FERGUSON, Mo. – On one corner of a battered stretch of West Florissant Avenue, the epicenter of ongoing protests, young men pull dark scarves up over their mouths and lob molotov cocktails at police from behind makeshift barricades built of bricks and wood planks. They call the gasoline-filled bottles poor man’s bombs.
The young men yell expletives and speak about securing justice for Michael Brown, the black teen fatally shot Aug. 9 by a white police officer, by any means necessary.
They are known here as the militants – a faction inhabiting the hard-core end of a spectrum that includes online organizers and opportunistic looters – and their numbers have been growing with the severity of their tactics since the shooting.
Each evening, hundreds gather along West Florissant in what has become the most visible and perilous ritual of this St. Louis suburb’s days of frustration since Brown’s death. Dozens have been arrested, many injured by tear gas canisters and rubber bullets fired by a police force dressed in riot gear and armed with assault rifles.
But the demonstrators are as diverse as their grievances – and in their methods of addressing them.
Some of the men are from the area – Ferguson or surrounding towns that are similarly defined in part by the gulf separating the mostly white law enforcement agencies from a mistrusting African-American public. Others, who won’t give their names, have arrived by bus and by car from Chicago, Detroit, Brooklyn and elsewhere.
This is not the time for no peace, said one man, a 27-year-old who made the trip from Chicago.
He spoke after a small group of fellow militants held a meeting behind a looted store, sketching out ambitions for the days ahead.
We are jobless men, and this is our job now – getting justice, he said. If that means violence, that’s OK by me. They’ve been doing this to us for years.
The militants are one faction of many that have filled Ferguson’s streets each evening since Brown, walking unarmed between a convenience store and his grandmother’s apartment at midday on a Saturday, was shot at least six times and died.
There is a group of peaceful protesters that congregates around the QuikTrip, a convenience store that was looted and burned out during the first night of protest. Another gathers near the Ferguson police station. A third, more scattered faction organizes, advertises and rallies demonstrators on Twitter, specifically what members of the faction call black Twitter.
People have been tweeting, We are ready to die tonight,’ said Mary Pat Hector, a national youth organizer with the Rev. Al Sharpton’s national action network. It is a trending topic.
Hector traveled from Atlanta, hoping her presence as a nonviolent protester would help counter what she described as so much negative energy.
Then there are the looters, leaderless men who under cover of nightly political protest target liquor stores, beauty-supply shops and other businesses with inventories easy to sell and in high demand.
Ferguson police officials presented a stack of roughly 50 arrest reports. While some of those arrested for stealing are from Ferguson, a large number have addresses listed in Illinois or in Texas.
It’s like looting tourism, an officer commented as he showed the reports. He asked that he not be named. It’s like they are spending their gas money to come down here and steal.
DeAndre Smith, fresh from looting the QuikTrip on a recent night, told reporters: I’m proud of us. We deserve this, and this is what’s supposed to happen when there’s injustice in your community. St. Louis – not going take this anymore.
Missouri had the nation’s highest black homicide rate in 2010 and the second-highest in 2011, according to the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit group based in Washington.
This was a chance to vent about the national treatment of black men across the country, said Ronnie Natch, a music producer and leader of the peaceful protesters.
Natch is 30 years old and has a 10-month-old baby. His wife gives out water and fruit to protesters from their base at the burned-out QuikTrip.
We want to show up at the front door every day and say, through words, that this shooting is not going to be swept under the rug, Natch said. There have just been too many deaths.
But Ferguson isn’t unified around that approach.
After all the cameras are gone, we have to live here, Natch said. Every morning, his group dispatches people to pick up trash and sweep broken glass.
We can get the same message out without the violence, he said.