After a Switch in Police Force, Is the Mood in Ferguson Changing?

Protesters are starting to feel a sense of calm in the St. Louis surbub as police presence eases.

Demonstrators protest in the street where teenager Michael Brown was killed on Aug. 14 in Ferguson, Mo.
National Journal
Alexia Fernández Campbell and Reena Flores
Aug. 14, 2014, 5:24 p.m.

FER­GUSON, Mo.””The city is not the same as it was 24 hours ago.

There are no ar­mored vehicles patrolling the streets of Fer­guson Thursday night. Cars are free to travel along West Floris­sant Av­en­ue, once blocked by po­lice, and drivers pound on the horn as they pass. There’s no hint of tear gas, just the scent of to­bacco smoke in the warm sum­mer air.

A few hours ago, Mis­souri of­fi­cials put an­oth­er po­lice force in com­mand. The de­cision signaled a co­ordin­ated move­ment to re­store calm after sev­er­al days of protests. Out is the St. Louis County Po­lice De­part­ment, whose crowd-con­trol meth­ods””tear gas, rub­ber bul­lets, of­ficers in com­bat gear threat­en­ing ar­rest””were char­ac­ter­ized as heavy-handed. In is the Mis­souri State High­way Patrol.

It is too early to tell wheth­er Fer­guson has turned a corner since the protests began on Sunday, in re­sponse to the shoot­ing death of Mi­chael Brown, a black 18-year-old who was un­armed, by a white po­lice of­ficer Sat­urday af­ter­noon. But the at­mo­sphere is in­deed dif­fer­ent than be­fore.

Only about four po­lice of­ficers from the city of St. Louis (a de­part­ment not as­so­ci­ated with St. Louis County Po­lice) were in the neigh­bor­hood near West Floris­sant Av­en­ue, talk­ing to pro­test­ers. They were not wear­ing bul­let-proof vests. About a dozen people dressed in black and wear­ing patches with a Black Pan­ther logo were dir­ect­ing traffic.

“Where were [the Pan­thers] yes­ter­day?” asked Eric Price, who chat­ted with po­lice. He brought his 71 year-old moth­er, Phyl­lis Price, with him to the protest. It’s her birth­day, and she wanted to cel­eb­rate it here with hun­dreds of people ral­ly­ing in front of what once was a Quiktrip con­veni­ence store, set aflame on Sunday night.

Now, on Thursday night, “it feels good. It feels re­laxed,” Phyl­lis said. Phyl­lis grew up a few blocks away and re­mem­bers the days when she had to ride in the back of the pub­lic bus be­cause she is black. She hopes Brown’s death will make a dif­fer­ence in the com­munit­ies north of St. Louis, which are known as NADs: “Not After Dark.” That’s when po­lice will pull over any­one just be­cause they’re black, she says.

“I hope this makes more than a dif­fer­ence,” she said. “A change.”

The day be­fore, “it was like a stan­doff. It was us against them,” said Rena Perry, 33, stand­ing near the Quiktrip. “Today, it’s totally dif­fer­ent. It’s much bet­ter.”

Why? “Be­cause they’re not stand­ing over there with rifles and guns, ready to shoot,” the Berke­ley, Mo. res­id­ent said, re­fer­ring to po­lice of­ficers at the scene.

Pro­test­ers say they feel able to demon­strate in the streets be­cause they be­lieve the risk of ar­rest or vi­ol­ence has de­creased along with po­lice pres­ence. Still, some loc­als say they are wor­ried that the situ­ation could take a turn for the worse overnight. People re­main angry over Brown’s death, and chants con­tin­ue. “No justice, no peace.” “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

Hours earli­er, Pres­id­ent Obama had called for calm in Fer­guson. “There’s … no ex­cuse for po­lice to use ex­cess­ive force against peace­ful protests or to throw pro­test­ers in jail for law­fully ex­er­cising their First Amend­ment rights,” the pres­id­ent said.

The streets of Fer­guson, Mis­souri Gov. Jay Nix­on said Thursday af­ter­noon, had be­gun to re­semble a “war zone,” and that was “un­ac­cept­able.”

“We’re work­ing with High­way Patrol to make sure everything you see here to­night is calm and peace­ful,” said St. Louis Po­lice Chief Sam Dot­son on Thursday night.

Part of that, it ap­pears, in­volves tak­ing se­flies with pro­test­ers. Here’s Dot­son smil­ing for the cam­era:

Oth­er pro­test­ers were not will­ing to for­get the week’s con­front­a­tions with po­lice. St. Louis County Po­lice Chief Jon Bel­mar was im­me­di­ately sur­roun­ded when he stepped out of a Mis­souri State High­way Patrol SUV with Mis­souri High­way Patrol Capt. Ron John­son. People de­man­ded an­swers as the pair walked down West Floris­sant Av­en­ue.

“We were be­ing peace­ful. You put the dogs on us. You took the me­dia away. You told them to turn their cam­er­as off,” Deandra Jack­son yelled at Bel­mar. “You tell us we can’t walk on pub­lic prop­erty. What was that all about?”

He didn’t an­swer.

“What’s his name?” The pro­test­ers chanted in uni­son as they sur­roun­ded the of­ficers. John­son said of­fi­cials would re­lease the name on Fri­day. CNN re­por­ted late Thursday night that the of­ficer would be pub­licly iden­ti­fied Fri­day.

“We came out here be­cause we thought you were be­ing peace­ful,” he said be­fore he and Bel­mar got in­to the car a few minutes later and drove away.

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