Sunday was the third day of Ferguson October events, planned to not only call for justice in the case of Michael Brown, an 18 year old who was shot to death by a Ferguson police officer, but to promote racial equality. The day was organized around the spiritual, but the most attention went to a demonstration that took place very early Sunday morning near the eastern entrance of The Grove. According to police 17 people were arrested after a sit-in at the QuikTrip there.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said he will not instruct officers to take a harder stance now.
“Just because that incident happened with that group of people doesn’t mean the next group we encounter will be at the same pace,” Dotson said.
Many protesters took issue with this tweet sent by Dotson: “Protestors now throwing rocks at the police. Arrests have been made for continued illegal behavior.”
Asked about it at a news conference today, Dotson said he was standing roughly 10 to 15 feet away from an officer hit in the shoulder with a rock.;
“That rock was the one that I saw,” Dotson said. “I heard stories along the way of other rocks being thrown along the way.”
He also said that the incident did not prompt officers to begin separating protesters who had locked arms in from of the convenience store.
“The tweet that I sent was after the arrests had already begun; and the action on the QuikTrip lot was not because of the rocks that had been thrown but because of the illegal activities there,” Dotson said.
Before the demonstrators marched from the site of the shooting death of Vonderrit Myers Jr. at Klemm Street and Shaw Boulevard, conversations on twitter indicated that some were having trouble getting to that location. Reporters for St. Louis Public Radio saw officers from at least three jurisdictions and saw roads being blocked off.
Dotson said police expected some sort of action in the Shaw neighborhood and officers limited vehicle access. He said that decision came after residents complained that they were having difficulty getting in and out of the neighborhood because of protests.
At roughly 1 a.m., the approximately 100 people who had gathered at Klemm and Shaw marched west to Tower Grove Avenue and then north to South Vandeventer Avenue. Dotson said when protesters arrived at the QuikTrip just north of Chouteau Avenue they no longer were marching in a line and “they kind of fanned out, and spread out and went toward the doors.”
He said employees at the QuikTrip locked the doors and were fearful because some of the people who were pounding on the doors were wearing masks.
Police showed up wearing riot gear and carrying batons.
As the marchers arrived at the QuikTrip, the leaders of the group had yelled orders that there was to be no looting or trouble. About 40 members of the group sat down in front of the store, linking arms. Dotson said police gave protesters multiple warnings to disperse or face arrest. He said about half of the protesters who had locked arms left.
“The people who were left there made a conscious decision that they wanted to be arrested,” Dotson said.
Dotson said a police line then began moving across the parking lot and officers started using pepper spray. He said no tear gas was used by police.
He said no more than a handful of people were targeted with pepper spray, however: “There may have been people that were there who had backsplash, over-spray from that,” Dotson said. “That I apologize for, but that is what happens when you fail to listen to the directions of a police officer and clear an area.”
Police then used batons to separate and forcibly take into custody 17 people who had their arms locked in front of the QuikTrip. Dotson said all of those arrested are in the process of being released. And by the time of the Interfaith Service at 7 p.m. they had been.
When asked what the department’s policy is regarding use of force during acts of civil disobedience, Dotson responded:
“That’s a question of really, when is the law violated? The business was forced to close, the employees were scared, unlawful assembly is the charge that we used. It could be general peace disturbance; it could be trespassing; it could be a variety of things. It was clear that those individuals had a desire to disrupt that business. I don’t think any of us have the right to disrupt a business in that way without the fear of arrest, and that’s what occurred last night.”
Dotson said the department will work to identify and maintain lines of communications with people and groups organizing marches and demonstrations going forward.
“Marching in the street, spilling out into the street, having to slow traffic down, I think that’s part of living in an urban environment,” Dotson said. “I think that’s part of the great democracy that we live in, people have the right to do that.
“But when a business that’s supposed to be open is closed, when individuals have fear and are calling their families because they’re scared, I think that crosses the line.”
‘Hands Up Sabbath’
Throughout the morning, faith and activism merged at many area churches. At Epiphany United Church of Christ in South St. Louis, local and out-of-town activists joined congregants for their morning service.
There, everything from the prayers to the sermon was inspired by Michael Brown and the protests.
Church councilmember Angie O’Gorman delivered the sermon, a treatise on social justice and empowerment.
“There is a time for rage, and there is a time for rioting,” O’Gorman said. “And it is our racism that has created the need for this time, here and now.”
She described a scene from a few weeks back in Ferguson: pastors holding hands and forming a line between protesters and the police.
“That’s exactly where the faith community belongs right now,” she said, “in between, in the middle, holding hands, kneeling down, making for those silences where the youth and the powers can be protected from what draws them in to violence.”
O’Gorman said that anger is part of the psychological process that occurs when the marginalized move toward empowerment.
Epiphany church member Wes Buchek said the service had triple the normal attendance; 65 or 70 instead of 25 or 30.
“I’m really happy that I go to a church (where) I can hear a message of people standing up for what’s right and preaching messages of love and peace,” he said.
Angela Martellaro of Kansas City was one of the church’s visitors who came to St. Louis for Ferguson October. She said that as a proponent of nonviolence she had never heard a nonviolent message quite like O’Gorman’s sermon.
“I thought it was really inspirational for her to make that point; that maybe people can’t get from oppression to empowerment without that opportunity to express all of the feelings that they’re feeling,” Martellaro said.
Some locals involved in Ferguson protests also attended the worship service. Alexis Coleman of St. Louis chose to come to Epiphany instead of her usual church.
“I didn’t want to be in a church that was going to be silent about this weekend,” she said. “This is part of my spiritual walk right now.
Other faith-based events on Sunday’s Ferguson October schedule included faith in action training, a call for prayer and meditation and an inter-faith service at Chaifetz Arena.
The Ferguson October events opened with a march in Clayton that started in front of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch’s office. Those gathered demanded that McCulloch step aside in the investigation of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Brown in early August.
On Saturday, up to 2,000 people marched downtown and attended a rally before breaking into small groups for teach-ins and workshops. A candlelight vigil was held in Ferguson, but the group meeting in the Shaw neighborhood led to the more explosive action.