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Just Who Were The Outside Agitators In Ferguson?

(Durrie Bouscaren/St. Louis Public Radio)

It was after midnight on August 19 when Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson stepped to the microphone to give a nightly press briefing on the situation in Ferguson. And he was angry. 

"We are going to make this community whole, and we are going to do it together," he said. "I am not going to let the criminals who have come out here from across this country or live in this community define this neighborhood and define what we are going to do to make it right." 

For the second night in a row, police under Johnson's command in Ferguson had used tear gas to disperse crowds throwing rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at police. Officers had taken gunfire at the entrance to the apartment complex where 18-year-old Michael Brown had been shot and killed by a police officer more than a week earlier. 

Johnson knew exactly who was to blame.

"Protestors don’t clash with police,” he said. "They don’t throw Molotov cocktails. I said that many a criminal element that have been coming to Ferguson are not from the area. Tonight, some of those arrested came from as far away as New York and California."

Who Were The Troublemakers?

St. Louis County arrest records for those two nights don’t provide much clarity as to who touched off the violence. From the morning of August 17 to the morning of August 19, 81 people were arrested. Twenty-two said they were from out of town. Three were apparently German journalists.

But almost all of the out-of-towners were arrested on failure to disperse charges, a class C misdemeanor. It means they were arrested for not listening when police said to move.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol would not make anyone available to answer how the police knew outsiders were to blame for the violence. But pastor RenitaLamkin of the St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Charles, said she figured it out just by being on the streets of Ferguson as a peacekeeper.

"They just seem a little different,” she said. “When you listen, you hear people start talking about what hotel they’re going to after they leave."

Lamkin blamed 80 percent of the violence -- which often brought a heavy police response -- on “outsiders.”

"When they’re not out here, people are peaceful,” she said. “People aren’t out here to get gassed."

Lamkin was particularly galled by one incident she says she witnessed: a young woman handing a Molotov cocktail to a pre-teen boy.

“It’s not fair to suck the people in and manipulate righteous indignation and pain,” she said. “And really what it does is it creates a distraction. The attention isn’t on our cause, it’s on the chaos.”

Defining "Outsider"

There are people who thrive on chaos, according to Remy Cross, an assistant professor of criminology and sociology at Webster University.

“The people that are often kind of engaging in a lot of the more violent behavior are outsiders one way or another,” he said.

Some of the individuals who engaged in violence in Ferguson were  not from the area or even the state, Cross said. But "outsider" can also refer to people who are from the area but are interested in the protests only because they provide an opportunity to engage in criminal activity.

“Once it turns into that sort of situation, you do get people who have been roused to participate, to stand up for themselves,” he said. “I don’t think it can be understated that you’re talking about a community that feels they have been deprived of some of their fundamental rights.”

There are other factors that can also contribute to riot conditions, Cross said. Sometimes, people take action to protect themselves and police view those actions as aggression. And, he added, people will fight back if they feel like they are under attack.

“You can only push some people so far before they react in kind,” he said. “Those would be the people who, when tear gas was shot at them, would pick up the canisters and throw them back or would respond in kind with rocks or Molotov cocktails.”

“I Think The Agitators Are Really The Police”

Jeanina Jenkins works at the McDonald’s in Ferguson, and spent many nights afterward leading protests.

It was only a few people in the crowd who were being violent, she said, but if you move in on someone, they are going to respond.

Credit (UPI/Ray Jones)
Police stand in line with weapons drawn as protesters gather on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri on August 18, 2014.

"I think the agitators are really the police. A plastic bottle isn’t going to hurt anyone,” Jenkins said. “We’re being peaceful and they’re still trying to control us. “

Some Ferguson residents didn’t care who was to blame.

“What matters is that we were trying to keep the peace,” said Timothy Woods, the pastor at First Free Will Baptist Church in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood in St. Louis. “They wanted to put a name on it, so that’s what they did. Regardless to what it was, it was people. And you can’t just label people. That’s what the protests have been about. You can’t just label us. These are individuals, these are people.”

Whatever the reality of who started the violence, it can be comforting to label them as "outsiders," said Mike Kinman, the dean at Christ Church Cathedral.

“In times like this, that are profoundly uncomfortable and scary, we tend to tell ourselves whatever stories will make us more comfortable,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the story is true or false. It means the story is attractive.”

Kinman spent some time offering pastoral care to residents of the apartment complex where Mike Brown was shot. He also served as a peacekeeper at the protests.

To him, the phrase "outsider” was comforting because he wanted to believe that a community wouldn’t harm itself through looting and violence. But, Kinman said, the language has troubling implications for the future.

“Say it was outside agitators, people who came in to make trouble. If we use that as a way to say so it isn’t that bad, that’s a mistake,” he said.

Even if you are an outsider, he said, you don’t burn down a building if things are going well.

An Outsider’s View Of Ferguson

On August 16, DeRay McKesson decided he could no longer just watch on TV what was going on in Ferguson.

The Baltimore native got in his car and drove nine hours from Minneapolis, calling a college friend to secure a place to stay. He arrived in time to join protesters on the front lines that night.

McKesson said he originally came to bear witness. But when he arrived on West Florissant Avenue, he thought that an injustice had taken place.

"At a very basic level in Ferguson, people are asking for a semblance of justice," he said. "Like, can there be an investigation update? Did his body need to lay out for four-and-a-half hours? People aren’t asking for the most radical of things. And that resonates with me as someone who believes that kids should grow up in a world where they should have access to what we believe freedom should be."

McKesson spent eight days protesting, including the nights of August 17 and 18. He said he found a very principled crowd.

"People are marching and protesting because they feel connected to the issue," he said. "There are a lot of young people who are noting they want to be leaders in this moment and their community."

McKesson said the number of out-of-state protesters grew as the week went on, some of whom were drawn by the injustices at the sight of tear gas flying in an American street.

"Some outside people were potentially more aggressive in the moment than necessary with either other protesters or police, but I wouldn’t say that would be the majority of them," he said. "I don’t think they were trying to hijack it." He added that none of the provocation deserved the police response he saw.

McKesson also said he saw none of what highway patrol Capt. Ron Johnson or Gov. Jay Nixon described as an outside criminal element.

"I don’t think the governmental structures in Missouri are equipped to deal with what it means when a black community is experiencing pain and anger and frustration and distrust all at the same time," he said. "I saw the mayor (James Knowles III) and Capt. Johnson say to people when they were being pressed with questions, ‘Don’t talk to me if you’re not from here.’ That is a way to deflect some of the real tough question that people have that maybe people in the area haven’t had an opportunity to ask."

McKesson also found the notion of “outsiders” insulting to the residents of Ferguson.

“It was an attempt to say the people of Ferguson don’t actually believe that this is injustice and they are being riled up by other people,” he said. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.