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Ferguson Protesters March On as the Movement's Generational Divide Grows Deeper

In a movement that has been called "Ferguson October," about 1,000 protesters descended on the St. Louis University campus on Sunday.

by Alice Speri
Oct 13 2014, 5:05pm

Photo by Alice Speri

Hundreds of demonstrators participating in what has been dubbed "Ferguson October" peacefully took over the campus of St. Louis University overnight to demand justice for Mike Brown and Vonderrit Myers and ask the university's students to join their movement.

About 1,000 protesters descended on the campus, with many of them marching in silence from a memorial built for Myers, the 18-year-old shot and killed by an off-duty police officer on Tuesday. Demonstrators moved from the memorial in St. Louis's Shaw neighborhood to the university, where they were met with no resistance by campus security.

Students watching from their dorm windows walked out to join the protest — some drawn by a mix of curiosity and bemusement, and others expressing solidarity. One student VICE News spoke to said that students just wanted "to study," and told protesters they should respect the school's property.

But the marchers rushed through the gate and assembled by a fountain in the middle of the campus without incident.

Organizers said they chose the school as a target for their non-violent action because they hoped to draw support from the student body as well as to "disturb their comfort" and encourage them to engage with the city's problems beyond the university walls, a protest leader said.

The parents of Myers, who was killed Oct. 8 by an unnamed off-duty police officer who was working a different job as a private security guard, marched at the front of the protest and thanked the crowd for their support.

At some point, as marchers moved closer to police, Myers' mother put on a mask someone handed her to protect herself from possible tear gas or pepper spray — which area police have used on protesters several times — though did not on Sunday.

"All these people out for my boy," Vonderrit Myers Sr. told a group of protesters that had gathered by his son's memorial earlier in the evening. Flanked by bystanders, including several who were sobbing, Myers Sr. spoke about how he'd hoped his son would survive — and then learning the officer had shot at him 16 times. He told the crowd, "whatever y'all wanna do is fine with me."

St. Louis Protesters Arrested in Weekend of Mass Civil Disobedience. Read more here. 

Photo by Alice Speri

But protest organizers went out of their way to keep the demonstration peaceful, in what is a very deliberate attempt to change a widespread narrative that has focused on the more hostile aspects of the movement. Organizers kept people to the sidewalk the entire time, and the march was silent until it reached the university — successfully showing that hundreds of people could protest in a lawful manner.

The only tense moment came half way through the march, when a line of St. Louis police officers with shields and batons blocked both the road and the sidewalk where protesters were walking.

Protest organizers and several legal observers with the National Lawyers Guild engaged with stone-faced officers, who were not wearing name tags, despite regulations and demands by federal authorities that they do so. In what appeared to be an intimidation attempt, officers beat their batons to the ground, but they refused to talk with protest organizers — who were peacefully asking to be allowed to continue walking on the sidewalk.

"I know there are many good officers out there," a woman from the frontline said to the officers. "You should be ashamed of yourselves."

Other protest leaders called on a couple black officers, telling them that their sons could be victims of the same profiling.

VICE News was on the ground overnight for the demonstrations.  

On campus, demonstrators were joined by some older leaders, like Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and Cornel West, who hugged students and took selfies with them.

West had delivered a keynote address earlier last night, at a "mass meeting" held at St. Louis University Chaifetz Arena, which was offered by the university's administration for an evening of "reflection and prayer."

The three hour event was attended by hundreds of people, and featured a long list of motivational speeches by inter-faith leaders from St. Louis and across the country.

But some in the audience grew frustrated with the tone of the speeches — which were supportive, but passive — and protesters sitting in the audience took to the stage and demanded to speak.

Rev. Traci Blackmon, who ran the event, handed the microphone to them, canceling some other speakers. "My apologies to those who did not get to speak but this is what democracy looks like," she said.

As a handful of protesters "from the frontlines" took to the stage, they talked about feeling abandoned as they carried on in their protest and demands for justice. Some directly called out the president of the NAACP and other "elders" for supporting them in words but not on the streets.

"What do we do with this platform? What's our follow-up? What's our plan?" a young woman asked, adding she feared nothing would change.

"I was hoping for a plan from our elders," another added. "But I was disappointed."

Photo by Alice Speri

As the younger protesters demanded to have a say on stage, the generational divide was made painfully clear. The youth has been at the forefront of this movement, taking the brunt of the teargas and arrests that have taken place in Ferguson since this summer. But as they worked to keep their demands alive and their momentum going, many young protesters said they grew tired of the traditional leadership's rhetoric and lack of concrete action.

"I have been out there since motherfucking August 9," one of them yelled at the crowd from the stage. "If you don't turn up at the motherfucking protest, get the fuck out of here."

"What I see here is peace and solidarity," another young woman said, inviting members of the mass meeting to leave the arena and march outside with their hands locked. "It's good to see you all in the building, but it needs to be outside."

West — who earlier Sunday afternoon had shown up at a packed, free "hip hop for justice" concert downtown, where he spoke of "passing the torch" to the younger generation — said he felt the youth's frustration.

"I didn't come here to give a speech, I came here to go to jail," he said at the mass meeting. "I wanna connect organically with the youth, in their effort."

"Everybody knows that if you shoot somebody down you are supposed to be arrested," he added, to a standing ovation.

Nobody was arrested Sunday night, but a series of "civil disobedience" actions are planned today as the Ferguson movements taps into the civil rights movement tradition and launches its own "moral Monday."

Here's a First Look at the Ferguson Police Department's Internal Code of Conduct.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @AliceSperi

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