FERGUSON, Mo. — David Hoech was the last, and most unexpected, protester of the night. The 74-year-old Vietnam veteran drove 60 miles to Ferguson, where for the last three days unrest has gripped the town following Michael Brown’s killing by a cop. Hoech approached the line of police and SWAT vehicles in his sedan late Tuesday, turned around, and parked. When he opened the door, he leaned on his oxygen tank as police shone a spotlight on him. He walked across West Florissant Avenue, recently vacated by a large, boisterous, yet peaceful crowd that told police “We are Mike Brown.”
David Hoech also had something to say.
“The only thing that matters in all of this is that mother who lost her son,” he said not far from the police line. “I want to give her a hug and tell her I love her. I have four kids and eight grandkids and I haven’t had to bury any one of them. What she’s going through must be terrible.”
If Hoech had shown up hours before, the police response might have been different. Following earlier pleas for calm from the likes of Al Sharpton, the situation became charged just after 7 p.m. Tuesday. For the next three hours, a small group taunted law enforcement. Several times, young men approached police only to have red dots from sniper rifles painted onto their chests. At one point, however, police showed tremendous restraint when a car drove nearly to the line, only to turn around after panicked screams from the officers outfitted in riot gear.
Police Chief Thomas Jackson has said little about the situation and the specifics of Brown’s death, other than the fact the 18-year-old was shot “multiple times” and that the unnamed officer was injured in the face. Outside the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office on Tuesday morning, where a crowd had gathered in anticipation of a press conference held by law enforcement that never materialized, three young men stared down a wall of police holding signs that read “Am I Next?” One of them, Troy Jones, a 19-year-old aspiring photojournalist, remembered Brown from the scrimmage line.
“He was a good matchup,” Jones said of Brown, a defensive lineman for his high school football team.
Standing next to Jones was 18-year-old Gianni Cook, who said the town’s beef with the police wasn’t about race but restraint, or the lack thereof.
“Most importantly it’s about reining in these police officers,” he said.
Early-evening protests Tuesday prompted police to shut down Florissant, a main drag in Ferguson that has been the center of clashes with police Monday night and looting on Sunday.
Just before 7 p.m. the protesters took to the street in front of the torched QuikTime gas station, chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” It’s the popular slogan referencing the belief that Brown was surrendering when he was gunned down. And for the second night in a row, the police tactic of cutting off the main protest area from the rest of the community initially backfired, drawing residents who learned of the cops in riot gear and the redirecting of traffic through word of mouth and rapidly spreading social media posts.
Unlike Monday night, when chaos didn’t rear its head until dusk, a police chopper and the heavy law enforcement presence that preceded it was hovering before the sun went down. But it didn’t last, with only small group staying in the area until just after 10 when they were joined by a marching band of mostly young black men, chanting “Hands up. Don’t shoot” and “No justice, no peace” and “We are Mike Brown.”
The crowd of more than 200 stared down a wall of riot police and said their piece, loudly and peacefully.
Police said nothing after initially warning the group to leave.
Unlike the previous two nights not a single shot was fired.
“I came out here to say what’s right and what’s wrong, and this is wrong,” Sharon Whitaker said. The 57-year-old Gulf War veteran at one point knelt on the pavement in front of police, who were in a protective position behind two SWAT trucks. “We got to watch these kids die and it don’t make no sense. Just because they live in a certain neighborhood doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a chance.”
Brown’s chance is a well-remembered memory here. He was to begin college on Monday but instead, as attorney Benjamin Crump noted at a press conference with Sharpton, Brown’s family was preparing for a funeral. The family has secured the services of Crump, who represented Trayvon Martin’s family.
Brown has taken on legendary status in Ferguson, as the spray paint marking the spot where he died indicates. “I am legend,” it reads.
While many are focused on seeking justice for Brown’s death, some, like Hoech, have said they want only healing and the mending of a community torn apart by the events of the past few days.
“I want to go back there and talk to the people,” Hoech told officers at the police line, eventually succeeding and becoming the only person allowed through all night. “This is America. I can go where I want to go. And if you’re going to shoot my ass, go ahead and shoot me.”
Related Coverage on Ferguson, Missouri:
Ferguson’s Cops Are Armed Like I Was in Iraq
Chaos in Ferguson Is Only Just Beginning