Agitators Have Hijacked Ferguson Protests

A handful of outside troublemakers and local young men in bandanas have distracted the media from the real story—the fate of Michael Brown.

08.19.14 9:36 AM ET

FERGUSON, Missouri — Among the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, a small group is causing most of the trouble, drawing attention away from the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and toward the captivating images of tear gas smoke, fleeing residents and cops in battle gear that have become part of a huge international news story.

On Monday night the agitators had their way once again.

Joey Johnson, a member of the Revolution Club of Chicago, did his best to incite a violent reaction from police not far from a group of men who worked to hold back others. After hours of walking in long, oval circles on sidewalks along West Florissant Avenue, (protesters weren’t allowed in the road by police until their numbers grew too great) a group of about 1,000 marchers approached a line of police in newly fallen darkness. Once there, in front of the largest gathering of media yet, some from the community worked to prevent confrontation. Johnson worked to do the opposite.

There was a scuffle near the front line of police in SWAT gear that nearly prompted the violent reaction many have come to expect after this chaotic week, and Johnson was in the middle of it. When he came out, Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who has been documenting the protests and was arrested for “unlawful assembly,” was standing over Johnson. French did not look pleased.

The Revolution Club of Chicago, in concert with the Revolutionary Communist Party, has been in Ferguson since at least Wednesday. They aren’t the only ones who have been aggressive with police, but, perhaps as a response to the arrest of two of its members Monday afternoon, Johnson felt he had a point to make.

But he wasn’t the only one. The night once again ended in smoky chaos as a small group of protesters egged on police to the point of reaction. Some in that group were clearly outsiders. Others were young men from the area, their faces covered in bandanas, ready for anonymous rampage.

Ronald Harris, who lives not far from Ferguson Market and Liquor, considers himself part of the younger generation despite his 41 years. He said there are two groups of local protesters, divided by age.

“The older group, they’re all about prayers and peaceful marching. [They can] come out and march until their feet turn to blisters, but at night, keep your women and children at home,” he said, adding that the violence and clashes with police over the past week have been seen as acceptable among his friends. “Our generation is the one getting pulled over by police, getting harassed by police, getting killed by police.

“We’re out here every day.”

And they’ll continue to be.

“People are tired of this system of oppression,” he said.

That system, Harris said, on Monday extended to when, where and how protesters were allowed express their displeasure with police.

Demonstrators stand in the middle of West Florissant as they react to tear gas fired by police during ongoing protests in reaction to the shooting of teenager Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, August 18, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR42WM6

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Monday brought even more restrictions for protest zone than has existed since Brown’s death last Saturday. And while police have rightfully been criticized for their heavy-handed approach to the protests that have gone on since Brown’s death, the intelligence they’ve gathered regarding some of the more riotous protesters has been correct. Those who wish to do physical harm to law enforcement are small in number, and subversive in tactics.

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Eric Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party was among them. “I have an ironic problem,” he said. “I can’t stand on my own two feet. I have to keep moving.” Hundreds of other protesters also had to keep moving or face arrest, so they marched. They went up and down Florissant, where demonstrations were at first riotous, then jubilant after a security takeover by Capt. Ron Johnson and his Missouri State Highway Patrol, and finally violent again, with residents and protesters fleeing from police tear gas and rubber bullets on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Still, the residents of Ferguson who have been enraged over Brown’s killing went home Monday night without getting what they wanted: the arrest and indictment of the officer who shot and killed Brown, Darren Wilson.

“We want Darren Wilson,” some shouted at police just before the multiple rounds of tear gas that ended Monday night’s protest were fired.

The police tactics employed Monday night were to control and contain, although there was no sign of the National Guard. Protesters were restricted to sidewalks, and journalists once again were confined to an area derisively referred to as “the playpen,” an area that included the parking lot of Ferguson Market and Liquor and a patch of grass in front of the McDonald’s where last week police pulled a catch and release on reporters Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly. The threats to members of the media continued Monday, culminating with the arrest and release of Getty Images photographer Scott Olson. At the QuikTrip gas station, broadcast news crews were told to leave Monday afternoon, and later in the evening CNN’s Don Lemon was threatened with arrest while reporting live.

The handling of the press, while increased in its forcefulness in the last two days, is consistent with the media’s treatment over the past week. Ostensibly for their own safety, police at times have refused access to the main protest zone, threatening arrest if journalists are found behind the lines.

But as the tear gas canisters were being fired Monday night, the number of protesters was nearly equaled by photographers in gas masks and smartphone-wielding reporters. Once again the focus of Tuesday’s papers and late Monday news stories focused on the sideshow, and not the burning questions surrounding the death of a young man who would have entered his second week of college today.