FERGUSON, Mo. — Gone are the pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets that shocked the country during nightly protests on the streets of this small St. Louis suburb, but there is little tranquility.
Nearly two months after that explosive unrest, signs of crisis are everywhere as the city waits for a grand jury to decide whether to charge police Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
Businesses remain boarded up. Angry residents paint “Don’t shoot” on their car windows, while others post lawn signs to show pride in the Ferguson that existed before the Aug. 9 shooting. Smaller groups of protesters continue to face arrest.
The tensions underscore the vast differences between residents who want to get Ferguson back to what they consider to be some semblance of normal and those whose resolve is for Brown’s death to lead to systemic change.
“How we were living before wasn’t normal,” said Dasha Jones, who looks younger than her 19 years. She is a member of an activist group known as Lost Voices, young people from the neighborhood where Brown, 18, was killed, including some who knew him. “Now we’re learning our rights. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
For weeks, Lost Voices had set up encampments on West Florissant Avenue, blocks from the site of the shooting.
Acting on a business owner’s complaint, police recently dismantled the encampment and seized everything Jones and fellow activists could not pick up within five minutes.
It was the third prominent symbol of this suburb’s struggle that was removed or threatened in less than a week. A day earlier, the owner of a business near Ferguson’s police department told protesters that they could no longer gather in his lot, following a nighttime tussle between demonstrators and authorities. And two days before that, a makeshift memorial on the street where Brown’s body lay for hours had partially, inexplicably burned.
That area has become hallowed ground. Within hours after the fire, residents had replenished the memorial with pictures, candles and poems.
Sometimes, a driver will stop to tidy up the community tribute.
“We just need to make sure this place stays all right and respectful,” said Lakresha Moore, 34, as she knelt to make sure teddy bears stood upright. She began to tear up when a teenager from a nearby apartment complex came over to hug her.
“It’ll be okay,” he told her.
“I just pray there is an indictment,” Moore responded. “If not, I don’t know if we’ll be okay.”
Concern over the grand jury intensified last week when the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office announced that it was investigating allegations of jury misconduct. The process is already tainted with skepticism and suspicion, and there have been callsfor Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch to step aside because of perceived bias.
Hanging over it all is the question of whether this city of 21,000 — where 70 percent of residents are black, and police and city leaders are overwhelmingly white — will erupt again if there is no indictment.
In the interim, protesters confront police nightly near department headquarters.
Chief Thomas Jackson said his department has been using “a variety of tactics and trying to see what works best.” After Jackson issued a videotaped apology on Sept. 25 to Brown’s parents for their loss, he attempted to march with protesters, but his effort backfired. Rather than an apology, they want his resignation.
Jackson said he is most interested in breaking up any situation that could cause a disruption. “The tactics we use is largely determined by the number of, not to use the word ‘agitators,’ but people interested in causing chaos,” he said.
When police disassembled Lost Voices’ encampment, the group vowed to find another spot. When authorities told protesters that they could not block foot traffic on the sidewalk, they rode bicycles in the street. And when authorities have tried to pull individuals out of crowds to arrest them, protesters have linked arms to prevent it.
“People are angrier now than ever before,” said Patricia Bynes, the Democratic committeewoman of Ferguson Township. “The police chief has not stepped down. The grand jury has been delayed. The police are taking people’s stuff. And we have to learn the law because the police are becoming more technical about why they are removing us. It’s a legal clinic on these streets.”
Lost Voices, whose members are in their teens and 20s, emerged in the early days of the protests over Brown’s killing. They are spunky, rambunctious and often the loudest voices heard in the most profane chants at the police.
“We’re not a violent group but a forceful group,” Jones said.
One of the group’s strategies is “to police the police.” So its members took tents and air mattresses and set up in parking lots along West Florissant Avenue, with the owners’ permission. Two businesses later asked them to leave before they settled on a lot behind a Ponderosa Steakhouse.
The encampment became one more symbol of how deep the troubles run.
Recently, police said, the restaurant owner no longer wanted Lost Voices on the property, and police gave its members six days to leave. Eight days later, the group was still there. So, the chief said, his officers “helped them move.”
Jones said she asked police officers for more time to grab her tent. It is unclear what happened immediately after her request, but a video showed Jones in a headlock as police arrested her. She fell to the ground, and when she did not stand up, officers picked her up by the arms and legs. She was charged with failure to obey.
Demonstrators now gather nightly in a tonier area near police headquarters.
Last Sunday, more than 200 protesters banged pots and shouted, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”
On another night, clergy members joined the demonstrators, kneeling with them in prayer before a line of officers began to move in. Young people asked the priests, pastors and rabbis to step aside as they locked arms and demanded that they be arrested first.
From the front line, a 25-year-old nurse named Brittany Farrell shouted, “We are exercising our rights, and we will continue to exercise our rights. The only thing that is changing is we’re getting smarter!”
As Jackson noted, police tactics have changed from night to night. Sometimes police have tried to negotiate with demonstrators, sometimes they’ve arrested only protests leaders, and other times they’ve waded into small crowds sweeping up everyone they can.
The city recently raised bonds from $100 to $1,000.
Early Friday, protesters captured cellphone footage of a freelance journalist being arrested.
Such scenes are part of Ferguson’s landscape now, and by Friday afternoon, Jackson said his department simply has been overwhelmed. He has asked St. Louis County police to assume control of managing security for protests.
Jones and her comrades in Lost Voices and other protests groups are unlikely to be deterred.
“I’m going to keep standing my ground, and I’m going to keep protesting because the police here don’t treat us right,” she said earlier last week.
“It’s personal,” she said. “I was 6 years old when the police killed my dad.”
Her father, William Darnell Harlston, was shot by an off-duty St. Louis officer in 2001. Harlston, according to news media reports, had robbed two men selling stuffed animals on the street.
“All I know was he went to get beers and never came back,” Jones said. “So I’m going to fight for Mike Brown, and for him, and for me.”