From the very beginning, the movement in Ferguson, Missouri, has been youth-led and locally initiated. It was spurred after neighbors saw a young man dead in the streets for four hours after he had been gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson. After the first three or four nights, people deeming themselves “peacekeepers” began appearing at the protests.
“I feel like they’re trying to heal a broken arm with a band aid.”
The “peacekeepers” are of an older generation. Just about all of them are middle-aged. Some wear black shirts that say “peacekeeper” across the chest; others wear orange shirts that say “clergy;” some are politicians; some are clergy members; others have labeled themselves “community leaders.” Many protesters – especially people who have been out in Ferguson since Day One – have questioned their motives and are often at odds with their goals.
Spook, a 24-year-old writer who attended the protests since they began on August 9 told Truthout, “there’s a rift there,” describing the relationship between peacekeepers and protesters. “People didn’t see eye to eye.” King D Seals, a 27-year-old resident of Ferguson, told Truthout, that while he respects them, he sees them as “disingenuous.” Another St Louis resident and organizer, who was out during the protests, described the peacekeepers’ tactics to Truthout: “I feel like they’re trying to heal a broken arm with a band aid.”
As Percy Green, a 79-year old, longtime activist in the St Louis area explained to Truthout, the role of the peacekeepers is one that has been seen in movements historically over and over again: “Nothing has changed in terms of the establishment . . . you’ll get ministers to say, ‘Oh lord, you shouldn’t do none of that.’ You get some people to say that violence will get you nowhere. ‘Don’t engage in violent demonstrations.’ But yet, still the establishment will perpetuate violence against you in an attempt to stop it. Now what sense does that make? It doesn’t make any sense . . . What they want to do is make the demonstration [as] ineffective as possible.”
The reasoning behind the peacekeepers is understandable. They are concerned with the unrest in their community. They don’t want to see children tear gassed. They don’t want to see businesses affected. They want people to be able to go to work without being stopped or halted at police checkpoints. They are concerned about the image of Ferguson and black people in St. Louis, at large. Some of these are valid concerns – no one wants children to choke on tear gas, and it is a common agreement that that situation should never occur. However, the fault that many find with the peacekeepers are that they aren’t identifying or focusing on the largest agent of violence.
For most of the protesters, a return to normal is a return to the same routine that brutally killed Michael Brown – as well as the system that harasses them on a regular basis.
Instead of focusing on the violence of the police, peacekeepers are focused on silencing and quelling the crowd – to the point where they pinpoint the issue being a person throwing a plastic water bottle at a police line in riot gear, equipped with helmets, body armor and armored trucks. Percy Green notes, “Why aren’t they talking about the police not being peaceful? But instead, when the demonstrators sitting in the streets, or however way they express themselves, it always looks like the burden of peacefulness is always on the people that are protesting and never on the folks that are trying to prevent the protest.”
Other peacekeepers are even concerned with protesters yelling – especially things that they have decided are too mean and offensive and will “antagonize” the cops. Many didn’t want protesters assembling, urging protesters to go home at night – both during the curfew and after it was lifted. Charlene Carruthers, a member of Chicago’s Black Youth Project 100, described the relationship between the peacekeepers and protesters to Truthout as follows, “What I saw was a disconnect [from the peacekeepers] by the folks who wanted to exercise their constitutional right to protest, to assemble and their right to simply stand.”
The peacekeepers seem to want a return to normal in Ferguson and have celebrated the “restored calm” after nights of unrest. However, for most of the protesters, a return to normal is a return to the same routine that brutally killed Michael Brown – as well as the system that harasses them on a regular basis. In that sense, there is no “peace” to return to. King D Seals disagreed with the calls for peace, “They came down here with ‘Oh let’s be peaceful;, let’s pray; let’s march; let’s vote.’ We need to keep raising hell, until we get what we want. Putting pressure on them until we get what we want. We need to be willing to die for that. Give me freedom or give me death. I don’t want no middle ground . . . Let’s keep fighting until we dead because they’re killing us anyway. They knocking our heads off anyway.”
Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of those arrested during the protests were from the St Louis area – showing that St Louis County police were not targeting the supposedly violent outsiders, but Missourians.
Seals also compared the Michael Brown protests with those of Cary Ball Jr., who was killed last year – shot at 28 times (hit 21 times – by police officers Jason Chambers and Timothy Boyce:
“We’ve been being positive forever. Cary Ball just got murdered last year, 28 shots, an honor student. The peacekeepers didn’t come support his mother. I talk to his mother every day; you know what she tells me? She damned near wish someone would’ve had a riot for her son; maybe she’d get more help. We did everything positive. We did everything the way that we should do. She doesn’t get any attention. She doesn’t get any help. She reached out to Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Iyanla – all those people that came down and swear they love Mike Brown . . . Cary Ball’s mother, she asked for all of that and she did it peacefully and she got nothing.”
