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August 20, 2014

On the Scene: In Missouri, Ferguson Community Leaders Calm Tensions

by Mary Alice Salinas

After nearly a week of violent nightly protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting death of an unarmed black teen, demonstrators and police may have reached a turning point late Tuesday.

Protesters were holding mostly peaceful rallies throughout the day Tuesday, but they became increasingly agitated throughout the night.

I’ve covered protests and riots before, and I saw that something was about to happen.

And then a group of religious and community leaders emerged from the crowd. One man urged the protesters to move to a different location, a church or some other site.

​​“We have a place where we can talk. We have a place where we can hear your concerns. We can address all your issues. People there will listen to you. Follow me, follow me," the man said.

A huge part of the crowd, the residents of Ferguson, went with the religious leaders. They were angry, but they followed.

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It was a beautiful thing to see. A lot of the crowd dispersed. Things immediately got calmer.

As I was talking to police, they mentioned how this night was different. They were smiling. They said it was the best night since the protests started.

One of the community organizers stopped by and the police thanked him for his efforts. The organizer replied, “I’m just trying to help the kids.”

How it started

The events in Ferguson began on Aug. 9, when Michael Brown, 18, was shot to death by local police officer Darren Wilson, 28.

Since then, the town has been rocked by violent protests, and images of a heavily militarized police force have shocked the nation and drawn international interest.

The law enforcement presence in Ferguson is amazing.

Officers wear riot gear and carry batons and high-powered weapons. They have armored vehicles and Humvees. Helicopters are flying overhead.

Most of the police presence is found in the "ground zero" area – where most of the protest action happens – on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson. This area is also about four or five blocks from where Brown was killed.

The police are severely limiting access to the area. All major streets around this area are blocked off. Getting to the area was very difficult even for the media.

On West Florissant, police now require that you keep moving. They won’t allow anyone to be stationary. Even during the day, you have to keep moving.

It’s a strange thing to see, I must say, in a U.S. town even we, the media, are not allowed to stop and talk. We have to keep moving up and down the street.

I was astounded by how limited our movement was and I had to ask, How legal is this?

I spoke with Amnesty International and they said they already have seen what are clear violations of people’s rights of freedom of speech, freedom of association. They said they will continue to monitor the situation.

The Missouri National Guard, which the governor deployed to help handle the unrest, has a very limited role. They are guarding the police command post in a nearby shopping center parking lot.

'Ground zero'

Many businesses are boarded up along a mile-long stretch of the street. Some have been looted, others are making repairs after being looted, and still others are open, including the market where Brown allegedly stole a box of cigars.

During the International Monetary Fund protests in D.C. in 2000, there were confrontations in the street. In those protests you saw long lines of police and arrests. But those events didn’t have the same level of fear and tension and anger that you see in Ferguson.

I had never seen this level of tension between protesters and police. But last night I saw a break.

The real heroes here are the religious and community leaders. It is clear that they are an important part of the answer to ending this unrest.

Racial divide

The world has slowly become aware of this case, but the buzz in Ferguson was immediate.

On the local level, residents are asking for justice for Brown’s death.

On the national level, the story is generating questions about how the police are reacting to the protesters.

Brown’s killing has also uncovered what has long been at issue in this country – the divide between black and white America, that there is inequality in not only how African-Americans are treated by law enforcement and how they are treated in the justice system, but in job opportunities, poverty, education and housing – a multitude of issues where they are angry, frustrated and fed up.

Ferguson is a predominantly African-American community, unemployment is higher, a disproportionate number of people are stopped by police.

Protesters see this case as a reflection of a deep and profound issue that is beneath the surface of America – and so that’s why it’s resonating throughout the country and even the world.

This case is seen as the springboard for the discussion on this. People are angry and people are frustrated. They’re calling this a struggle that’s not going to go away until these issues are addressed fully.

And they realize this story won't end when we (the media) all go home.

Message from White House

President Barack Obama has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to go to Ferguson on Wednesday, where he plans to meet with community leaders. That is a huge statement from Washington.

It’s a very important signal from the White House - that protesters’ voices are being heard.

Residents are asking for justice in the death of Brown and for racial issues to be addressed.

And we’re being watched all over the world for our response.

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