FERGUSON, Missouri — The rage that has simmered in Ferguson since the protests over the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown has heated back up over the past 10 days, with Brown’s memorial burned, protests, arrests and a public apology video from the police chief criticized by some locals as too little, too late.
It began on Sept. 23, when residents at the Canfield Green Apartments awoke to find flames engulfing the mountain of teddy bears and posters stacked around a lamppost marking the place where Brown was shot on Aug. 9 by a white police officer, igniting a tinderbox of racial tensions.
Officials suggested that candles might be to blame, but residents suspected arson.
“Who would do some s--- like that?” asked Piaget Crenshaw, a Canfield resident who said she witnessed the shooting.
Then on Sept. 25, more than six weeks after Brown was killed, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson publicly apologized to the teenager’s family in an online video.
He appeared to be contrite, if a little nervous, occasionally consulting his notes. “I am truly sorry for the loss of your son,” he said. “I am also sorry that it took so long to remove Michael from the street.”
Jackson also apologized to protesters who felt that their constitutional rights were violated when police cracked down on demonstrations.
Brown’s parents have said they were unmoved by the apology. They want Jackson fired and the officer who shot Brown, Darren Wilson — who has not been charged — arrested. Most people at a Tuesday protest dismissed the chief’s message as inadequate.
“I thought it was scripted,” said Beverly Jones. “I thought that he could have scheduled to go meet them in person and go give them an apology. He don’t need to apologize to me. It was a publicity stunt.”
A 60-year-old nurse who would give her name only as Mike Brown was even more critical, saying, “I thought it was nothing.”
Worse, they said, was what happened afterward. That night, Jackson made a rare appearance on the street. A crowd formed around him, hurling insults and demanding answers. He tried to explain himself but was repeatedly drowned out by people chanting “Goodbye. It’s time, Chief Jackson. Resign.”
“What do you want me to do?” Jackson reportedly asked. “Come march,” someone suggested.
He set out to walk with the crowd, but within a matter of seconds, other police officers began shoving protesters to keep them away from him. Scuffles broke out, and several protesters were tackled and arrested.
On Sept. 26, police razed an encampment set up in the parking lot of an abandoned restaurant by a collective of young people called Lost Voices who were demonstrating for the rights of African-Americans. Police said that the property owner had complained and that it was a health hazard.
Ferguson resident Meldon Moffitt vowed that the group would carry on its work, citing goals ranging from justice for Brown to building community centers. “You can take our tents. You can take whatever,” he said. “We ain’t going nowhere.”
A Ferguson officer was shot in the arm Saturday night in an incident that officials have said was not related to the protests. Initially, police said the officer in question was attempting to stop two people from breaking into a building when one of them shot him. Later, the story changed: It was just one suspect, and there was no break-in. The officer’s body camera was turned off.
On Monday night, several clergy members went to a protest at the parking lot across from the Ferguson Police Department, which has been a gathering point for demonstrations since Brown’s shooting. They knelt on the street and prayed, circling the protesters as a buffer against the police.
At one point, the police moved to arrest a young man, and the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou stepped between them, “like any good father would have protected his kids,” according to Rabbi Susan Talve, who was with him. She said police arrested Sekou and eventually released him.
“I think what the death of Michael Brown did was, it made people feel like black lives don’t matter,” she said. “I think that’s what it’s about for them.”
Talve added that the protesters have become more active recently because “they want Jackson out and they don’t trust him.” She added, “There’s been no accountability [for the shooting]. There’s been no transparency.”
At least anecdotally, protesters were losing hope that Wilson would be indicted by the grand jury that is hearing the case against him, much less convicted of anything. On Wednesday, rumors began to circulate about a possible leak from the jury, based on a tweet from a person purporting to have discussed evidence in the case with a friend on the jury.
For angry Ferguson residents, every day that Wilson is free while Brown is in the grave adds a little more fuel to the fire.
“I want justice for that child,” Talve said. “That’s one of our kids. That’s our future.”
On Tuesday night, about 100 people were gathered near the police department, continuing their pleas for Wilson’s arrest. As the crowd swelled, protesters formed a circle around a drum, singing, “I got my hands on my head. Please don’t shoot me dead.”
Meanwhile, at the nearby First Baptist Church of Ferguson, a residents-only town hall meeting with city officials wrapped up. On the sidewalk outside, Steve Gray, who has lived in Ferguson since the 1970s, said he didn’t agree with everything people said but was glad they had the chance to say it. He said it’s unfair to judge Wilson before all the facts are known, adding that Brown acted “arrogant” toward the officer.
“They should get over what happened in the past,” Gray said, referring to African-Americans. “We’re not living the same way, of people in chains and being slaves. I don’t understand where they’re coming from and why they’re still upset.”
In the wake of Brown’s shooting, there has been a lot of discussion about reforming the court systems in small municipalities like Ferguson, where police departments are used as sources of revenue. In 2013 funds from traffic tickets and court fees brought the city of 21,000 people more than $2.5 million, a burden that falls disproportionately on minorities and the poor. This week the city of St. Louis announced plans to forgive more than 200,000 warrants for nonviolent traffic violations. But Gray said that if people are upset about fines, they should follow the law.
“You see people driving nutty on the roads,” he said. “If you are doing something wrong, the cops are going to stop you. It’s not because they’re black or white.”
Missy Gunn said Tuesday that she has been coming out to protest every day since the shooting. She has a 17-year-old son she doesn’t want to be the next Michael Brown.
While the vast majority of confrontations have been between police and protesters, earlier in the evening there was a heated a dispute between white and black residents. Some white residents had come out to support a pizzeria whose owner had been accused of pulling a gun on protesters. A few white diners and dozens of black demonstrators shouted at each other, with a line of police in between.
“It’s no longer about Mike Brown,” Gunn said. “This is going to turn into a race war.”
But Bob Hudgins, a white resident who has been a regular presence at protests against police violence, shared a different perspective. Speaking after the meeting with city officials, he said he doesn’t see enough commitment to action on the part of the city’s leaders. “You can tell some white folks want change as well,” he said. “But don’t be so damned afraid. Come down and talk to the people.”