “We want to show up at the front door every day and say, through words, that this shooting is not going to be swept under the rug,” Natch said. “There have just been too many deaths.”

Missouri had the nation’s highest black homicide rate in 2010 and the second-highest in 2011, according to the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit group based in Washington. The city’s school system is crumbling, and Brown’s high school is in one of the nation’s most troubled districts.

“After all the cameras are gone, we have to live here,” Natch said.

Every morning, his group dispatches people to pick up trash and sweep broken glass.

“We can get the same message out without the violence,” he said.

Among those who have arrived are self-described young activists, some of whom participated in the Occupy movement. Many of them are white and have been showing protesters how to assemble homemade gas masks — essentially surgical masks fortified with duct tape. But the peaceful protesters acknowledge they are probably in the minority as the crowd begins to swell on Ferguson’s streets after nightfall.

Dennis Brown, a community activist, described St. Louis and suburbs such as this one as a pot ready to boil over. He said social media has become, in ways similar to its use in recent popular uprisings in the Arab world, an essential organizing tool.

Brown said young people, including many of the “militants,” are organized on social media.

“These young people aren’t dumb,” said Brown, 46. “They are organized. They are smart. They are like computer kings.”

He said that not all are from outside communities. Some are from Ferguson and have been informed by media, cinema and real-life events that to many of them resemble their own lives.

“They are not gang leaders. They are normal people. They are people showing their anger,” Brown said. “They see Trayvon Martin. They saw ‘Fruitvale Station.’ And before that, there was Rodney King. And those cops walk.”

“There’s always a time in history when great things happen to strike at the core of people,” he continued. “These young people are saying enough is enough.”

There is also another group: the elders.

Malik Shabazz, national president of Black Lawyers for Justice, said he has been patrolling West Florissant Avenue each night, trying to keep the peace. On Friday night, he used a megaphone, telling young people to go home.

“The big mission was to make sure there was peace tonight, and we accomplished that,” Shabazz said as dawn approached. “Now it’s time to go home and get some rest. You do this with love and no fear.”

But Kareem Jackson, a St. Louis rapper known by the stage name Tef Poe, said controlling the militants and looters has not always been easy. He recently complained on Twitter about how the “mugs” go to hear Sharpton during the day but fail to show up at night to help keep the young demonstrators peaceful. “All these rappers that rap about changing the world and saving the ppl I didn’t see any of y’all shielding kids from tear gas,” he wrote on the social-media site, “come on fam.”

At least two appeared to hear his call. Rappers Nelly and Ali, both from the St. Louis area, led crowds Monday night in a chant of “Hey-hey, ho-ho, these killer cops have got to go.” But they also urged words over violence. “Songs are more powerful,” Ali said. “Keep it peaceful, St. Louis.”

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a National staff writer who covers veterans, veterans' affairs and the culture of government. She's an award-winning former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and India for nearly a decade. She also covered immigration, crime and education for the Metro staff.
DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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