The internal police investigation ruled the shooting of Cary Ball, Jr. justified. Witnesses said Ball, Jr. was surrendering with his hands in the air when he was shot.
The peacekeepers became most visible the day Governor Nixon announced the state of emergency and a curfew. To defend the curfew, Governor Nixon claimed the problem with the nightly protests in Ferguson were outside agitators and troublemakers. A division between the day protests and the night protests was created to justify the nightly police violence in the form of tear gas, pepper spray, M-16s, death threats, and brutal arrests of both protesters and journalists. Many of the peacekeepers repeated these state claims of outside agitators – a term that has a long history when it comes to black protests in the United States. The argument that the issue was mainly outsiders agitating the crowd didn’t hold up with evidence. For starters, for the first four nights, people in St Louis engaged protests, sometimes using controversial tactics with no “outsiders” present. DeAndre Smith describes the first couple of nights as people making the decision to challenge capitalism as an act of protest against living in a debtors prison system that makes money off its residents. The outsider argument rests on the assumptions that residents in St Louis are easily manipulated and don’t have agency to decide which tactics to engage in. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of those arrested during the protests were from the St Louis area – showing that St Louis County police were not targeting the supposedly violent outsiders, but Missourians.
The curfew gained support from peacekeepers – some self-described leaders argued that it should be later than midnight, failing to argue that there shouldn’t be a curfew at all. Meanwhile, some protesters would make and wear shirts that read “Fux Your Curfew.” Later at night, when peacekeepers and community leaders would try to convince everyone to go home before midnight, protesters would remind them: “We are home; you go home.”
The police were clearly not there to protect us. They were there to protect their own interests. And to see the dynamic where there’s a group of people who are trying to [help] the police in doing something that is extremely unconstitutional is very frustrating.”
Even after the curfew was lifted, peacekeepers and clergy members continued to assist the St. Louis County police – at many times, doing the police’s work for them. Charlene Carruthers came down to Ferguson to hold training sessions for St Louis organizers and participate in the daily protests. She described the peacekeepers’ actions during the protests to Truthout as follows:
“That was the night where they started to tell protesters that we couldn’t stand still. That we had to keep moving – which is completely wrong and unconstitutional, and there were several times when folks just wanted to stand still as an act of protest, simply standing still. The police would tell you to move as soon as you stood still for more than 10 seconds. And I saw members of clergy encouraging people to move . . . there were people who were like ‘No, you need to comply with the police. listen to the police.’ “
She went on to explain why she disagreed with these actions:
“I had a conversation with a number of clergy members about how that was a problem for me and how what I was there for was just to follow the lead of the people there. If they wanted to sit, I was going to sit. And if they wanted to stand, I was going to stand with them . . . the police were clearly not there to protect us. They were there to protect their own interests. And to see the dynamic where there’s a group of people who are trying to [help] the police in doing something that is extremely unconstitutional is very frustrating.”
Multiple protesters have alleged they’ve seen clergy members informing the police. On Thursday and Friday, clergy members were seen holding a meeting with police officers at McDonalds. On Friday night, clergy members voluntarily got into a police car. Charlene Carruthers saw “several folks who had on orange shirts that said ‘clergy’ in black letters talking to the police, and [she] also saw some of them getting into the car, voluntarily with the police officer.” On that night – that experienced no tear gas or reports of thrown objects – clergy members tried to convince protesters not to march to the Ferguson police department.
During the National March on August 30, calls were made to block the highway on Labor Day in an act of protest. Antonio French, one of the loudest peacekeepers, announced via twitter that they were canceling the highway protest after meeting with police officers. Some protesters went out anyway and blocked traffic.
Some protesters have gone so far as to say clergy members are trying to co-opt the movement.
Carruthers explained, “There was a huge level of distrust and I think warranted distrust of the police there, and I saw so-called people who were there to keep peace colluding with the police. And I question their motives. I absolutely question their motives.”
To completely understand why people had issues with peacekeepers colluding with the police, one must acknowledge the police’s actions during the protests. A $40 million federal lawsuit against St. Louis County accused the county of civil rights abuses during the protests for “excessive force” and six plaintiffs allege they were “beaten, tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets and falsely arrested, among other offenses.”
