Ferguson protesters are making plywood protest shields. (DeRay Mckesson)

There’s plenty of plywood in Ferguson, Mo. Wood sheets already cover the windows of many shops and stores in town, places hunkering down against the unrest that’s expected once a grand jury decides whether to indict a police officer for the fatal shooting last August of unarmed teen Mike Brown. The plywood is a hedge against a repeat of the summer’s looting and riots. Other store owners, such as at the small Dellwood Market, say they are waiting. But they stand ready to hammer up at a moment’s notice, their shopfronts ringed with tell-tale wood borders for quick nailing.

In Ferguson, plywood has emerged as a symbol of the fear of what’s to come.

Now, it’s taken on a surprising new role: Shields for protesters.

More than 50 of the wood shields have been made, with plans to add more. The shields have rubber hose handles. And they are painted with messages of protest: “What if Mike was your child?” and “All lives matter” and “No killer cops.” What once had been expressed on cardboard has moved to something sturdier, a sign of how confrontations between police and protester are expected to escalate beyond last summer’s confrontations. 

“When they are bringing in tanks, reloading tear gas canisters, you pretty much have to try new things,” said Elizabeth Vega, a protester who helped create the shields and who, like many people here, believes an indictment of the officer is unlikely.

“They got their shields,” added another protester, Jelani Brown, “and we’ve got ours, too.”

The idea for protester shields began suddenly, and then it was refined by input from others on the ground and online, a process that suits a diffuse Ferguson protest movement that lacks formal leadership, yet has managed to endure. And it all started with a joke.

A group of demonstrators was being taught “direct action” tactics recently in the basement of Greater St. Mark’s Church in Ferguson. These classes on peaceful civil disobedience had been going on for weeks. The instructor reminded the class to protect their heads if police approached them while they sat on the ground. Then she had an idea.

Ferguson protesters are making plywood protest shields. (DeRay Mckesson)

“Wouldn’t it be great,” the teacher said, “if we had shields with Darren Wilson’s face on it?”

Wilson is the Ferguson police officer who shot Brown. His supporters have staged rallies. There are “I am Darren Wilson” plastic wristbands. But for protesters, he is the face of what they are fighting against.

The teacher was joking about the shields. But Vega, standing off to the side, liked the idea.

She drove straight to Home Depot. Standing in the aisle, Vega came up with a story about her son needing a shield for paintball. At this point, she was thinking about creating plexi-glass shields. She asked store workers for help. They gave her a dubious look, Vega recalled. She came clean. One of the workers was sympathetic to the cause.

“He even gave us a discount,” she said.

She returned with several plexi-glass shields. Other protesters wondered if the material was strong enough. Someone picked up a rock and threw it at a shield. It shattered. Vega was heartbroken. Someone else suggested they try plywood. And it was back to Home Depot.

This time Jelani Brown, 26, went. He came back with dozens of cut sheets of plywood. He went to work.

Jelani Brown, a graphic design student at a local community college, had used his artistic skills before to protest. When demonstrators interrupted a St. Louis Symphony performance last month and sang “Requiem for Mike Brown,” huge protest banners he’d designed were unfurled from the balcony.

Now, he set to work on the plywood. He painted on various protest slogans. Some shields were decorated with butterflies or peace symbols, an attempt to create powerful images if police attacked protesters carrying these innocuous images.

“We are trying to control the narrative,” Jelani Brown said.

Ferguson protesters are making plywood protest shields. (Left: DeRay Mckesson, right: Elizabeth Vega)

He also created a stencil of Wilson in uniform with the word “Killer” written in red. He painted the image on several plywood sheets. It was such a striking image that protesters were considering offering to stencil it on the plywood covering boarded-up stores and shops in Ferguson. It would be a sign to others not to attack or loot the businesses, Jelani Brown said.

He and others then posted pictures of the shields online. Commenters quickly pointed out problems. The screws used to anchor the rubber handles were too long. They protruded on the front. Brown planned to use a glue gun to cover the screw ends. Others worried about the shields’ sharp corners. Vega said she was making plans to round off the ends.

There was also concern about the message such sturdy barriers might send to authorities. DeRay Mckesson, a protest organizer, said the shields were about protecting demonstrators, not hurting police.

“But there are some people who will make whatever we do sound aggressive,” he said.

Mckesson expected the protests that will follow the grand jury’s decision will be disruptive, “heightened from what it currently has been, yet doesn’t lead to bloodshed.”

That’s the goal, he said. And the shields had a role to play in that.

Vega, 47, still struggled to imagine the protest movement had reached the point where it felt the need for such protection. When she stood in Home Depot buying supplies to make the shields, she was struck by the absurdity of the moment.

“It’s like, how did we get here?” she said.

But she said she’ll likely be carrying a shield when she hits the streets to protest. Many protesters will. They believe they’ll need them.