The hungry family stood off to a side and watched, a little stunned. Ferguson was just 12 miles away, but the unrest could feel distant. Until now. The family’s 3-year-old son was upset. He was hungry for macaroni and cheese. But their 15-year-old daughter was giddy at the scene unfolding before them.
“I’d been hoping to see this all week,” Addison Berg said. She had watched online video clips of the protests. But this was the real thing. She took out her cellphone and began taking photos.
A growing wave of pop-up protests have hit the St. Louis region since a grand jury’s decision Monday against indicting a Ferguson police officer for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in August. Protesters have staged acts of civil disobedience in streets and malls in several nearby cities, expanding their focus from Ferguson to include other parts of the metropolitan area, including Clayton and St. Louis. On Friday night, three area malls were temporarily closed by protests. On Saturday, at the same time that this group gathered outside Buffalo Wild Wings, another group was closing down an upscale mall in the city of Frontenac.
As this nascent protest movement has received wider exposure, demonstrations such as this one in Brentwood have provoked varied reactions from shoppers and drivers – some excited and supportive, some angry and put off.
Addison was excited. Her mom was ambivalent. Joan Pompa supported the protesters’ message but worried about how some of the demonstrations, mostly those at night, had turned violent.
“I think it’s good for her to experience this, though,” Pompa said of her daughter.
The original goal of this day’s protest had been to stage a 4½-minute die-in on a busy road outside the Brentwood Promenade strip mall a few blocks from Buffalo Wild Wings. The die-in was symbolic of the 4½ hours that Brown’s body lay on the street in Ferguson after the 18-year-old was shot by police officer Darren Wilson.
But police, apparently tipped off to the plan, were waiting Saturday when protesters began showing up at noon. So a new protest plan emerged, one that would last two hours.
The protesters, who would eventually number at least 200, started by marching and chanting through a Trader Joe’s in the strip mall before heading across the mall’s parking lot, chanting and waving signs, passing confused and startled shoppers.
“Get a job!” one man shouted outside Bed Bath and Beyond.
Outside the mall’s Target, a father and his three sons stood waiting for the protesters to pass. This was actually Grant Smith’s second run-in with protesters in as many days. He was shopping at the St. Louis Galleria mall just up the street on Friday when protesters converged inside and shut down the shopping center. Now, he was watching with bemusement as they marched past him outside Target.
“It’s not going to work, not like this,” Smith said.
He said he supported the mission but questioned the tactics. He was reminded of a Socrates quote about how the secret of change is focusing not on fighting the past but on building for the future. Just then, one of Smith’s 8-year-old twin sons asked him a question: “What are they trying to do?”
The protesters walked across the parking lot and along a busy street. A line of at least 20 police officers walked along in parallel. At the back was Rita Anderson, who had been headed to Target on a shopping trip when her cousin spotted the protesters and joined in. Now Anderson was in the mix.
“I support this, these peaceful protests,” she said.
Passing motorists honked their horns in apparent support. Some waved. At a stoplight, a gray-haired woman jumped out of her Honda Accord and waved to the protesters, a handful of whom ran over to hug her. Other motorists drove by giving the protesters the finger. A bus driver at another intersection sat quietly with his hands up on his steering wheel, drawing cheers from the protesters.
The protest finally reached the Buffalo Wild Wings.
The family was still waiting. Dad was about to take them somewhere else, but daughter Addison wanted to watch the protest. He gave in. And a few minutes later the protesters moved on, amid a chorus of honking horns and more than a few disgusted looks in passing cars.
Now, Addison and her family could eat.