USA TODAY, December 2, 2014
By Yamiche Alcindor
FERGUSON, Mo. — Barry Perkins threw a rock at a line of officers at the Ferguson police station Monday night and thoroughly enjoyed it.
For a moment, Perkins said, he felt powerful.
In the weight of that rock, Perkins delivered the anger and frustration stored up inside from years of harassment from local police officers who he says stop him frequently and search his car. Perkins, who admits to a criminal past that includes dealing drugs and car theft, says that more than once officers have thrown him to the ground.
As police ducked and scrambled to safety, Perkins relished a fleeting sense of victory.
“It feels good,” Perkins, 24, said. “I want to do what they did to me. I want to physically fight the police for all the stuff they have done to me.”
More than a dozen buildings burned around Ferguson last Monday night after St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced that a grand jury had not indicted Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, 28, in the shooting death of Michael Brown, 18, who was unarmed. Wilson told the grand jury he struggled with Brown inside his police car and that the teen reached for Wilson’s weapon. Brown’s family and some witnesses say Wilson killed Brown as he raised his hands in surrender.
The level of violence surprised many local officials, residents and protesters who wondered why their months of preparation went awry.
Brown’s family, local clergy and protest organizers advocated and planned for peaceful protest no matter what the grand jury decided. Gov. Jay Nixon warned this week that he would not tolerate violence. President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued calls for peace and order.
Some business owners who suffered looting when protests broke out after the Aug. 9 shooting anticipated a second round of destruction and boarded-up windows and doors this time around, but other businesses put faith in the promise of peace and left their plate-glass windows unprotected.
Ferguson residents woke Tuesday to a scorched and scarred city. Rows of burned cars in one parking lot glowed gray in the sunlight as wind blew away their ashes. Businesses became crime scenes guarded tightly by police. Storekeepers and volunteers, brooms in hand, swept up shattered glass, plywood and debris.
While some of the city’s destruction came from criminals and opportunists who stole handles of liquor from convenience stores and pried a TV from the wall at a McDonald’s, many locals residents said people’s frustrations and deep-seated feelings of injustice fueled the flames seen around the world.
The grand jury’s decision sends a message that black life doesn’t matter and that police can terrorize people, said Perkins, the rock thrower from Hillsdale, Mo.
Perkins, who spent nine months in a Wisconsin jail for stealing a car when he was 18, now says he works at a factory making $8.50 an hour. He fears for the life his 4-year-old son might face growing up black.
Police “can shoot me at anytime because of my skin color, because I’m a young black man,” Perkins said. “They say if we stand in the street, we are subject to arrest. If they stand in the street, you’re subject to rocks, bricks and whatever. Ya’ll ain’t no different from me.”
The U.S. economy, he said, is leaving him and his family behind. Perkins spends more than $800 a month on basic expenses such as rent, electricity and transportation, leaving him little for anything else.
“It’s over with for the American dream,” he said. “What do you need a state of emergency for protesters for? What about the people sleeping in City Hall? What about calling a state of emergency for gas being $4 a gallon?”
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French says the varying reactions to the grand jury’s decision illustrate complexities in the life stories of African Americans in the St. Louis region who feel powerless to force change.
“It’s a very difficult story to simplify,” French said. “A lot of folks feel like the only way they can get heard or get a reaction is through setting things on fire and tearing things up. And, of course, you have an element that is opportunistic and thrive in chaos.”
French, who spent much of the past four months alongside the protesters, said most people who burned cars and buildings or stole from businesses did not take part in the organized, peaceful protests that filled Ferguson streets since August.
Ferguson resident Anthony Reliford, 28, said the world shouldn’t be surprised to see residents burning local businesses because local residents don’t reap the economic benefits of the commerce. Reliford said he is protesting to challenge the economic power in the neighborhood and push back against the poverty that grips some neighborhoods.
Wealthy people and police hold the real power in Ferguson, he said.
“They say this is our neighborhood, but this is not our neighborhood,” Reliford said. “This is their neighborhood. We just live here. If this was our neighborhood, we wouldn’t fear (police) jumping behind us and turning on their lights.”
The grand jury decision convinced some people that peaceful protests don’t necessarily bring justice for black people, the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou said.
“You didn’t just see buildings burning last night, you saw democracy on fire,” Sekou said Tuesday. “We had peaceful protests for 108 days and the police didn’t respond to that. We are talking about a traumatized, grieving community. People feel like America doesn’t love black and brown children.”
The shattered glass, burned cruisers and shooting illustrated “pain on display,” he said.
Astridia Dean, 24, of St. Ann, Mo., protested in August, immediately after the shooting, but then returned home for the next few months to watch as the grand jury processed played out. The grand jury’s decision reignited her outrage. Although Dean engaged in only peaceful protest, she said she understood how the unfairness of it all could drive people to destruction.
French and Brian Fletcher, who served as mayor of Ferguson for six years, said poor choices by government leaders also inflamed the response. McCulloch’s decision to wait until 8 p.m. to announce the grand jury’s decision didn’t give people daylight time to deal with their raw emotions, when riots would have been less likely.
“What we saw was a breakdown in government entities,” French said.
French said authorities did little to protect businesses on West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson’s main street, after Monday’s announcement. Police took about 20 minutes to respond to a 911 call reporting a building on fire, French said.
Fletcher said Nixon should have closed the city to all but residents, business owners and their employees.
“The National Guard was absent or AWOL, as I call it, due to the governor’s incompetence,” Fletcher said. The governor “promised he would protect the businesses. He promised he would protect the residences. And he failed miserably.”
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said officers did all they could to quell the violence and protect property.
“I don’t think we were under prepared but I will be honest with you, unless we bring 10,000 policemen here, I don’t think we could prevent folks that really are intent on destroying a community,” Belmar said.
Police and firefighters also had to contend with more than 150 gunshots fired as Ferguson burned Monday night, which made it perilous for firefighters to get to and extinguish the fires, Belmar said.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision after 8 p.m. to allow enough time for police to get in place, schools to send children home and businesses to close, spokesman Edward Magee said. The office never considered waiting until the next morning because police said they could handle the public response, he said.
“There’s no good time to make an announcement like this,” Magee said. “People are trying to blame somebody else for what criminals did. It was criminals who were setting the fires and burning the buildings. It was criminals who were looting stores. So, how is anybody else to blame for that?”
Denise Lieberman, co-chair of The Don’t Shoot Coalition, a group of about 50 local organizations formed after Brown’s death, said the police overreacted to peaceful protesters Monday but failed to protect buildings and businesses. Some police actions escalated tension by at times provoking protesters and tear-gassing people without reason, she said.
The Don’t Shoot Coalition, in a list of 19 rules of engagement, asked police to avoid using armored vehicles, tear gas, rifles and rubber bullets and to use riot gear only as a last resort. Authorities agreed to 11 of the demands, including avoiding use of excessive force and communicating with protest organizers to defuse tense situations.
Lieberman, an attorney, said police broke those promises and were unreasonably aggressive.
Despite the violence, Lieberman says the underlying message of the protest wasn’t lost. Protests around the country show that others identify with the cause.
“Rioting is the bastion of people who feel helpless and hopeless,” she said. “People are expressing sympathy and solidarity with what’s going on here.”
The riots Monday night arose not just from Brown’s shooting but from frustration with failing schools; unfair, aggressive police; and a government that does not fully represent the people, said Kellen Goodwin, 33, of Florissant, Mo.
“You can only knock at the door peacefully for so long,” Goodwin said. “They aren’t burning down a Pizza Hut or an AutoZone. They are burning down the establishment.”