A fifth night of protests in Ferguson over the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, took a peaceful turn on Thursday. As the sun fell, cars rolled down the town’s main street, honking relentlessly. People leaned out of passenger windows — some sat on top of vehicles — chanting the signature call, "Hands up, don't shoot." Demonstrators cheered along the sidewalk, passing out water and candles.
Not a single gas mask or assault rifle could be seen, and the air was free of tear gas. The few cops on the scene actually looked like cops, rather than the armor-clad soldiers the world saw on Wednesday. Under the new leadership of the Missouri State Highway Patrol and Capt. Ronald Johnson, an African-American who grew up in Ferguson, the police restrained themselves. Johnson walked through crowds, listening to residents' frustrations, shaking hands, and even hugging protesters.
Andriea Pleas, a 27-year-old underwriter wearing Chuck Taylors, expressed relief. Pleas lives in a quaint house just down the street from the torched QuikTrip that has become the center of protest activity. Tonight is the first night of peace her neighborhood has seen since Monday.
"Those horns behind me? This is all we wanted to do this whole time," Pleas said. "But we couldn't. Because before you could get to the street, you had a SWAT truck. You had guns pointed at you. You had dogs. And you had a whole line of officers in front of you telling you, 'You can't go through. You gotta go home.' We've been dealing with this since Monday."
Pleas lives with her mother. Her grandmother lives in the same neighborhood. All three have lived in Ferguson their entire lives. "It's a peaceful place to grow up. Everybody needs to know this is not a violent municipality. We're not ground zero," Pleas said. We walk along well-kept lawns to her grandmother's home.
Mary Robinson, 65, agrees to speak on her porch, so long as I don't photograph her yellow pajamas. Back here, near the neighborhood cul de sac, a chorus of chirping crickets overpowers the blaring horns in the distance.
Robinson was one of two black students to break the integration barrier at her middle school. "We got in so many fights. One guy told us, 'Oh, you think you're at a damn picnic coming here.' My girlfriend punched him in the face," she recalls, laughing. After finishing school, she worked for twenty-five years as a correctional officer for St. Louis City. "I saw nothing but black faces in that jail." She talks about raising a son in Ferguson, teaching him how to deal with the police. "They used to mess with him and his friends all the time. They'd stop them and frisk them and take them to jail for no reason."
"Ferguson has changed tremendously," Robinson remarks, noting the town’s complete flip-flop in racial demographics over the last three decades. Ferguson was 85 percent white and 14 percent black in 1980, compared with 29 percent white and 69 percent black in 2010. "But the system hasn’t changed. You still have only three black police officers. The school board is still mostly white."
Robinson had been wanting to attend the protest since it began, agreeing with demonstrators that, "It was awful the way the police killed that boy. There should be an arrest of that officer." Tonight, after days of being "held hostage" in her own home, Robinson could safely walk a few minutes down the street to show her support for the Brown family.
"I knew I had to go [to the protest] at least once, but before tonight, I was too scared. It was so nice. We sat out there and watched Don Cornelius — wait, not Don Cornelius. You know who I’m talking about. Who's the guy on CNN?"
"Don Lemon. I keep wanting to call him Don Cornelius. Anyway, it was so nice. I'm glad I got a chance to go one night. And I was so proud of those young people."