Everyone is waiting. The protesters who have taken over a burned-down gas station. The crowd of journalists that has swelled to its largest number. The police who at 5 p.m. were nowhere to be seen. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. The country. The world.
For the fifth night since the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, this St. Louis suburb is preparing for what could be a long night. Many are hoping the events of Wednesday night, when enormous plumes of tear-gas smoke enveloped protesters and chaos reigned, won’t be repeated.
Just after 5:30, hundreds of marchers walked south on West Florissant Avenue, the boulevard that has become a battleground since Brown’s death Saturday night. An indication of a change in tactics, and a possible preview of a peaceful night between police and protesters, the march was led by Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Gov. Nixon tapped Johnson, a black police captain who grew up in Ferguson, to take over security near the main protest zone. Johnson is the first cop not wearing riot gear and carrying an assault rifle to walk down Florissant in the past few days.
“We’re just going along with the new plan and hope it works,” said Capt. Norm Campbell of the St. Louis County Police Department, himself strolling down Florissant armed only with his holstered sidearm.
Not everyone, though, is convinced the change in police leadership will result in peace. Brittany Ferrell held a sign in the parking lot of the torched QuickTime gas station. It read: “The last time they brought dogs and guns to a peaceful rally? Selma, 1963.”
“I think it is a very shallow gesture,” she said of Johnson’s appointment, while her 6-year-old daughter, Mackenzie Davis, circled. Ferrell dropped her daughter off with relatives, but planned on returning at 7 p.m. “I don’t think you should go tonight because the police are acting up,” Davis told her mother.
One of the biggest crowds of the past five days had gathered by 6 p.m. Johnson stood in the middle of the street with other officers.
Ferrell, who flew in from her home in New York earlier in the day, called this a historic moment.
“On our way here I had to tell my daughter what she was about to see, what it’s like to have to fight for justice and not be afraid,” she said.
With dusk approaching, the massive crowd marched north on Florissant. Peace held. For now.