FERGUSON, Mo. — Deandra Connors sat at the McDonald’s on West Florissant Avenue looking out the window. Outside, her peers stood with protest signs and occasionally shouted what has become the battle cry of this movement: “Hands up; don’t shoot.”
Connors, 18, has been out here every day since her former classmate, Michael Brown, was shot to death by a Ferguson police officer 10 days ago. Here, in this moment, she feels part of something that she hopes will usher in an era where her dreams will not be deferred.
Brown’s death has not only jolted many young people into consciousness and action, including daily protests, but it has also created a collective trauma of sorts. It has deepened the stress of being young black teens living in areas of concentrated poverty and crime — and prompted at least some teens to think beyond themselves.
Connors dreams of going to nursing school or studying the culinary arts, or maybe becoming a forensic scientist. But, she said, whichever career she chooses must come with a paycheck large enough to help start a nonprofit to assist impoverished children in Africa immigrate to the United States.
“To help them find jobs, so they can live the American Dream, too, but I don’t want them to come here and be targeted, too. So that’s why everything’s gotta change right now,” she said.
The daily march for justice has two purposes, she said: “All of it’s not for Mike; it’s for people who been going through this stuff, like for real, for real. It just took Mike as a sacrifice for all of it to be shown.”
For many of these young people, this isn’t just a philosophical protest. It’s a personal one. They knew Brown or were connected to him by a few degrees of separation, and by shared experiences.
In Ferguson and the neighboring communities in northern St. Louis County, some teens of color come from low-income households. African-American youths are dramatically more likely to be pulled over by police than whites, according to the state attorney general’s office.
And some attend struggling schools, according to state statistics. Last year, for example, the state Department of Education stripped the academic accreditation from the school district attended by Brown and Connors in Normandy, The state allowed students to transfer elsewhere with tuition and transfer fees paid by the unaccredited district, thus draining it of millions of dollars.
To make it here, 16-year-old Kameron Dunn said, “you gotta be on your game. It’s gotta be three things to make it: be an A-student, stay swagged out, or you gotta know how to knock people out.” And while he acknowledged that he started high school by getting into “a lot of drama,” now, he’s trying to stay above the fray.
“I’m trying to go to college and be an engineer,” he said, standing on West Florissant Avenue, a roadway lined with strip malls that could exist in anywhere USA but has become the nexus of protests in recent days.
Dunn was standing with a friend, Elexus Steed, who was passing out roses to fellow protesters.
Steed, 16, described Brown as her “homeboy.”
“Mike Brown knew everybody, though. Maybe that’s why he has so many people out,” she said.
Thousands of people from across the country — and some traveling from as far as Boston and Texas — have converged on West Florissant Avenue. The initial protests, while mainly peaceful, were met with an aggressive show by police who used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. But as days have become weeks, a more youthful, volatile group has emerged at night and clashed repeatedly with police.
Their anger and frustration at what they consider an unjust system is palpable, often creating tense standoffs with law enforcement. Their emotions can be kept in check by ministers and community elders, but it can easily spill over with the slightest of provocation.
Some people in the community witnessed Brown’s shooting; many more saw his lifeless body as it lay on Canfield Drive, according to area residents.
Connors said she was at her cousin’s house nearby on Aug. 9, when one of Brown’s friends came running over. “He said, ‘Mikey been shot.’ ”
So, she said, they went outside, joining a growing crowd.
“They just displayed his body for like three or four hours without even putting a sheet on it,” she said, her voice pitching with anger and emotion. “And even after they put the sheet on there, he was still out there.”
Fourteen-year-old Manasseh Kimbrough was spared seeing his friend’s body, but that doesn’t make his anger at the situation any less tangible.
Kimbrough and his brother, who live in an apartment complex on the west side of West Florissant Avenue, spent several hours rapping with Brown in front of the QuikTrip gas station and convenience store several days before he died. The subject matter, he said, was life.
“It wasn’t like sex and money and weed or nothing. It was just life, to get out of the struggle and stuff like that,” he said, as a group of protesters marched by shouting, “No justice, no peace.”
The trio went their separate ways. Days later, Brown was dead.
“When we found out about this, me and him was mad, hurt,” Kimbrough said.
Kimbrough sang at the first candlelight vigil, and he and his brother have returned to protest since, their grief compounded by choking tear gas and stinging rubber bullets.
“They keep tear gassing and it makes it worse. It’s building us up,” he said of the several days police launched gas canisters into the crowd.
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.