Amnesty International Executive Director Steven W. Hawkins released a statement condemning the curfew, asserting: “We criticize dictators for quelling dissent and silencing protestors with tactics like curfews; we’ll certainly speak out when it’s happening in our own backyard. The people of Ferguson have the right to protest peacefully the lack of accountability for Michael Brown’s shooting.” Hawkins also declared the policing in Ferguson during the protests “a human rights crisis,” in “violation [of] international human rights law and standard.”
Multiple people had to receive medical attention after getting hit with rubber bullets. Meanwhile, police officer violence has elicited little to no direct condemnation from the supposed peacekeepers. One of the people who went to the hospital was Spook, who was shot in the head with a bullet and had to undergo surgery. There is no police record of the incident. To my knowledge and Spook’s, no politician or community leader has spoken of the incident or on her behalf, although Spook wants to make sure to clarify, these are self-labeled leaders, “not necessarily the people [she] considers leaders of the community.”
“You can vote for whoever you want to, but the system won’t change.”
During the daytime, clergy members and peacekeepers have organized their own events, including a “Heal St Louis” march on Saturday, August 23 and dedicating Peace Fest 2014 to Michael Brown. The Heal St. Louis event involved a march from West Florissant’s McDonalds to Canfield Green. When we arrived at Canfield, there was a stage and a sound system, which pastors used to preach to the protesters about finding a good church home. The atmosphere felt like Sunday morning in a Baptist church. A man handed me a flyer advertising one-on-one conversations with police officers and a tour of the different churches in the St Louis community. A woman handed me a pamphlet titled “Stop The Killing. The Way to Happiness: A Common Sense Guide to Better Living.” Inside was a step-by-step guide to a spiritual life and pages urging me not to murder anyone. As I walked by one tent, one lady asked if I was registered to vote. Some protesters have gone so far as to say clergy members are trying to co-opt the movement.
Peace, healing and voting are three main solutions being pushed by peacekeepers and community “leaders.” During Peace Fest 2014, the need to vote was repeated over and over again by multiple speakers. However, many are not convinced voting alone will solve their community’s problems – especially the problem of police brutality. Seals’ assertion summarizes the opinions stated by the majority of young people Truthout spoke to: “Our generation of young men and women, we’re intelligent. We’re not gonna keep doing the same thing and expect different results.” Charlene Carruthers asserts that voting “needs to be coupled with political education classes.” King D. Seals pushes for a systematic analysis and criticizes “people preaching voting like that’s going to actually solve our problems. The problem is economics, pushing the money out of our communities. You can vote [for] whoever you want to, but there still will be no jobs; there still will be poverty; there still will be lower educational institutions . . . You can vote for whoever you want to, but the system won’t change.” He goes on to say, “No matter who you put in office, the system is still the same. The system needs to be changed; you don’t need to put a different person in the system. You need to change the system itself.” Spook sees “the problem [as] way deeper than people voting. In a lot of ways it’s a psychological issue . . . the conditioning people [went] through.”
“I am a man of peace but the war is on us. We are screaming peace while they are killing our children. I personally do not understand that.”
The Friday before Peace Fest 2014, nightly protests took over West Florissant. Crowds of people conducted speak outs and marched up and down the block, while police cars were parked in random parking lots lining the street. At around midnight, and without any provocation, more than a dozen St. Louis County police officers sped up in SUVs and police cars where protesters were marching on the sidewalk. Dozens of officers get out of their cars, lining up on both sides of the street. They ordered the protesters – who were marching on the sidewalk – to get on the sidewalk. One protester got arrested for playing a Lil Boosie song on a speakerphone. Police officers announced that if the group of protesters continued standing still, they would be arrested. I saw one police officer holding a tear gas gun. Peacekeepers and clergy members, their backs to the police, attempted to calm down the crowd and tried to stop the crowd from yelling. They asked everyone to go home. The crowd remained. A clergy member who came from Boston complained of outside agitators in Ferguson “riling up the crowd.”
At Peace Fest 2014, David Banner addressed the crowd with a different message than the dozen speakers that came before him. He had spent the previous day and night out speaking with young people on West Florissant. While he was speaking to a group of three men the day before, St Louis County pulled up and arrested one man, claiming he was inciting a riot. To a crowd of thousands in a St. Louis park a few minutes away from Ferguson he said, “. . . and ya’ll need to know, I am a man of peace but the war is on us. We are screaming peace while they are killing our children. I personally do not understand that.”
Multiple attempts to reach Antonio French were unsuccessful.