FERGUSON, Mo. — It hasn’t been so easy for traditional civil-rights-era activists in this small St. Louis suburb in recent weeks, where the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer has put them on all-too-familiar turf: challenging the treatment of African American men by police.
They, like so many around the country — including President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — have been deeply concerned about the militarized police response with tanks and tear gas and scores of arrests.
But what also has affected these activists is the realization that there is a generational divide between them and young protesters, who are organizing on their own. They are fueled by rage, mobilized by social media and sometimes, or so it seems to the old guard, capable of a bit of disrespect.
“The difference is, in the ’60s, we were disciplined,” Ron Gregory, 72, told a crowd gathered at a historic church on Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis to discuss protest strategies. The city is just minutes away from Ferguson.
“We were trained when we marched. We were taught if they spit on you, just wipe it off and continue marching. But we are dealing with a new breed of youngster. They say, ‘You better not spit on me.’ ”
Generational divides are not new. Even John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee challenged leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference because they believed they weren’t pushing hard enough, fast enough. Later, the Black Panther Party took up arms and argued that African Americans have a right to defend themselves.
For years, younger activists have complained that the civil rights generation wasn’t building bridges with them. Now in Ferguson, the gulf appears to have grown, widened by tensions over economic and social marginalization — and underscored by the perception that not even an African American president can help.
So a group, many of them clergy members, met Tuesday in the basement of Williams Temple Church of God in Christ before they were scheduled to march. The discussion turned to young protesters and what they had been seeing.
Dennis Brown, 48, who had worked on the streets of St. Louis for almost 30 years, felt a need to explain young people’s perspectives.
“They have been to so many funerals. . . . They are not afraid to die,” he said.
“That brazen defiance is fueled by an anger a lot of older people can’t comprehend,” he added.
During the day, those who helped win the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 march alongside others who carry signs, shout slogans and gather peacefully.
At night, they watch young people defying hundreds of police officers in riot gear.
Some young people ignore orders to disperse. They’ve been known to shout back, “F--- you!” And when police fire tear gas, some pick up the canisters and throw them back.
Bradley Rayford, 22, chief executive of the Student Government Association at Florissant Valley Community College in Ferguson, stresses two things: First, there is considerable anger toward police, and not just for Michael Brown’s death. Even so, not all young people are out throwing Molotov cocktails.
“A lot of older leaders, they came from a different time,” said Rayford, who was among the college students who met with Holder on Wednesday. “They didn’t have this kind of music, television shows and social media. Their reaction was civil disobedience and sit-ins.”
His generation can be “more rageful,” he said. “They see TV shows that are violent. They listen to music that is violent. They are amped by social media.”
Still, he said, the nightly protests have drawn two sets of young people.
“One group is passionate about getting justice for Mike Brown,” he said. “Another group is taking advantage of the situation. I see them showing up. Some act together. Some don’t. It’s about a dozen people who cause the ruckus overnight, compared to hundreds of peaceful people.”
The overarching anger for local youth, he said, is rooted in the sense that they are caught in a vise, with police harassment on one side and little economic opportunity on the other.
“It’s a socioeconomic thing,” he said. “It begins with getting a traffic ticket. You get pulled over and get this huge ticket. In some parts of the city, tickets actually double.” Get a couple of those and soon “most people can’t afford their bills.”
So they have to make a choice between paying their bills and paying a traffic ticket.
“If you don’t pay the ticket,” Rayford said, “you get a court date. But you can’t go to court because you’re working two jobs. Now, warrants are out for your arrest. You can get arrested, then you can’t get a job. So many people are made criminals from traffic tickets.”
Norman White, an associate professor of criminology and justice at St. Louis University, said many older activists don’t fully comprehend young people’s despair today, making it hard to lead them.
“All they hear from adults is: ‘Why don’t you pull up your pants? If you pull up your pants, your life will be so much better.’ But they know their life will not be so much better if they pulled up their pants,” said White, who has studied racial profiling in Missouri police departments.
“Sharpton told them they need to register to vote,” he said, referring to the Rev. Al Sharpton. “Well, these are people who have watched what has happened since Barack was elected. And they look around and see things are not that different for their communities.”
Younger leaders say their peers feel isolated, marginalized and detached from an older generation of leaders who they say talk down to them.
“A lot of older people are telling us to do what they did in the ’60s,” said Ronnie Notch, 30, a hip-hop artist and activist in St. Louis.
“They told us, ‘Grab your markers and make signs,’ but that is not how you reach the younger generation. They tweet. They use Instagram.”
There also is distrust in some corners.
Sharpton said he felt the sting of that doubt last week when some young people questioned why he was in town after Brown’s death, arriving after years of difficult circumstances for young people there.
He answered critics from the pulpit Sunday.
“Let me be clear: When [Brown’s] grandfather called me, I came and met with the father and mother and told them I’m no drive-by activist,” he said. “We will be here until justice is achieved. . . . I’ve been in the movement since I was a teenager.”
Sharpton had an admonishment: “To our young folk, we understand the anger. We are angry, but you are not more angry than the parents. . . . This is not about generation. There are young people who want justice who protest peacefully. Some are angry and out of control, others are taking advantage of it. . . . But let me tell you, there is a difference between an activist and a thug.”
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, 36, has emerged as someone building credibility among younger protesters. He has been arrested with them, communicates via Twitter and was photographed texting while standing in cloud of tear gas.
“We live in a world that is faster pace than the one that Dr. King lived in,” said French, a St. Louis native. “The young folks are most angry about Michael Brown, and feeling that their concerns are not heard.”
He was at the scene the day Brown was shot, arriving after learning about the incident. He saw Brown’s mother crying in the street as police officers pushed back the crowd.
“The body was still on the ground,” he said, and the crowd’s anger was palpable.
On Tuesday, the older activists and clergy members piled into cars and drove to West Florissant Avenue, where they joined elbows and prayed.
A young protester in a tank top bounded by. “It’s too quiet up in here,” he said.
“Come on: Hands up, don’t shoot! You are forgetting what we are out here for,” he shouted.
One minister tried shushing him, to explain that they had planned to pray before marching, but the young man kept shouting. Finally, the clergy members marched down the street singing “We Shall Overcome.”
In their wake stood the protester and other young people who had joined him. They were shouting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “No justice, no peace!”