St. Louis – by Jennie Matthew (AFP)
More than 100 protesters marched through St Louis, stepping up pressure on a grand jury to indict a white police officer for shooting dead an unarmed black teenager.
Michael Brown, an 18-year-old high school graduate planning to go to technical college, was shot at least six times by Darren Wilson in the suburb of Ferguson on August 9, inflaming racial tensions.
The shooting sparked weeks of sometimes violent protests and a nationwide debate about police tactics, revived again with the death Sunday of a 12-year-old boy shot by police while waving what turned out to be toy gun in Cleveland.
Sunday’s demonstration in the Shaw neighborhood of St Louis was the largest of five consecutive nights of protests as the city braces for a decision expected by the end of the month from a grand jury on whether Wilson should be prosecuted.
“Hands up, don’t shoot,” and “This is what democracy looks like,” chanted the crowd, banging drums and swaying to the rhythm of the words. “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
Holding placards saying “Black Lives Matter,” men and women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds went on a nearly two-hour march, weaving through the traffic and holding up intersections but dispersing without incident.
Police were criticized for a heavy-handed response to the demonstrations in August.
“I would like to see an indictment because I think it actually helps the community for this person to go to trial,” said theology PhD student Alex Giltner, 31.
“You’ve got social prejudice that is deeply ingrained in the people,” he said. “What needs specifically to reform? Simply everything.”
– It’s about racism –
Teacher Angela Kelly marched alongside her son.
“It’s a good showing. We’re 107 days in now, and, no matter what happens, this is about more than Michael Brown. It’s about police brutality, it’s about racism that is still everywhere in our society,” she said.
“I hope that there is an indictment. I think that this movement is going to non-violently continue, no matter what happens.”
One young woman, a youth worker, came from Atlanta, Georgia to take part in the protests.
“I feel like this is a pivotal moment in American history, and we’re going to look back and wonder who was on the right side of justice and who wasn’t,” said the woman who gave her name only as Megan.
“It’s been a lot calmer than I expected. I think a lot of the protesters really want an indictment, and they really want justice, and they don’t want violence.”
Police have stepped up security as they brace for the grand jury announcement, with many residents fearing that protests could turn violent if Wilson is not indicted.
Outside the Buzz Westfall Justice Center, where the grand jury has been meeting in the suburb of Clayton, metal interlocking fences and orange plastic barricades sealed off the building and the road in front of the entrance.
St Louis County informed businesses and residents that they were securing buildings in downtown Clayton and temporarily restricting traffic in anticipation that protests could turn violent after the jury’s announcement.
“We will keep these traffic restrictions in place as long as they seem prudent,” it said.
– Churches ready to help –
The jury can either indict Wilson, meaning he could face trial for Brown’s death, or determine there is no case for him to answer.
Wilson reportedly told the jury he acted in self-defense after tussling with Brown. Others say Brown had his hands in the air when he was shot dead, his body left in the street for several hours.
US President Barack Obama has called for calm. Missouri’s governor has declared a state of emergency, and the FBI deployed extra personnel.
Ferguson, the mostly black suburb of 21,000, which has an overwhelmingly white police force and town government, is on a knife edge.
Owners have boarded up shops and businesses on the street where protests were concentrated in August, also braced for a violent fallout.
Pastor Willis Johnson told worshipers at Wellspring Church in Ferguson that the church would offer prayer, educational activities for children, free meals, counseling and group therapy after the announcement.
“We’ll have clinical psychologists and interventionists that’ll be here for those who are remonstrating or just trying to deal with what’s going on,” he told AFP.
Brown’s parents mother Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. have also called separately for restraint.