Ferguson riots: Violence begins to subside after grand jury decision as town returns to ‘normality’ on a knife-edge

For many of the protesters a return to business as usual will only deepen the resentment fuelled by everyday racism

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The Independent US

Following a second, more subdued night of unrest, Ferguson residents today had cause to hope that life here would soon return to something like normal.

The fractious St Louis suburb has endured two days of riots, many weeks beneath the global media spotlight, and more than three months of sustained protest over the fatal shooting of the black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.

 

 

 

Yet for many – and particularly for the protesters – returning to “normal” simply is not enough. This week’s violence began with outrage at the announcement of a grand jury’s decision not to bring charges against Officer Wilson over Mr Brown’s death. The shooting, on 9 August, has come to symbolise the deep rift between the authorities and the people of Ferguson, where 67 per cent of the population are black, but the police force has just three black officers in a force of 53.

Chris, a peaceful protester who declined to give her last name during a demonstration outside the town’s police department on Tuesday night, said: “America was built on institutionalised racism and the police still have some of that: the hoods are off but it’s still the same good ol’ boys. They need to make an effort to reconnect with the community. Right now, the system isn’t taking care of us, so we need to take care of ourselves.”

At the height of Monday night’s frenzied violence, several people stood on West Florissant Avenue, watching a car parts shop go up in flames. One passer-by commented, loudly: “Next we burn down their neighbourhoods.”

Chris, who is 34, said she had encountered a similar sentiment as she tried to stop a young man setting fire to a Little Caesar’s pizzeria, one of the first premises torched in the chaos. “I told him: ‘Don’t destroy our neighbourhood.’ And he said: ‘This isn’t our neighbourhood; we don’t own any of this. This is their neighbourhood, and they don’t want us here.’ That’s how a lot of these young men feel; they don’t feel like they have a place in America.”

In Ferguson, that amorphous “them” denotes the establishment: law enforcement, local government, business owners. The news lorries have become fixtures on the streets of Ferguson, but some people have come to resent the media and its coverage; in recent days, the protesters’ regular chant of “F*** the Police” has sometimes been altered to “F*** CNN”.

Michael, a 48-year-old protester from nearby Jennings, said that in the absence of an indictment for the police officer who killed one of them, some young people from Ferguson and beyond had decided violence was the only way to express their anger.

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Police officers in riot gear hold a line as they watch protests in St Louis, Missouri, over the shooting of Michael Brown (AFP)

“I don’t condone it, but that’s how a lot of young people react to frustration,” he said. “I can understand how they feel. There’s going to be a lot more protest, not just here in Missouri but everywhere.”

President Barack Obama has promised to address the long‑standing distrust between America’s black community and its law enforcement system. Tensions have been heightened since Mr Brown’s death by several other police shootings of unarmed young black men.

Speaking in Chicago on Tuesday, Mr Obama said he had asked the outgoing US Attorney General, Eric Holder, to set up a dialogue between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve across the US.

The President scolded those who had resorted to rioting, but said: “The frustrations that people have… are rooted in hard truths that need to be addressed,” adding: “The problem is not just a Ferguson problem; it’s an American problem.”

In Ferguson, where many of those businesses that were not looted or razed remain boarded up today, the divisions will be difficult to bridge. Resentment runs higher than ever against the police, who again used tear gas and armoured vehicles to disperse crowds on Tuesday, making more than 40 arrests.

On Wednesday morning, sections of the town were still closed off by police, and by the 2,200 National Guard troops sent by Missouri’s Governor, Jay Nixon, to help officers prevent further rounds of violence. Today, two FBI agents were shot and wounded while making an arrest in north St Louis County, close to Ferguson, though the agency said the incident was “not directly related” to the unrest.

Roy Bowens, 63, works at a tool shop several hundred yards from the police headquarters that has long been the focus of the protests. The shop was broken into during the unrest, he said, and his sister’s store burned down.

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Protesters link arms as they block the road in front of the Ferguson Police Department (EPA)

“The cops and the government, all the protection they got from the National Guard was just to protect their own buildings from being burned down,” he said.

“When people broke into our store and the alarm went off three times, they were supposed to have enough people to respond, but nobody came. What was the National Guard even here for?”

At Canfield Green Apartments, the troubled residential block where Mr Brown was confronted by Officer Wilson on the way home to his grandmother’s flat, a burned-out car still sat in a car park opposite the makeshift memorial that marks the site of the shooting.

On Tuesday morning, the body of 20-year-old DeAndre Joshua was found in a parked car nearby. He had reportedly been shot to death. Mr Joshua’s family told reporters they had little faith that the police would investigate the killing properly, because he was black.

Mr Bowens said he believed things would change in the wake of Mr Brown’s death and the subsequent unrest, though not necessarily for the better. “Now, if someone does a crime, they’re going to say: ‘I better give up, or I’m gonna get shot, because the police are gun-happy,’” he said. “There’s not going to be better understanding; there’s just going to be more fear.”

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