ST. LOUIS, Mo. – Protesters blocked traffic. One woman hoisted a “No justice, no peace” sign. And a line of police officers watched in silence. It was a familiar scene Sunday night.
But this was not about the fatal police shooting in Ferguson.
This was about the death of Zemir Begic, a 32-year-old Bosnian-American man who police said was fatally beaten by four juveniles armed with hammers early Sunday morning as he climbed into his car. Now, not far from where Begic died, a crowd of at least 150 people in a neighborhood known as “Little Bosnia” poured into the street.
“We’re going to have a little bit of fun blocking our own traffic,” said Adnan Esmerovic, 27, who lives across the street.
The protest tactics were clearly borrowed from the playbook on display in nearby Ferguson and cities across the country after a grand jury last Monday declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in August. The region has been roiled by protests that closed roads and shuttered malls.
But the message in Little Bosnia – where almost all the protesters spoke the Bosnian language – was different.
They were not upset with police actions. They were upset by police inaction.
They wanted more police and more aggressive patrols.
“In Ferguson, they want to make a protest about nothing and yet that attracted attention across the nation,” Esmerovic said, adding that he didn’t believe Wilson had done anything wrong. “We’re just trying to keep more police down here because of these little thugs.”
Merosodin Salakic noted that the Ferguson protests drew a heavy police response. That’s what he wanted here.
“We’re trying to show them that what happened wasn’t right,” Salakic said.
The protesters did not chant. The protesters didn’t hurl insults at police. Some huddled around a bonfire on a garage’s parking lot. A memorial for Begic with stuffed animals began to take shape in a corner. The protesters only edged into the street whenever police showed signs of losing interest and departing.
The first waves of Bosnians began settling in St. Louis in the 1990s during the brutal Bosnian War. Today, the region is home to an estimated 60,000 refugees from Bosnia. Many live in this neighborhood in the shadow of Bevo Mill, a banquet hall topped with a massive windmill, filled with Bosnian nightclubs and grocers.
Esmerovic fled to St. Louis with his family when he was 7. He said crime has been an increasing worry. (Reported crime is down about 5 percent in the Bevo Mill neighborhood this year compared to 2013, according to city statistics; aggravated assaults have increased, while robberies and burglaries have fallen.) Begic, too, emigrated from Bosnia as a child. He had moved to St. Louis from Waterloo, Iowa, only months earlier, following his wife, who had family in the area, Salakic said. Begic recently found work at Salakic’s construction company.
At about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, Begic left a nearby bar and was walking to his car when he was attacked.
One hour before that attack, Seldin Dzananovic, 24, said he was attacked by a group of young men wielding hammers. He managed to escape with only a deep cut on his neck.
With protesters standing on the sidewalk’s edge, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson walked up and tried to reassure the crowd.
“We’ve arrested three out of four already,” Dotson said, referring to the ongoing hunt for the alleged attackers, believed to be all juveniles. “Please stay out of the street. Please.”
He repeated his message down the line of protesters.
One man begged the police chief to increase the number of officers on patrol in the area.
“I can’t do it overnight,” Chief Dotson said. “I can’t fix everything overnight.”
The man asked again.
Listening nearby, Esmerovic sounded frustrated.
“But you can get 1,000 cops in Ferguson,” he said. “Well, we’re going to protest to keep them here.”