Onlookers watched from tall office buildings as about 300 rain soaked protesters marched through Clayton Friday afternoon.
The event marked the start of Ferguson October, a series of rallies, marches, and educational events that will run through Monday. Organizers hope this weekend’s events will build momentum for a nationwide movement against police violence and will keep focus on Michael Brown's shooting.
The march in Clayton 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.
Participants in the rally were not all local. Some, such as Langston Sanchez, responded to the call of Ferguson October organizers, asking that people from across the country travel to the St. Louis area to participate.
Sanchez spent 17 hours driving from Massachusetts to be a part of the event. He says he’d do it again.“Now being here it’s really great,” he said. “I mean being with all these people at this march, everyone is really supportive of each other. I’m just trying to take it all in and shout as loud as I can.”
Some who traveled long distances were welcomed into St. Louisans' homes. Sarah Griesbach, one of the organizers of a protest at the St. Louis Symphony last weekend, has five students from Ohio staying with her family. Friday, she brought her mother and children to the march. She thinks people are traveling to the area because there are "Fergusons" everywhere.
“Many of us are only just now peeling away the layers of injustice that have been here long before we began to see them,” she said. “And this is the time for anyone who wants to walk on the right side of history to make sure that we don’t repeat this one again.”
Marvin Martin is a member of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, part of the Ferguson October coalition. He said the events serve as an important reminder that people in Ferguson and across the country are still fighting.
“As you can see, we are out here in the rain,” Martin said. “It’s a lot of people out here in the rain. A lot of people with no umbrellas. A lot of people with no hoodies. We’re not going anywhere, so it’s just a show to let them know that it’s not ever going to be over until there is justice and equality for all.”
Ferguson October events continued into Friday evening. Dozens marched at a candlelight vigil in Ferguson. The crowed carried a mirrored coffin from West Florissant to the Ferguson Police Department on South Florissant.
Another crowd of about 100 people gathered at the Ferguson Police Department. Eventually the two groups merged, marching to place the coffin before the line of officers in front of the police department. The crowed dissipated around midnight.
Early Saturday morning, protesters then gathered in the Shaw neighborhood around the memorial for Vonderrit Myers Jr., a black teenager who was shot by an off-duty white police officer earlier this week. In the Mike Brown case, the 18 year old was unarmed; in the Myers case, the teen had been arrested earlier in the year on a gun charge and police said he fired at the officer. The crowd eventually marched through the Shaw neighborhood and down Grand Boulevard.
As Events Begin, Calls For Peace
Political officials from both the city and the county urged the crowds to stay calm this weekend.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay weighed in on tensions throughout the region after refraining from speaking publicly about Ferguson. In a letter Slay said “with protests on South Grand over the past two nights, though, it is appropriate for me to get involved.”
In his letter he also noted the important role policy would play in moving forward as a region.
“The time has come for people who are pushing for change to meet with the government agencies that can lead change to find common ground, to find solutions to problems, and to identify a way forward for our region,” Slay wrote.
As protesters gathered outside the government headquarters of St. Louis County on Friday, the Democratic nominee for county executive, Steve Stenger, stood inside with a small group of black politicians and pastors to make his plea for protesters to “say yes to peace.”
“And all of us here are challenging others to do the same – our elected officials, clergy, police, all peaceful people who simply want peace,” Stenger said. But he refused to name names, saying it was not appropriate when making a call for peace.
Earlier this month, a coalition of black Democrats announced that they would endorse Stenger’s opponent, Rick Stream, in the county executive race in November. And Maria Chapelle-Nadal, who has been a frequent protester, recently appeared in a television ad for Stream.
Rod Jennings, a University City councilman who stood with Stenger on Friday, told protesters they needed to focus instead on the political process.
“We don’t need to frustrate, we don’t need to agitate, we need to negotiate,” he said. “I’m also calling on the police officers, stop shooting our babies, but again, our babies learn to not become targets and agitate.”
In the city, leaders were also taking stock of the protests in the Shaw neighborhood, which were sparked by the shooting death of 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr.
Friday’s Board of Aldermen meeting was largely routine and uneventful, with only a passing mention to Thursday’s protests during the opening prayer. After the meeting ended, St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed told reporters that protesters have to be careful not alienate potentially sympathetic residents.
He was alluding to how one of the Medicine Shoppe’s windows on South Grand Boulevard was smashed during the protests.
“One of the things we know for sure is that the looting of businesses in the district does not help to progress the cause at all,” Reed said, referencing a window that was smashed at the Medicine Shoppe on South Grand Boulevard . “So the people that are engaging in the looting and are engaging in breaking windows and destroying property – they may be hurting someone that’s supportive to their cause. So I think that’s a really bad move to make.”
Still, Reed said people should “gather” and “peacefully protest.” He added that it “helps raise awareness and it gives people an opportunity to engage.”
“When it progresses to something different, I think that’s when it begins to hurt the cause as opposed to helping it,” Reed said.
Alderman Stephen Conway, D-8th Ward, represents Shaw on the Board of Aldermen. He questioned whether the protesters were missing the bigger picture, adding “the Shaw community has expressed heartfelt sorrow for the loss of this life.”
“What the protesters don’t understand is that we’re a diverse urban community that supports social justice issues across the board,” Conway said. “The community in which they’re protesting in is one that generally would be supportive of protesting in general. But the community is a community of working families. It’s a diverse community. It’s a community of families with children. We are the people that trying to make the city a better place going forward.”
“I don’t think the protesters understand how much heartfelt sorrow we have as a community,” he added. “And how generally supportive our community is of issues of social justice.”
Organizers of Ferguson October are hoping to see that support on Saturday, as more events take place.