Ferguson’s could-be Mike Browns take a furious pride in the chaos they’ve caused. Their pride arose from despair about a system that they believe has failed them over and over again.
Protesters flip over a Ferguson police car in Ferguson, Missouri, November 25, 2014.
Jim Young / Reuters
Ferguson, Missouri — From his perch on Ferguson Avenue, Victor Mooring found a panoramic view of the smoldering remains from the previous night.
The embers from a dying blaze could be seen about a mile down West Florissant Boulevard. Several businesses along the street were charred beyond recognition. And in an ominous coincidence, the small business plaza that contained the non-profit organization Heal STL was now a burned-out shell. Tuesday afternoon, the once-bustling retail corridor resembled an abandoned battlefield.
Mooring shrugged at the desolation that unfolded before his eyes.
"I don't have any emotion about it," said Mooring, a 21-year-old rapper known as "Jip" who lives only a few miles away. "It might be a fucked up thing to say: But I'm proud of them for that."
This furious pride — common among young protesters in Ferguson — arose from despair about a system that they believe has failed them over and over again, and especially on Monday. Few had full-time jobs. Many were high school dropouts. Some were gang members.
When journalists asked for interviews, they asked for money or, in some cases, food. If they didn't get it, they didn't talk. And they didn't even try to hide their contempt for the police, cursing at them from a distance and vowing to return day after day until someone finally heard them. "You see those pigs?" one bald-headed, broad-shouldered black man told his elementary school-aged son, pointing to the officers in the street. "We don't fuck with cops. Understand?"
They weren't interested in plans for peaceful demonstrations that were scheduled around the St. Louis area for Monday. Once the grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown, they wanted more fires, more confrontations with police, and more attention for their role in bringing Ferguson to a standstill.
"I feel like the world should see this," Mooring said. "This is bigger than Mike Brown."
Their rage — and their pride in their rage — helps explain why local leaders and activists seemed dubious that a peaceful resolution would come to Ferguson anytime soon.
At least four buildings were burnt to a crisp Monday night, and more were burning Tuesday night as this story was written. At least two police cruisers were torched Tuesday, and protesters smashed windows at City Hall. The National Guard and SWAT teams were called in, and officers deployed flash bombs and tear gas. The West Florissant corridor's row of mostly scrappy small businesses may never be the same. For young Ferguson residents such as Mooring, it was a small price to pay for treating Brown's life as worthless.
While many storefronts along West Florissant Avenue had been boarded up in preparation for the grand jury's decision, many people were still surprised at the intensity of the rage that has erupted. But, in fact, it had been simmering all along among the town's one in four residents who live in poverty and, especially, the nearly half of Ferguson's young black men who don't have a job.
These are the could-be Mike Browns, alienated not only from the mostly white police and elected officials in Ferguson, but also from leaders within the local own black community. They didn't come to non-violent training sessions held around town over the past few weeks. They didn't sign up for newsletters detailing a protest plan. They never met with or had discussions with police or public officials.
"It was people who didn't go to those," meetings, said Taurean Russell, a St. Louis native and co-founder of Hands-Up United. "They were just emotionally charged people who came out last night."
Outside of the Ferguson police headquarters Monday night, these young people blended more easily into the crowd than they did in August, when they came out shirtless, in sagging pants, and with bandannas wrapped around their mouths and necks. This time, they wore what everyone does for freezing temperatures: heavy coats, hooded sweatshirts and skull caps. It was their eagerness to confront the officers and state troopers clad in riot gear that soon identified them.
"Fuck the police," they chanted, echoing the chorus of a West Coast hip-hop anthem from the late 1980s.
Police accused protesters of throwing rocks and other objects at them. To break up the crowd they soon turned to armored vehicles, smoke bombs, and tear gas.
As they protesters fled north on South Florissant Boulevard, many of them smashed out the windows of businesses along the quaint little downtown corridor. They saved their worst damage for Ferguson Optical, Ferguson Hardware, a Boost Mobile store, and a bank.
From there, many fanned out around the town of 21,000 and targeted businesses all along the way, including a Walgreens, a chicken restaurant, and an auto parts store.
"There's just an element in our community that doesn't want to do anything by the books," said Hubert Hoosman, who owns a real estate business on the South Florissant corridor and is a member of the St. Louis County NAACP. "You'd think we'd be beyond that at this point and time. It's a shame how a few people mess it up for the masses."
But Eddie Becton, a Ferguson native and former African-American studies professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said the response shouldn't have been a surprise given the well-known racial turmoil within the city. "People are tired of getting their asses kicked," Becton said. "They've had enough of being treated this way by their government."
But it's not just the government they're mad at. It's also their own leaders.
"I respect my elders but all they did was lead us into tear gas," said Ferguson native Rodney Vance, a 26-year-old rapper who goes by the name "Juggy." "This generation, we're just not going to have it. Not here in St. Louis. The older generation can't really tell us shit."
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