An intense standoff between police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., late Monday led to at least one breakthrough for the young people who have screamed, chanted and marched for the arrest of Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Demonstrators were allowed to continue protesting in the streets so long as they remained peaceful, Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol told the crowd. He noted that no one would enforce a “five-second rule,” in which officers arrested protesters who stayed in one place, a move that had been challenged in federal court earlier that day.
Officers had threatened to arrest anyone chanting outside the Ferguson Police Department after 11 p.m., in accordance with a residential noise ordinance. Police also arrested residents when they moved their protest from the sidewalk into the streets. Those types of arrests should end, Johnson said.
“I want to listen to what you have to say,” he told a group of young demonstrators linking arms along the double yellow lines of South Florissant Avenue. “Our methods are a little different, but I am going to tell you that I’m not here to fight you.”
Johnson’s offer of conciliation, made about midnight Monday, was starkly different from the encounters officers had with protesters just minutes before.
Officers had stood in line, pulling out handcuffs, brandishing shields and holding batons.
The demonstrators stared them down, linking arms and chanting, “We ready, we ready for y’all,” as well as, “Take one, take all.”
Every few minutes, police walked three steps closer to them as an officer on an intercom said, “Remove yourself from the streets immediately.” The protesters stood unfazed, daring police to unlawfully arrest them “for standing up for our constitutional rights.”
The two sides were within six feet of each other, when the pop-pop-pop of gunshots could be heard in the distance. No one was injured.
Both sides briefly retreated, with police returning to the Police Department’s parking lot and protesters to the sidewalk. About 20 young people linked arms again and remained, until Johnson told them that no one would be arrested for peaceful protest.
He asked those in the front line for their thoughts about how to improve police-community relations. Brittany Farrell, 25, told her fellow demonstrators to “remain silent.” They did not want to do anything that could be viewed as a negotiation.
The dramatic denouement was a coda for what started as a calm and peaceful night of protest. About a dozen clergy members from around St. Louis had come to support the demonstrators. As 11 p.m. neared, they kneeled outside the Police Department’s parking lot and began to pray.
“We repent now for the silence of the church,” said the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a St. Louis native who is the pastor of First Baptist Church in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. “We repent now for the cowardly clergy who have not stood with these children.”
After the prayers, a police officer said, “If you don’t leave the street, you will be arrested.” Sekou eventually was.
The young people the clergy came to protect soon asked them to step aside. If anyone was to be arrested, the protesters said, it should be them.
Tensions in Ferguson remain high nearly 50 days after Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot by Wilson. After a relatively calm mid-September, residents say they have grown weary after the grand jury’s decision on whether to indict Wilson had been delayed.
“We’re not going nowhere,” Farrell yelled at the police officers. “We’re getting smarter and we’re going to keep fighting.”