A muggy evening of peaceful protest in Ferguson, Missouri gave way to a dramatic display of raw emotion on Thursday night, as police were confronted with the collective pain of the black community.
The twelfth day of demonstrations in the St. Louis suburb was, for the second night in row, free of the tear gas and violence that vaulted the shooting death of unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown, at the hands of white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, into the national spotlight.
On the quiet, residential street where Wilson fatally shot Brown six times as he walked to his grandmother’s apartment, mourners laid hundreds of red roses down the center of the road, creating a path of flowers leading to the patch of concrete where the 18-year-old died. The floral display extended to W Florissant Avenue, the four-lane Ferguson street that has served as the central marching grounds for protesters. There, young men handed out long-stem roses to fellow demonstrators.
As of 12:30 AM Thursday, Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson said seven people had been arrested, adding that no Molotov cocktails or guns were seized over the course of the day. “The change is related to a lot of hard work” by citizens and law enforcement, Johnson said at a late night press conference. Gov. Jay Nixon also announced the removal of National Guard troops from Ferguson Thursday, but as night fell a handful of Humvees and troops remained at the center’s shopping center-turned command post.
A grand jury is currently hearing evidence in the Brown case, but it could take weeks for a decision to be reached as to whether to charge Wilson. The federal government is conducting a parallel investigation into potential civil rights violations by the Ferguson Police Department.
While the demonstrations have mellowed under rising temperatures, supporters of the Brown family remain active. On Thursday, a petition of 70,000 signatures was delivered to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, calling on him to step down from the Brown case. McCulloch has longstanding family ties to the St. Louis police department and many believe his impartiality is highly questionable. McCulloch has said the decision will ultimately fall to Governor Nixon. To date, the governor has chosen to stand by the prosecuting attorney.
In the meantime, Thursday saw relative calm. “Today we have a good day,” Johnson said at an evening press conference. “We’re heading towards a sense of peace for our community.” As the night’s protests winded down, Johnson found himself fielding questions from protesters rather than the press. Among them was 32-year-old, Anthony Pruit, an African American man from nearby Jennings, Missouri. Standing in the intersection of W Florissant and Ferguson Avenue, Pruit asked Johnson, who is also African American, why he thought he had been placed in charge of operations carried out by predominantly white officers.
“Because the governor chose to make a change,” Johnson said, referring to Nixon’s decision last week to put the State Highway Patrol in charge, a move that temporarily deescalated the tension between protesters and police. “I am the troop commander here for the highway patrol in St. Louis. I happen to be black but I can tell you this, and I’ve said it all the time, I’m a man first.”
Johnson described seeing Brown’s parents on the news that day. “I saw pain that I never, never want to have to go through, and I don’t want us to do anything to detract from that,” he said. If protests were going to happen, he added, “in Mike’s honor, let’s do it with respect. Yes have our voice, but let’s do it with respect. And let us not characterize us, us—and I say us, when I say us that includes me—as anything but a great city, a great community that want[s] voices heard.”
At that point Pruit, the demonstrator, broke down in tears. “We broken, sir. We broken,” he said. “We can’t trust them. We have no faith in them.” In a pained voice, Pruit brought up the killing of Kajieme Powell, a 25-year-old black man shot on Tuesday by St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. “That’s how we think, that’s what we live with,” he said. “We hurt. We broken. And we ain’t all criminals.”
Referring to the white officers surrounding Johnson, Pruit added, “I can’t have a conversation with him. He won’t give me the time of day without pulling out his firearm on me first.”
“How can you all fix this?” Pruit asked, with tears rolling down his cheeks. “Because when this camera go, when you go, when you back on your highway, we still out here.”
Confronted with a sentiment that runs wide and cuts deep among residents of Ferguson and its surrounding communities, Johnson responded, “I understand.”
“It may take a while but we can fix broken,” the captain said. “I’ve seen broken, and I know it’s broken, and I’ve said it’s broken, and we gotta fix it. We’ve got to fix it.”