One year after the police shooting of an unarmed black teen thrust Ferguson, Missouri, into the national spotlight, the St. Louis suburb is bracing for a weekend of protests over continued complaints of police violence.
Civil rights activists, religious leaders and others from around the United States are converging on the mostly black community of about 21,000 to commemorate the life and death of 18-year-old Michael Brown and call for improvements in relations with police.
The events, many organized by Brown’s father, include marches, concerts and a moment of silence at midday on Sunday on the street where Brown was killed on Aug. 9, 2014.
“I’m expecting hundreds if not thousands of people,” said Tommie Pierson Sr., pastor of the Greater St. Mark Family Church, where a service honoring Brown is scheduled this weekend. “We are not anticipating any violence. However, you have to always be prepared.”
Pierson’s church held a “de-escalation” training session on Sunday to prepare for potential clashes between protesters and police this weekend.
Brown’s death sparked months of sometimes violent protests both in Ferguson and around the United States following subsequent police killings of unarmed black men in several other cities. It also spurred the “Black Lives Matter” movement that has cast a spotlight on long-troubled relations between police and minority residents of many U.S. cities.
A year after rioters burned a convenience store and hurled rocks and gasoline bombs at police, who responded with teargas and rubber bullets, the Chosen for Change foundation founded by Brown’s family is planning what it calls a weekend of “positive and peaceful” events.
Area law enforcement leaders say they also want a peaceful weekend and have been meeting with protest groups to discuss strategies to make sure that is the case, said Ferguson city spokesman Jeff Small. The Ferguson police force of 50 will be fully staffed this weekend and will have the help of the much larger St. Louis County police force, he said.
Ferguson’s police came under heavy criticism for their militarized response to last August’s protests, when they used heavy armored vehicles, dogs and noise cannons on crowds of protesters, at times escalating the violence in Ferguson’s streets.
That response prompted U.S. President Barack Obama in May to require U.S. police departments to provide additional justification for using heavy equipment such as armored military-style vehicles and riot shields.
‘NOT THE FIRST ONE’
Brown died after being shot multiple times by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson after a confrontation with Wilson on a sunny Saturday afternoon as Brown and a friend walked through their neighborhood.
Images of the teen’s body, which lay in the street for more than four hours, and an aftermath in which police officials defended Wilson’s actions and characterized Brown as a thug and a thief, enraged many in the black community.
“He (Brown) was one, but not the first one, to be murdered by policing authorities and obviously he wasn’t the last,” said Montague Simmons, chairman of the Organization for Black Struggle, one of the groups planning protests. “People want to see something different. They want safety to mean something different.”
The grand jury that reviewed the case found Wilson had broken no laws, but that decision provoked a second wave of rioting in Ferguson three months after Brown’s death.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said the city has made many reforms in the last year, though it still has more to do. This weekend Ferguson will not officially recognize the anniversary of Brown’s death. Instead, it will sponsor a job fair Saturday and a back-to-school event Sunday at the local community center as an alternative, Knowles said.
“We hope people will choose to do something community oriented, focus on moving the community forward together as opposed to anything that might be disruptive,” Knowles said.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Scott Malone and Eric Beech)