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Ferguson's Struggles Attract Out-Of-Towners To Protest Without Violence

Jay Mattson stands outside Ferguson's Police Station with his parents Kevin and Vicky Mattson. The Athens, Ohio, family traveled to Ferguson to join the growing protest over Michael Brown's death.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Jay Mattson stands outside Ferguson's Police Station with his parents Kevin and Vicky Mattson. The Athens, Ohio, family traveled to Ferguson to join the growing protest over Michael Brown's death.

On a sweltering Tuesday outside the Ferguson Police Station, a dedicated group of protestors blessed a late lunch of water, fruit and fried chicken to fuel their demonstration.

This is one of the central hubs where people have demonstrated after a Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown. Most of the protestors have come from the St. Louis area. But on this day, they’re getting a little help from Kevin, Vicky and Jay Mattson. The Athens, Ohio, family made a detour from unrelated travels to get to Ferguson.

Kevin Mattson, a history professor, said it’s “our responsibility to show support for people who are nonviolently protesting their mistreatment.” But Brown’s death strikes a particularly deep nerve for the Mattsons: Kevin and Vicky are white, while their son Jay is black.

“It’s really more of just being African American and seeing a kid that’s only two years older than me just get shot for what seems like no reason,” Jay Mattson said. “And it’s really just sad. And it makes me worry about how I’m going to act when I leave the small town that I live in now. Because everybody grew up with me. And they know who I was. But when I move away, I don’t know how other people are going to react to me.”

As protests over Michael Brown’s shooting death continue, there’s increased attention over out-of-towners intentionally causing trouble. But there’s another side to the story: People from the around the region and across the country have converged on Ferguson to join a growing movement over the 18-year-old’s death.

Some are from towns just outside of Ferguson proper, such as Florissant, University City and Hazelwood. But many are from far away locales such as Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit and southern Illinois.

“If you look around and see what’s going on, it’s an opportunity to repair a lot of wrong,” said Fairview Heights resident Louis Berryman. “We have to use it as an opportunity to make some changes in our judicial system. And to unite black, white, Mexican — everybody.”

Behind the movement

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Debbie Williams, center, came to Ferguson from Detroit, Michigan.

What prompts someone to travel hundreds of miles to get to Ferguson? Some want to support Brown and his family. Others want to speak out against what they see as a lethargic judicial process or an antagonistic relationship between police and African Americans.

Then there are people like Detroit resident Debbie Williams, a social worker who came to Ferguson to get young people more enthused about organizing for political action.

“I think that the young people should divert their energy into the political aspect of going out here, writing a petition out,” Williams said. “If they can do that kind of stuff, that is the positive way to go to channel their anger – through the electoral system.”

“To me, it’s revolutionary”

Others who have come to Ferguson from out of state see the outcry over Brown’s death as a sort of awakening for blacks in America. Included in that line of thought is Corey Hardiman from Chicago.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
A group of visitors pose in front of the QuikTrip that burned down after Michael Brown died.

“When I turn and I look at this QuikTrip, I see a wake up call. I see a call to action,” said Hardiman, who is running for Chicago’s City Council. “I see a call to action. I see a call that needs to modernize our people to understand the importance of education, the importance of working together. And most of all, the importance of saying no matter what color, creed or where you come from — we are all one people.”

Hardiman is referring to the QuikTrip that rioters burned down shortly after Brown died. Until it was fenced up on Tuesday, it had become a makeshift gathering place for protestors — attracting everyone from Buddhist monks to the inventor of Twitter.

It was fairly common to see people like Erica Thomas take pictures in front of the gas station’s charred remains. She emphasized that she doesn’t condone looting or violence. But she said the gas station may represent the beginning of a major movement.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, chats with Jack Dorsey last Sunday at the QuikTrip in Ferguson. Dorsey, a St. Louis native who helped create Twitter, is one of the many people who ventured to Ferguson from out of town.

“I’m not really proud of what happened at this gas station,” Thomas said. “But I will say that, to us, it’s kind of like revolutionizing. It’s like we see this and it takes me back to years and years ago when you know there were riots trying to fight for us as black people.”

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French lamented that it was “kind of interesting” that the QuikTrip became a central place for protests.

“It might just be convenience of its location and that it has a roof and people can stand here,” French said. “For a lot of people, they kind of see this as where a revolution started or something. It can mean different things to different people. But yeah, it is interesting how certain things take on certain meanings.”

“A country mile”

The local reaction to the protestors has been a bit mixed. Some people who live or work in Ferguson aren’t exactly thrilled by how the demonstrations have altered their daily lives.

Arianna Robinson lives in the Canfield Green Apartment complex, close to where Brown was shot. She doesn’t find any reason to glorify QuikTrip’s demise — especially since it was the primary place where she bought everyday necessities.

“It’s terrible. I mean where are we going to go?” Robinson said. “Ain’t no stores over here. We have to go a country mile to go anywhere now.”

From a less practical perspective, St. Louis city resident Richard Davis thinks protestors might be missing the bigger picture. When he saw this reporter next to the QuikTrip holding a microphone, he pulled his truck over to talk to me.

Davis doesn’t understand how a movement starts over Brown’s death, but nothing happens when his fellow African Americans kill each other.

“It just seems like everything is very senseless with what’s going on in our black community,” Davis said. “I feel like the young folks, I understand their anger. But I don’t understand why they can’t express the same anger and feelings when they’re killing each other out on the streets and there are innocent people getting killed that are young.”

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Marcellus Buckley, right, and Alex Collins stand outside the McDonald's on South Florissant Avenue in Ferguson.

But demonstrators like Marcellus Buckley appreciate the presence of outside help. The poet from Spanish Lake says the national anger over Brown’s death makes sense, especially since blacks around the country have problems with the police.

“It’s not just national news. It’s a national problem,” Buckley said. “It’s not just here in St. Louis. It’s not just in Chicago or New York. It’s everywhere. Everywhere you go. It might not be in Beverly Hills, because they’ve got money and all this stuff. But we’re in poverty.

“Once you see me walking down the street, you might think something negative,” he added. “Hey, I got dreads and I’ve got my pants a little bit off my waist. And I’m a criminal. So, it’s just a national problem.”

Kevin Mattson, the Athens, Ohio, father, wonders whether what’s going on in Ferguson will have a long-term impact on policing or the plight of young black men. He said he hopes it does, but adds he can't predict the future.

“I don’t know if it’s going to have the long-term impact that I think a lot of us who are here right now hope that it does,” Mattson said. “I do think, though, if you put it into wider context of things, there’s been a lot of this sort of thing happening. I think there’s building momentum and people demanding change. So I’m hopeful that there will be a long-term outcome from this.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.