FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - After two nights of relative calm in Ferguson, Missouri, many have expressed hope the violent clashes and looting that followed a white police officer’s shooting of an unarmed black teenager will soon be a thing of the past.
The protests are another matter.
A contingent of U.S. civil rights workers and community activists from Georgia, Florida, Detroit and elsewhere have set up shop in Ferguson and say they plan to remain in the mostly black St. Louis suburb of 21,000 for the long haul.
The patchwork of groups, including the Dream Defenders and the National Lawyers Guild, are holding training and strategy sessions for local young people and others who want to continue to peacefully protest 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death. And they are instructing teams of “legal observers” on how to document complaints of police harassment and abuse.
Because part of the work is actively demonstrating in the streets, the groups are fortified with tear gas masks, first aid kits and other supplies.
They are largely taking refuge in a St. Louis church where workers practice chants, make signs and strategize. The doors are kept locked and alcohol, drugs and weapons are strictly banned, organizers say.
Police have tried to clear them from the building, according to church officials who are providing the building space. But St. Mark Family Church Pastor Tommie Pierson said he will keep the building open as long as the groups need it.
“This is just something we haven’t seen before,” said Montague Simmons, chairman of the local Organization for Black Struggle, which is trying to coordinate the groups’ activities. “Usually we have to really encourage people to get involved. But this is different. It feels like we are organizing in a time of war.”
Organizers say the energy and outrage generated by the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown has ignited a fresh spark in a modern-day civil rights movement. They say it presents an opportunity to build a new generation of activists - trained in the tactics of protests - and a chance to enact change in the community.
“This is tied to a broader problem,” said 25-year-old Michael Sampson, a Florida organizer with the Florida-based Dream Defenders, an activist group that last year occupied the Florida state capitol for 30 nights after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, another racially charged case.
“Our youth need the freedom to live out their lives and their dreams without fear of being killed by a police officer for simply walking down the street, something Michael Brown wasn’t able to do because of police brutality,” Sampson said.
Their success is far from guaranteed. The number of protesters has decreased in recent days, due to a combination of changing police tactics and fatigue among demonstrations. Violence could also flare up again - from their ranks or others - and once more overshadow the larger, more peaceful demonstrations.
Group leaders say they believe the events unfolding in Ferguson will have a place in history alongside the Freedom Rider movement of the 1960s, sit-ins at lunch counters, and other famed U.S. civil rights events. The killing has become a catalyst for a continuing civil rights evolution needed in Missouri and throughout the United States, they say.
A flier one group has been handing out states: “Today It’s Ferguson, Tomorrow It’s You” and pictures white police officers with dogs facing off against black youth with hands raised in the air.
The fateful encounter happened shortly after noon on Aug. 9 as Brown and a friend walked through a residential neighborhood of low apartment buildings. Wilson instructed the two to move out of the road where they were walking and an altercation ensued that led Wilson to leave his car and shoot Brown multiple times, including at least twice in the head, according to authorities.
Brown’s parents and supporters demanded the immediate arrest of Wilson. But protest organizers say they have to be prepared for a possible exoneration of the officer, and stay focused on a larger outcome.
“The more you want to quiet us, the louder our voices will be,” said the Organization for Black Struggle’s Simmons.
Writing by Carey Gillam in Ferguson; Editing by Jim Loney