FERGUSON, Mo. — Suddenly, everything has changed.
The heavy riot armor, the SWAT trucks with sniper posts, the hostile glares: tonight in Ferguson they were gone.
A stunning change in tone radiated through the suburban streets where protests had turned violent each of the last four evenings following the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
But Thursday night, when more than a thousand protesters descended on the remains of QuikTrip – which was burned during riots on Sunday – they had a new leader.
The man at the front of the march, was Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, a Ferguson native.
“I’m not afraid to be in this crowd,” Johnson declared to reporters.
Johnson, a towering African American man who wiped sweat from his brow as he pointed out neighborhood hangouts and restaurants he used to frequent, was put in charge of crowd control earlier in the day, replacing the St. Louis County police who had been overseeing the police response to the protests.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) announced Thursday afternoon that Johnson would take over security, and vowed that officers would take a different approach to handling the massive crowds that have taken to Ferguson’s streets each night.
Not only did Johnson march with the protesters, but he vowed to not blockade the street, to set up a media staging center, and to ensure that residents’ rights to assemble and protest were not infringed upon. Officers working crowd control, he said, have been told they must take off their gas masks.
“When I see a young lady cry because of fear of this uniform, that’s a problem.” Johnson said. “We’ve got to solve that.”
And the difference from protests at similar times in the evening on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday was massive. By this time on Wednesday, police had detained protesters, by this point on Monday officers had begun deploying tear-gas canisters at residents who would not disperse.
Johnson hugged and kissed community members as they passed, slapping backs and sharing laughs.
One man stopped, telling Capt. Johnson that his niece had been tear gassed earlier this week – “What would you say to her?”
Johnson reached out his hand and replied: “Tell her Capt. Johnson is sorry and he apologizes.”
Johnson spent a considerable amount of time talking to media, explaining that the decision to tone down the show of force was deliberate, a calculation he said was made by St. Louis County police officials. He said he met with protest leaders and the NAACP Thursday afternoon, asking them their plans for the march and telling them they could march without fear of restriction. After fielding more than a dozen questions, Johnson began walking toward the protests – it had broken off its route and doubled back.
Johnson marched down the center of the street, trailed by media, as the march’s leader’s brought hundreds of chanting and sign-waving residents.
They met head on.
“Just wanna know where you are going,” Johnson said.
“Up to the Quick Trip and then stopping,” the man with the megaphone responded.
“OK! Go ahead,” Johnson said, smiling and stepping aside as hundreds of residents streamed past him.
Protesters said they were still angry, demanding justice for Brown and answers from local police about why he was shot and who the offending officer was.
But, they said, Johnson’s willingness to physically interact with them, rid the streets of heavy police equipment, and help them coordinate protests was a welcome change in tone.
“Thank you so much for being here,” said Karen Wood, who fought back tears as she held both of Johnson’s hands imploring him to bring answers to residents and maintain calm in the streets.
“This is about human rights, about human beings,” she cried. “It takes cooperation…our youth are out here without guidance, without leadership.”
Moments later, as he rallied the crowd and demanded justice and information about the shooting, the man with the megaphone declared:
“They respect us,” referring to police. “ So let’s respect them. They’ve given us the sidewalk so lets stay out of their street.”
Across town, as dozens of protesters continued their demonstration, the mood struck was less enraged and more defined.
A massive stash of water, chips and other snacks sat at the corner of the parking lot across the street.
As the crew for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 prepared a guest to appear on camera, protesters approached with baskets in their outstretched hands:
“Want a granola bar?”
Protesters at the Ferguson police station waved American flags and held signs declaring “Cops should make you feel safer.”
Loud chants of “hey hey ho ho, these killing cops have got to go!” And “no justice no peace” rang out.
The protesters remained angry about Brown’s killing — but unlike Wednesday night when they furiously demanded the release of family members being detained, the scene was not tense.
Organizers worked through the crowd, handing out “community talking points” outlining the goals of the protest.
“This is what our community was like before a child was killed in our streets,” said Jerroll Sanders, one of the protest organizers. “But what we’ve seen is a change in the policing approach. The aggression was never brought on by us.”