Over the week of Thanksgiving, protests erupted throughout the St. Louis area and across the nation following the announcement that white Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for shooting black teenager Michael Brown this August.
A Week of Tension
On the evening of Monday, Nov. 24, protesters awaiting the grand jury’s decision had gathered across the street from the Ferguson Police Station, where a line of police officers in riot gear stared back at them.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon had declared a state of emergency the week before and had promised to place national guard troops in Ferguson.
The weeks following Michael Brown’s shooting had seen a QuikTrip destroyed, journalists arrested and protesters attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets. St. Louis waited anxiously for the fallout of the grand jury decision.
Business owners had boarded up their stores in anticipation of the evening. “Black Owned. Do not loot,” was spraypainted across the cardboard that blocked the windows of a grocery store.
Then, at 8 p.m., St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced that Wilson would not be indicted. For a while, there was calm. Then a dozen civilians attempted to tip a police car. The police responded by dispersing all of the protesters with tear gas.
Over the course of the next few hours, fires broke out in several businesses. The fire department was not called because police had at this point deemed Ferguson unsafe.
Meanwhile, a number of peaceful protests occurred throughout St. Louis and the nation. Protesters in St. Louis City blocked off a major highway for two hours. Major protests also occurred in Seattle, Washington D.C., New York City, among others.
One woman by the name of Sandra Liggins had spent all day in downtown St. Louis.
“I am protesting because of the injustice of our system,” Liggins stated. “What matters is us coming together as a community because we’re upset. An unarmed BOY was walking down the street and he was murdered. He was murdered because he was a black boy.”
Later in the week, protesters capitalized on Black Friday to stage a series of protests at area malls. At the St. Louis Galleria, for instance, shop owners closed off their stores as hundreds of protesters walked by chanting slogans like “black lives matter” and “stop shopping, join the movement.”
Kymone Freeman, a representative of WE ACT radio (which Freeman described as “the most radical media outlet in this nation’s capital”) gave a speech demanding a more representative police force, a federal investigation of the Michael Brown shooting and the immediate firing of any police officers who kill unarmed civilians.
Roughly an hour into the Galleria protest, protesters staged a “die-in,” a gesture that had become common throughout Michael Brown protests where protesters spread out and lie on the floor, symbolizing Michael Brown’s dead body and obstructing foot traffic. During the die-in, police officers asked shoppers to leave the mall.
Cbabi Bayoc, a South City resident who came to the protest with his three children, said that he thought that the protests were “getting people who aren’t really thinking about things in our society to be more concerned about what’s happening.”
In defense of the riots
Opponents of the protesters have been using the fact that buildings were looted on the night of that verdict as an excuse to dismiss the protesters in general as thugs, anarchists or hooligans. Even within the movement, there is a tendency for people to disassociate themselves from the violence, claiming that the looters were just a few outliers that do not represent them.
First of all, it should be noted that the lootings and vandalisms that these criticisms focus on are relatively minor forms of violence.
Destruction of property simply is not on the same level as destruction of life.
Secondly, these opponents are too quick to dismiss violence when violence can actually be a powerful way for repressed communities to come together and make themselves heard.
When communities feel alienated by the world at large, violence can provide an intoxicating feeling of community. “(Rioting) offers a kind of intense belonging, not dissimilar to what spectators feel at a sports event or fans at a rock concert,” remarked organizational psychologist Ken Eisold, Ph.D, in his article “Understanding Why People Riot.”
Violence is also a reaction against a political system in which the rioters have lost faith. When the county prosecutor has failed to get even an indictment against a public official that killed one of their own, many in the community feel that the court system has failed them. It is not surprising then that the rioters do not try to achieve change by “working within the system” that is against them from the outset.
The violence on the night of the verdict, then, was the response of a group of repressed people desperate to affect something, not a bunch of thugs with deficient morals.
In fact, Martin Luther King, Jr., whose quotes on nonviolent resistance have been used to shame rioters, articulated this point quite eloquently.
“I contend that the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro,” King said following a summer of violent protests in 1966. “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”