ST. LOUIS • As marchers in the Shaw neighborhood trudged past cinders of American flags burned to protest another shooting of a black youth by a white cop, someone shouted a question that was on everyone’s mind.
“Where the hell are we going?”
A protester near the front of the pack bellowed back, “We’re just walking.”
At the end of the FergusonOctober weekend that drew thousands of protesters to events across the area, some local activists are wondering where they go from here.
Patricia Bynes, of Ferguson, an almost-constant presence on the front lines of protests since the death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, said the weekend’s high-energy events injected fresh enthusiasm into the movement.
“It’s called a movement for a reason,” Bynes, 35, said. “Because it has to keep moving ahead. People are counting on us and we can’t let them down. This weekend didn’t go perfectly, but we got a lot of momentum out of it.”
Among those imperfections, Bynes said, was behavior at protests by some new participants that struck veteran demonstrators as out of sync, if not inappropriate.
In particular, she cited a protest Saturday night in front of the Ferguson police station that, at one point, morphed into a street party.
“That night, the movement felt co-opted. Music was blaring. People were dancing and singing,” she said.
“Among us protesters, there was a huge divide. We felt, ‘This is not a party. This is a protest.’”
At the other end of the spectrum, Bynes said, were out-of-town protesters who brought anger to spare.
“They displayed a confrontational anger that reminded me of how we felt back on Aug. 9. They were screaming and cursing at police and it was kind of like, ‘Whoa!’
“It took us two weeks to work through that type of rage and righteous anger,” she said.
Bynes said that, going forward, activists here planned to pressure local and state leaders.
“We are going to start directly engaging the mayors of Ferguson and St. Louis and the Board of Aldermen in the city,” she said. “This is where the energy needs to be directed.”
A FergusonOctober event on Sunday at the Lafayette Park Methodist Church in Lafayette Square gave an indication of the variety of causes represented at protests over the weekend: Artists for Peace, Church of the Stop Shopping in NYC, anti-gun groups, political action operatives, immigrant rights activists, environmentalists.
All were drawn by the heat and light of the Ferguson movement.
It was to be expected, FergusonOctober spokesman Mervyn Marcano said on Monday.
“People can have academic conversations about the intersection of poverty and race and social justice issues, and this is a situation that brings all of that to bear,” said Marcano, 29, of Oakland, Calif.
But that did not mean the Ferguson message got muddled, he said.
“From day one, justice for Mike Brown has always meant justice for all. This is a budding national movement against police violence,” he said.
Marcano said that he did not have accurate crowd estimates from events but that some of them, such as the march in downtown St. Louis on Saturday, had drawn thousands.
Social media attention on Ferguson in and of itself made the event a “huge success,” Marcano said.
“We had tens of thousands of people all over the world following us on live streams,” he said.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the Washington-based social justice group Sojourners, who attended the weekend’s protests, first felt the pull of Ferguson while overseas.
“I was in South Africa on Aug. 9 when Michael Brown was shot and killed, and his name came up in every single interview I did there,” Wallis, 66, said. “This is an international story, a parable of Ferguson, if you will.”
On Monday, Wallis was among dozens of people arrested in Ferguson near the police station. The experience was nothing new to him. He said he had been arrested 23 times, from South Africa to Chicago, at protests over causes ranging from homelessness to racial justice.
Wallis said a certain etiquette was required of outsiders who joined protests in other cities, one that is not always obeyed.
“As an outsider, this was not my agenda, it was theirs (the Ferguson protesters’). When you come from outside, you listen very carefully and humbly to the local leaders,” he said.
There is listening. There is speaking. And then there is showing.
A veteran of the Ferguson protests, Molly Greider of Creve Coeur, said that some demonstrators in Ferguson on Saturday night did not appear to grasp the gravity of the protests and their occasionally harsh consequences.
“A lot of the regular protesters were upset and offended by the party atmosphere,” Greider said. “We have had our fun moments but Ferguson isn’t a nightclub. We’ve also been hurt and terrorized by police.”
Another local activist, Dhoruba Shakur, 24, arranged what proved to be an enlightening field trip for the newcomers.
“We took them on a quick trip to the QT in the Grove neighborhood,” said Greider, 28, who works as a paralegal for a Clayton law firm. About 150 protesters engaged in a sit-in there that ended with 17 arrests and numerous participants’ getting pepper-sprayed.
“It worked well,” she said. “You could see people understanding just how terrifying it can be to face angry police in riot gear.”
By the same token, Greider said local activists learned valuable lessons in leadership from their outside counterparts.
“We had kind of prided ourselves on being leaderless but we learned that, for some direct actions, that was not always the best approach,” she said. “If someone has a good idea, a good plan, it sometimes just makes sense to listen and follow.”
Paul Hampel covers Illinois for the Post-Dispatch.
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