The burned-out shell of a QuikTrip convenience store, destroyed in a rash of looting on Sunday night, has often been described as ground zero for protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
It’s where demonstrators have gathered in the thousands, holding signs and chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the rallying cry that was coined in the wake of the police shooting of unarmed Michael Brown Aug. 9.
As cars passed on Thursday afternoon, drivers honked their horns in a cacophonous chorus that stretched for hours. Drivers extended their hands out windows, and passengers snapped photos. The QuikTrip was also where national media outlets have parked their satellite trucks and set up their circus tents, as well as where the most intense clashes between protesters and police have been concentrated.
Still, the ground zero designation is odd, since the site where Brown was gunned down in the street — in front of the apartment building where he lived — is just a couple of blocks away. The protests there were quieter. Neighbors stood together in small clusters, holding signs and talking. A group of local girls lit candles in the makeshift memorial that was erected where Brown fell, teddy bears marking the place where his body lay for hours.
A man stood in the yard of the apartment complex, surveying the scene as a group of local clergy held a rally on the street. He spoke about the international attention suddenly directed at his hometown and about the police, from Ferguson and elsewhere, who showed up dressed like soldiers to douse this community in tear gas and rubber bullets.
The gas wafted in through his windows. “We couldn’t even breathe in our living room,” he said. He shook his head. “They totally forgot what it was all about. The chaotic scenes — that’s not what it’s supposed to be,” though it all started with Brown.
It was remarkable the number of outsiders who flocked to Ferguson in the wake of this tragedy, like so many personal-injury lawyers to an ambulance. Some of the most prominent figures in the protests have been politicians from St. Louis, especially Antonio French, a city alderman who has done a better job covering the situation than most journalists.
It might not seem like a big deal, but confusingly, the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson, are separate entities. They split in 1876 — referred to as “the Great Divorce” — and there’s been bad blood between them ever since. “So the people that are speaking up have nothing to do with it,” County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, who represents Ferguson, told a local radio station. “What can they say about Ferguson?”
Thursday’s hero was a local, Ron Johnson, the state Highway Patrol captain who took over control of the police response to protests, replacing armored vehicles and snipers with hugs and handshakes. He grew up in the area and still lives close by. He told protesters that he too had dealt with profiling and that he knew things needed to change.
In front of the QuikTrip, the protest took on an almost celebratory atmosphere. A man in an airbrushed Mike Brown T-shirt, who gave his name as Django, sat atop a horse, looking out of place in the middle of the city. Members of the New Black Panther Party, which earlier in the day held a press conference demanding an end to police brutality, kept demonstrators out of the street and helped direct traffic. Darral Johnson, wearing a Mike Brown button on his lapel, laughed about the scene, as members of what some consider a militant hate group acted as crossing guards.
It was easy to spot the outsiders. They mispronounced street names, confused directions. Hacktivist group Anonymous took an interest in Ferguson, shutting down various local government websites. The group tried to release personal information about the Ferguson police chief but actually targeted the county police chief, seemingly by mistake.
Some have called the hackers a distraction. Darral Johnson, who is not related to Ron Johnson, said he doesn’t mind the outside groups, as long as they help the cause. Even with the police’s newfound compassionate side on display, it’s the cops he had a problem with. “There was no need for all of this extra military-type stuff,” he said. “The only violence was against property. So why you got tanks and SWAT and helicopters —”
“And pointing assault rifles at people!” his friend Levi Arnold chimed in. If the biggest challenge in the wake of Brown’s killing was renewing public trust in the police force, it was clear that the past few days have only made things worse.
On Friday morning, in addition to identifying the officer involved in the shooting, officials released a surveillance tape that showed Brown and an accomplice allegedly stealing cigars from a store shortly before the teenager was shot. It was a starkly different picture of Brown from the one provided by family.
They have referred to him as a gentle giant. He was a quiet kid, with a small group of close friends. High school was a struggle, but he managed to graduate, and the accomplishment seemed to open him up. He dreamed of becoming a famous rapper. Two days after he was killed, he was supposed to start college. Relatives have lamented that famous rappers are calling out his name but he isn’t here to see it.
Ferguson residents said that Brown’s memory shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle but that the movement is about more. Marcus White, a 21-year-old from the neighborhood, ranted to some friends in front of the QuikTrip during Thursday night’s protest. He talked about the pattern of racial profiling in Ferguson, saying he got 30 tickets in the last year, sometimes five in one stop. He said his younger sisters saw Brown’s body lying in the street. They would have to deal with that image for the rest of their lives. He said his great-grandmother, who lives with his family in a small home, worked in a cotton field and he carries her anger too.
“You hit a dog enough,” he said, “sooner or later, he is going to bite you.”