FERGUSON, Mo. — Late on a day when a large column of protesters began a 120-mile march to the governor’s mansion and several hundred more laid plans to expand the movement, Officer Darren Wilson announced his resignation from the police force where he served for six years before fatally shooting Michael Brown on Aug. 9.
Wilson said he was resigning because of threats of violence against the Ferguson Police Department or the public if he remained on the job, according to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“I’m not willing to let someone else get hurt because of me,” Wilson told the Post-Dispatch.
His legal team told The Washington Post earlier this week that he would probably resign, for his own safety. Three of Wilson’s lawyers did not return requests for comment Saturday night.
Earlier in the day, 150 demonstrators singing hymns and invoking sacred moments in civil rights history started a seven-day march from the spot on Canfield Drive where Brown’s body lay in the street for 4½ hours to the home of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) in the state capital of Jefferson City.
Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, led the procession, called the Journey for Justice, which included local residents and allies from as far as California and North Carolina. When the group reaches the governor’s mansion, Brooks vowed to demand a change in leadership of the Ferguson police department and to call for legislation to stop racial profiling, require police to wear body cameras and reform the way communities are policed.
“Marches have a deep grounding in American history and civil rights history,” Brooks said. St. Louis County Police controlled traffic to allow the marchers to walk in one lane of the streets. “This march, like the Selma to Montgomery march, is really a pilgrimage, predicated on prayer and a moral grounding.”
Brooks noted that the 1965 Selma-Montgomery march was prompted by a police officer shooting a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson. The NAACP itself was formed a century ago in response to racially motivated lynchings.
“Here we are a century later trying to bring about an end to another form of racialized violence: racial profiling,” said Brooks, who said he considered the Brown case, at bottom, an example of racial profiling. The 18-year-old Brown was African American; Wilson, 28, is white.
Throughout the day, there was an energetic tide of peaceful protesting and organizing around the greater St. Louis area. At midday, demonstrators marched through a Trader Joe’s store in a suburb south of Ferguson, the Associated Press reported.
Just outside Ferguson, several hundred people filed into Greater St. Marks Family Church, a major meeting and coordinating refuge for protest leaders. The afternoon mass meeting was convened to consider a set of demands or goals — a vital process for a maturing movement that aims to connect with the signs of solidarity appearing throughout the country and in foreign cities.
“We need to keep the momentum up and connect with the actions across the country,” said Derek Laney, a local organizer.
Attendees, who were primarily community organizers, activists and others who have been involved in the protests, did not finalize demands, however. Instead, they took an informal vote on 10 demands or priorities, allowing top organizers to zero in on areas that have the most support. Items that enjoyed significant support included proposals to target policies that promote overly aggressive policing of minority communities and to create a national action plan for further protests.
After casting votes, the meeting broke into smaller groups to discuss priorities and plan future actions. The Ferguson protesters have maintained a decentralized leadership, a strategy that has encouraged wide participation but often causes confusion about messaging and leadership. It has prompted near-constant quibbling among various protest and activist groups who fall in the broad coalition. Organizers, however, remain loyal to the decentralized structure and have focused instead on attempts to grow further in numbers.
“This movement needs to grow indefinitely and needs to do so really fast,” Arielle Klagsbrun, a community organizer, told one of the mass meeting small groups.
Back on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, before the NAACP march began, a handful of residents marched around the makeshift Brown memorial of flowers and stuffed animals in the middle of the street. They objected when elegantly dressed leaders of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, who had a meeting in the area, pulled up in a Jaguar and a BMW and attracted media cameras.
“Hello, we’re talking here!” resident Copwatch organizer David Whitt shouted at the men in suits and hats and the women with jewels. “Come on, you all get out of here. Show some respect!”
The Baptist brass decamped.
Then about 75 bikers from area motorcycle clubs, including Dem Boys, pulled up to the memorial and revved their engines to much more enthusiastic response from residents. The bikers held a 4½-minute moment of silence.
Biker leader Harlan Smith, a Ferguson native, said he was a former police officer, like several of the bikers. He said he was not taking sides in the dispute over Brown’s killing. “We’re for peaceful demonstrations,” he said. “Tearing up my neighborhood is not going to be accepted.”
The march began after a prayer and a gospel song at the memorial. Turning onto West Florissant Avenue, they walked past volunteers painting the plywood covering shop windows that were smashed on Monday night after the grand jury decision was announced. A little girl in pigtails on a porch called out to them with the slogan of the movement: “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
At the end of each day, the marchers will be bused to a church in downtown St. Louis, and, later, one in Jefferson City, then returned the next day to the point where they stopped walking.
Derrick Copeland, a chef from Kansas City, Mo., said he took the week off work to march with his teenage nephews. “The government and the police have robbed us of our pride, but we still have the strength to march,” Copeland said.
“It could have been me or my brother,” said DaRon Simms, 19, one of the nephews, who just started at the University of Central Missouri.
Charles Pannell, 55, an Army veteran who was stationed in Korea in the 1970s, marched in camouflage and carried a large cross. Now it’s time to serve at home, he said.
“We can’t get it right somewhere else if in our own back yard we’re killing babies in the streets, 12-year-olds with toy guns.”