FERGUSON, Mo. — From afar, it’s easy to mistake the demonstrators in the streets of Ferguson as a monolithic movement. In fact, the men and women protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown by a local police officer are distinct groups with varied points of view — a divide that echoes those in previous generations of civil rights struggles.
There are established community leaders conducting nonviolent marches and meetings.
There are middle-class parents bringing young children to teach them the power of civil protest.
And, seen most often on the TV news, there are younger protesters using violence and looting as a potential means to an end.
“What they failed to realize is you got a bunch of people out here that would rather cause anarchy than go back to business as usual,” Toriano Johnson said as he cut a client’s hair Monday at Primetime Barbershop, which is on West Florissant Avenue, the epicenter of the ongoing unrest. “It’s like a sleeping giant has been woken up.”
And while most protesters largely decry the tactics of those who have resorted to violence, some also say they understand it.
Those who have marched along West Florissant Avenue — regardless of age or class — agree on one thing: They are tired of living under what they consider an unjust system in which African-Americans are mistreated by the police and face inequalities in education and economic opportunity in this suburb of St. Louis. They say they are fighting not just for Brown’s justice but also for their own.
“They are angry, mad, and hurting,” the Rev. Dinah Tatman said Monday afternoon. “Hurt. Hurt. Hurt. I can’t think of another word to replace hurt. They have been devalued, disenfranchised, and disillusioned.”
Tatman, head of the Greater New Vision Ministries, stood on an avenue with scant protesters Monday in a spot where, the night before, thousands of demonstrators crowded the commercial strip.
Sunday night erupted into chaos as some acted out their rage in violence, unleashing a torrent of “premeditated criminal acts designed to damage property, hurt people, provoke a response,” Captain Ron Johnson, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said in the wee hours of Monday morning. The police responded to shootings, looting, and vandalism with tear gas and stun grenades.
By Monday afternoon, police had forced people out of the burned-out QuikTrip gas station and convenience store parking lot, which had become a communal gathering spot.
Those protesters who remained were not allowed to assemble for long without being told to move along. So they walked back and forth along several blocks of West Florissant Avenue.
Tatman likened it to being treated like animals, pacing back and forth in a cage.
“It’s going to erupt, that pain, that anger,” she said.
And even if they don’t agree with the violence, some nod their head in approval at the attention it has generated in the nine days since Brown was killed. They say they are grateful that the nation has witnessed what residents describe as a daily occurrence: harassment and intimidation by local police.
Heavily armed police officers in riot gear and using armored vehicles responded to initial protests, which were peaceful, using tear gas and rubber bullets.
“At the end of the day, the people who come out here, they got lives. They got jobs. They got credit. So they don’t have the courage to do what these youngsters will do,” Amir Brandy, who manages a St. Louis law firm, said while helping with crowd control on Saturday. “[The young people] are willing to go all the way.”
Brandy and others now hope the aperture of the nation’s lens will widen beyond sensational images of violence and focus on systemic issues of racial and economic disparities.
Amy Kimbrough, a protester, said people now should be asking why there are no black-owned credit unions or more black-owned businesses in the area.
And those are questions that should be raised in front of City Hall, the police station, and other institutions of power that are located just a couple of miles from West Florissant Avenue, said 25-year-old Nathan Burns.
“I don’t understand why we’re doing this in our neighborhood,” the college student said Monday. “We should go out to those people who don’t understand how we feel. We understand how we feel.”
Protesters say the divergent demonstrations — peaceful and violent — should not be viewed solely through the prism of race. Economics and age play a role, too. Older, better-educated, and better-employed individuals are free of the strain and the stress of being poor.
“That’s the divide, the older and the younger,” said Johnson, the barber. “When you’re young, you can’t get a break from it.”
Then Orlando Phillips chimed in from the barber’s chair: “Then you have the third group, who are out for themselves. Opportunists causing trouble. Trying to make a profit for themselves.”