Monday, October 13, 2014


Protesters and police see need to make tactical shifts in battle over Brown shooting

 Protesters may be using many of the same chants and marching on many of the same streets they did in the weeks after the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown this summer, but there’s little doubt that things are not the same.

A weekend of planned demonstrations, discussions and even a concert has brought hundreds — perhaps thousands — to the St. Louis area. And in many ways, Ferguson October, as the event has been dubbed, likely will come to symbolize the moment that protesters and police alike made some significant adjustments.

The level of disagreement hasn’t eased, and it likely intensified in this latest battle over the use of excessive force against African Americans by police.

But both sides have tried to raise their game, so to speak, and that has meant a change in tactics.

Demonstrators don’t want to be marginalized and have their deeply felt grievances diminished by poor organization and undisciplined behavior.

And area police departments — while standing ready to defend officers’ actions — know there have been major missteps with protesters since Brown’s shooting on Aug. 9

Protesters who have spent weeks literally screaming for justice — vowing that “if we don’t get it? Shut it down!” — have decided on more strategic and what they hope will be effective defiance.

So peaceful marches are now heavily coordinated with police.

Local clergy, who once worked to coordinate crowd control at marches, are now wielding bullhorns and announcing economic boycotts.

And those protesters who were being hauled off to jail for standing still for five seconds on public sidewalks — a judge recently struck down the practice — are now deliberately staging nighttime acts of civil disobedience on private property to provoke arrests.

Meanwhile, police practices of deploying tear gas and rubber bullets and arresting demonstrators for violating noise ordinances and five-second rules are being rejected.

Authorities are trying to manage a softer style.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, who took over control of the effort to police the protests, vowed during an interview this month to ensure that protesters who were assembling peacefully and lawfully would not be arrested.

“We want to take a relaxed attitude,” he said.

And early Saturday evening, when hundreds of protesters — led by Brown’s mother — marched to the Ferguson Police Department chanting at officers, police stood in regular uniforms facing the protesters, some of the officers smiling and even chatting on occasion.

Things are likely to intensify Monday when Ferguson October will culminate with more civil disobedience. On Sunday, organizers gathered at a church to finalize their plans but declined to share any details.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson has been planning, too.

His department is one St. Louis’s top cop shops, a force that other officers working in small municipalities want to join.

In those early days after Brown’s shooting, when Ferguson and St. Louis County police were facing down protesters with tear gas and tanks, Dotson was shaking his head. That’s not the way to do things, he told news media.

And days later when one of his own officers fatally shot a 25-year-old black man, he immediately went to the scene and talked to outraged community members.

On Saturday morning, he greeted demonstrators during a march in downtown St. Louis, just days after another of his officers shot an 18-year-old who authorities said first shot at police. Family members of Vondrette Myers Jr. , who was awaiting a gun charge, deny he was armed when he was killed.

Saturday morning was one thing for Dotson and his officers. That night was another story.

Protest organizers launched a surprise act of civil disobedience. In the early-morning hours, they marched from where Myers was shot to a QuikTrip gas station.

They staged a sit-in directly in front of the business, linking arms and forcing officers to arrest 17 activists for unlawful assembly.

It was the first time that any demonstrator had been taken into custody that weekend.

“This movement ain’t about permits, office space, celebrity co-signs, clever T-shirts and hashtags,” said Charles Wade in a series of tweets Sunday afternoon. “That was the point last night. This is a ‘weekend of resistance.’ Resistance last night = willful disruption & disobedience.”

When protesters sat for four minutes of silence in honor of Brown, officers also kept the quiet — with many of them turning off their radios.

But things took a turn. And at one point, Dotson tweeted that rocks were being thrown.

Dotson said his officers reported rocks were thrown during the march, but he later said no injuries were reported. The rock-throwing was not documented in photos or on video.

He also said that as police were clearing the crowd at the QuikTrip, a rock was thrown from the crowd toward the officers. It came within about 15 feet of him and was about the size of a baseball.

Protesters denied that rocks were thrown.

Ultimately though, Dotson said, arrests were not triggered by any rock-throwing. Rather, it was because protesters shut down a private business and were “unlawfully” gathered on private property and refused to leave.

Pepper spray was also deployed. It was used on select individuals who pressed up against officers’ shields as they tried to move protesters back to the sidewalk, Dotson said. “Pepper spray was not used on the people who were passively resisting on the ground,” he said. “It was directed to specific individuals who were resisting officers’ efforts to clear the grounds.”

Prior to the Ferguson protests, Dotson said, his department was focused on community policing. But as he began to prepare his 1,300-member department for the civil unrest that might follow if a grand jury does not indict Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, he decided it was time to train for mass demonstrations.

So far, 250 officers have received the training and civil disobedience gear — helmets and shields.

“Really, it’s a discipline. They learn how to stand and move as a group in a straight line. How to move in formation. How to peacefully arrest individuals,” he said. “These aren’t SWAT guys.”

Dotson said it’s exactly the process officers followed Saturday.

“If I could have gone through the evening without arresting anyone that would have been a great evening,” he said. “The 17 people made the decision to get arrested.”

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