FERGUSON, Missouri — “It’s time to go home,” Ruth Gordon said, looking up into the petal pink sky that was giving way to dark blue as nighttime started to fall here.
“You don’t want to be here after sundown,” she added.
Like many people in Ferguson, Gordon has been on this stretch of road near the intersection of Ferguson Avenue and West Florissant Avenue every day of these protests. However, unlike most people in this crowd of hundreds, Gordon is nearing 73 years of age.
With a handicap hangtag tied around her neck in a makeshift necklace, Gordon can barely walk without the help of Ferguson resident Denise Little. As the two made their way down the main drag, hand in hand, they could have easily passed for close family or dearest of friends. But when I asked if Gordon was Little’s mother, they both smiled warmly.
“We just met,” Little said. “She looked like she needed help.”
This is Ruth Gordon. She's 72 and has been marching here every night in #Ferguson since Mike Brown was shot. pic.twitter.com/nzLCGRMOdD
— Amanda Wills (@AmandaWills) August 19, 2014
In the hours dwindling down to sunset, Florissant Avenue is filled with people like this. They come from all corners of St. Louis — from around the corner in Ferguson, to the south end of the city — to peacefully protest the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Children carry hand-drawn pictures; others chant while holding their hands in the air. A few volunteers from local churches hand out much-needed bottles of water. The demonstrators stay on sidewalks. They say prayers with one another. Some even tell police officers here to have a nice evening, to which the officers nod their heads and genuinely smile in return.
However, as Gordon and Little note, things look “very different” on Florissant Avenue when the sun goes down.
Within the span of an hour or so, the older demonstrators return home as a helicopter circles low overhead, shining a bright spotlight across the asphalt. Many of the people left are younger — some in their 20s, carrying children of their own. The protesters start to grow more wary of their surroundings.
Even the slightest of movements by a police officer jars them. They look over their shoulders while giving interviews in front of the dozens of television cameras pushed in their faces. They put paper masks over their children’s faces to protect them from what’s to come.
But most of all, they are angry. They are defensive. Many of them say they feel marginalized.
One 21-year-old man, who refused to give his name, said he asked an officer earlier in the evening what he tells his kids about Ferguson when he gets home at night. He said the officer laughed at him.
“This man laughed in my face like this is a joke,” he said.
“A young man lost his life. Is that a joke?”
Another girl, 15, stood at the corner of the intersection with two friends. Even though they had school the next morning, they were out here tonight just like every other. “Are you scared?” I asked, to which the girl nodded before saying, “Yes. It’s crazy out here.” The three teenagers also said Brown and the protests were all they could talk about in the school hallways. It consumes the community. (Schools in the Ferguson-Florissant School District itself will stay closed this week.)
'Be careful out here'
After a violent Sunday night in Ferguson, tensions ran deep on a humid Monday evening.
“Just give it about 15 minutes or so,” one woman said as she made her way home. “Be careful out here,” she warned.
Crowds moved past the torched QuikTrip station and headed to the top of the hill near a McDonald’s, where they have been gathering for days. However, the restaurant closed on Monday morning after “someone from corporate came in,” a police officer told Mashable. Now, the protesters shuffled into a large crowd in the middle of the south side of the intersection.
Outspoken leaders carrying megaphones became the unofficial spokesmen for the crowd. One was wearing prisoner garb, while another man was dressed in a fake cop uniform with a hat that read “murder police.” They shouted on behalf of the protesters and also shouted instructions at them, telling them to remain calm while demanding they keep moving, per police orders.
Then, right on schedule, the entire crowd gasped and many screamed — this time it wasn’t a chant, but rather out of true terror — “Don’t shoot!”
Just over the hill at Ferguson Avenue rolled in armored police tanks, and officers with shields formed a column in front in a standoff. As a few angry protesters threw a couple of water bottles in the direction of the police, the officers slid on their gas masks, and an ear-splitting alarm sounded through the streets. A voice came over a loudspeaker, demanding the protesters disperse.
It was chaos for a half hour as people who were wearing T-shirts that said "peacekeepers" struggled to keep protesters — and members of the press — on the sidewalk. Then, a loud pop rang out from the other end of the street near QuikTrip. As tear gas rose through the air, a crowd that had been milling around at the other end of Florissant Avenue started running toward the intersection where the bigger group was still standing.
Some fell in front of the media tents, scratching at their burning eyes. Members of Amnesty International, most of whom arrived in Ferguson on Monday to assist demonstrators, helped wash out their eyes and get them back on their feet. Other protesters carried spray bottles of milk and Mylanta, offering it to those who were caught in the gas.
Amnesty International guy helping another man who was tear gassed pretty bad just now. #Ferguson pic.twitter.com/DVk9wBfFX1
— Amanda Wills (@AmandaWills) August 19, 2014
'What's the point?'
By this time, most members of the press had moved behind police barricades and into a parking lot that was unofficially deemed a safe zone. Some were packing it up because it seemed as though the the tear gas had thinned out the crowd. The street was completely empty.
It was relatively peaceful here until an armored car sped into the street and slammed its brakes in front of the media. The doors flew open, and at least a half dozen armed guards jumped out of the truck and stood, looking at everyone in a silent warning.
“Is this necessary?” One of the peacekeepers, who was now behind the press barricade with some other demonstrators who were seeking refuge there as well, shouted through this megaphone. “What’s the point?”
And perhaps those words perfectly sum up Monday evening in Ferguson. The sudden and drastic change in attitude of the police seemed unprovoked. It felt as though they were almost toying with the protesters, sending in tanks and speeding up and down the main street in SUVs. It was all pointless.
Although the curfew had been lifted, police still seemed eager to clear out the entire area by midnight, repeatedly threatening to arrest people who weren’t on sidewalks or were carrying signs and not moving enough around the area. When the sting of tear gas rolled in through the entire area, including the media center, it choked those caught off-guard, sending hundreds running in panic.
By 2 a.m., at least 31 people had been arrested, said Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol. He blamed "violent agitators" and "criminals" for shooting at least two people in the area and throwing Molotov cocktails. The police did not fire bullets, he said.
Johnson urged protesters to demonstrate during the day and stay clear of the area at night.
Most of the protesters had left Florissant Avenue before midnight on Monday. Peacekeepers ushered people out of the middle of the street.
“Go home,” one woman peacekeeper said. “We can fight tomorrow.”
Tags: FERGUSON, MASHABLE MUST READS, MISSOURI, PROTESTS, U.S., US & World