Satravion, 10, of Ferguson, Missouri.
FERGUSON, Missouri — Parked in a driveway just steps away from an armored police truck was a truck that served a very different purpose on Tuesday night — a stage for five carefree children to perform their song, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
Eight-year-old Meosha was on drums made from a bucket. Shakira, 7, and Aaliyah, 6, were backup dancers, holding up their hands and waving a sign scribbled with the name of their song. A showman by nature, 10-year-old Satravion provided lead vocals while Cory, 2, supplied a sporadic backup melody.
And because every great band has to have an equally great name, these kids had no trouble picking theirs.
They call themselves Mike Brown and the Trayvon Martins.
A lesson learned on the front lines
Many of the protesters who line Florissant Avenue in Ferguson night after night bring along their kids — and sometimes they get caught in the crossfire. On Sunday evening, one witness said she saw an 8-year-old girl nearly choke after police tossed tear gas into the crowd.
So, why would a mom or dad risk all this to bring a 4-year-old here? The answer, for every parent with whom I spoke, was the same: The kids of St. Louis need to see this.
Racial tension isn’t exclusive to Ferguson; it weaves its way across St. Louis. In fact, many parents walking with their children by their sides aren’t even from Ferguson; they come from all over the area to participate. For them, it’s about more than Michael Brown.
The roots stretch deep into a long history of predominately black neighborhoods battling small, daily wars with white authorities. Residents have told me repeatedly that racial profiling has gotten out of control. To them, it seems as though officers are looking for excuses to arrest young black men. The image of these men slammed against police cars while cops cuff them is one that the children of Ferguson — and other parts of St. Louis County — are growing up with, rearing a violent nature that perpetuates in a never-ending cycle.
Many parents marching in Ferguson are young, some in their early 20s. They've lived these scenes over and over — and they are doing everything they can to change it for their kids.
Tierra Gates, who walked alongside her three children — ages 3, 4 and 7 — on Tuesday, said she wanted them to see the unrest firsthand in order to better understand why it was happening and that it was OK to be angry — and even more acceptable to talk about it.
“I don’t keep anything from my kids,” Gates said as her middle child curiously pressed every button and turned each knob on my camera.
"We do everything as a family," she added, looking down at her youngest child clinging to her leg.
However, Gates says she is aware of the danger that rolls in through Ferguson after the sun goes down. Unlike a lot of parents here, that's when Gates packs up her family and heads home.
But some parents want to expose their children to all of Ferguson’s unrest — even the darker sides.
Ebony Starks, 25, had her three children with her on Tuesday evening. They marched slowly, hand in hand, with groups of protesters who slowly started to increase in numbers — markers of a heightened energy that often comes just before violence sets in at night in Ferguson.
Starks said her children — ages 5, 8 and 11 — were here on Sunday evening when cops threw tear gas into the crowd.
“It really was scary,” she said. “The [police] didn’t care if kids were around or not. They just threw it. My babies were all here with me.”
Still, Starks and her kids returned on Tuesday because she said police brutality is something her family routinely encounters, and it's important to face it head on. Starks said a police officer slapped her in the face in front of her children in February after she didn’t follow his orders during a domestic disturbance call.
“The police showed them firsthand why not to trust the police,” Starks said.
'I don’t ever want to see these kids out here ever again'
While the kids march alongside their parents, they are often overlooked, sometimes even caught on the front lines. That’s one reason some protesters vehemently opposed having children on Florissant Avenue after dark.
A family of four — mom, dad and two kids under the age of 8 — walked the sidelines of the protest for hours on Monday and Tuesday evening. The father, a young man in his early 20s, carried his son on his shoulders, instructing him to keep on his face mask. His daughter held a drawing of hands.
Crystal Williams, 51, who grew up in the area, pulled the family away from the crowd on Tuesday night and pleaded with the parents to leave their children at home.
“You call me if you ever need a babysitter," Williams told the young parents. "These kids should be gone by 5 o'clock.”
“I don’t ever want to see these kids out here ever again,” she added.
“Most of us don’t care about dying, but you’ve got babies.”
“Most of us don’t care about dying, but you’ve got babies.”
Williams left Ferguson over a decade ago. A police officer had pointed a gun to her 11-year-old son’s head after he stole a Snickers bar, she said. But she said she had returned to her hometown to help parents keep their children safe by offering them up to three hours of child care free of charge.
Williams agreed it’s important that kids of a certain age in Ferguson see what’s happening to their community. But it should be in measured doses, she said, and during times of day when peaceful protests are indeed peaceful.
“I don’t think any child under the age of 13 should be out here,” she said. “And no child under the age of 17 should be out here after 10 o’clock.”
The teens with nothing to lose
But therein lies one of the biggest issues in Ferguson. Much of the violence we’ve been seeing here happens at night, when the mood between police and protesters drastically changes in a matter of minutes. However, it’s also the time of day when the older protesters return home, and teenagers take their place.
At 16, 17, 18 years old, they feel invincible, and are, in turn, quicker to react violently to aggressive police tactics, like driving armored trucks up and down the street. While the police may be trying to intimidate protesters, the tactic often revs them up.
“A lot of the youth are outraged and very angry. They are very hurt, and the reason is because there is a disconnect,” said Pastor Chris Harris, one of several clergymen who come to Ferguson at night in an effort encourage peaceful protest.
This is the age group that Brown’s death impacted the most. Some of the teens running up and down Florissant Avenue at night say they knew Brown well. It's easy for them to see themselves in his shoes. For some of these young men, his death is scarily close to home in every way. They try to mask the fear of it with aggression and anger, partly because that's all they really know.
“There’s no one that is actually connecting with them in regards to allowing them to express their voice,” Harris said.
“It’s critical they have a chance to voice their opinion. Otherwise, this will continue to heighten.”
Tags: CHILDREN, FERGUSON, MASHABLE MUST READS, MISSOURI, U.S., US & World