Calls for calm as Missouri town teeters on the brink
Published 20/08/2014 | 02:30
"Relax, Relax!" The tall black gentleman in the lime green shirt pleads through a megaphone, though the raw urgency in his demeanour and voice tells you that even he is struggling to heed his own admonition. He knows more bad stuff could be seconds away. "Tonight, it's not going down, it's not going down tonight."
The leader of a group called Black Lawyers for Justice, Malik Shabazz isn't alone in joining the throng once again protesting against the shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, 10 days ago, urging the restless, nervy crowd to stay within the bounds of lawful protest, not to provoke the police into yet another night of conflagration.
Local community leaders are trying the same, as well as a contingent of pastors.
"I am whispering in their ears, telling them to move on, that we care and that we love them," says the Rev Michael McBride, of the Way Christian Centre in Oakland, California.
He has come because he is horrified. "If only police departments across the country would do the same. Whisper in their ears, tell them they love them."
Love, however, has for the time being taken its leave from Ferguson, a suburb on the north-western edge of St Louis. It flew away at about four minutes past noon on August 9, when a police officer, identified as Darren Wilson (28), fired six bullets into the unarmed man, 18-year-old Michael Brown, and robbed him of his young life.
It was gone when the police let his body lie on the street for hours before finally taking it away. Or perhaps it was gone long before that in a town where to be black is to feel disenfranchised, relegated to life's lower divisions, oppressed.
The National Guard are on the streets and the Attorney General Eric Holder has also arrived.
A rag-tag line of police - some with gas masks, some without, all with riot shields - has blocked us off to the south and, some distance away to the north a second line is forming. We, protesters and journalists, have become penned in. A sonic cannon is beginning to pierce our ear drums. It gives out a percussive, high-pitch shrieking.
And love is not what they are asking for now. It's justice.
"We want justice, we want justice," the protesters bellow. It's what Mr Shabazz's group is after. It's what the rather young and occasionally terrified-looking band of observers from Amnesty International is here to protect.
America thinks it can take justice for granted. But in Ferguson, that is being tested. Justice is looking slovenly, amateurish and slow. And it's looking ugly.
Justice is the holy grail in Ferguson. US President Barack Obama says he wants it. So does Mr Holder, who has opened his own federal investigation into what happened on that Saturday to Mr Brown.
The circumstances of it are still unclear. Justice is what his mother, Lesley McSpadden, says must happen before the trouble will stop. But the road to it is long and has many forks.
Ms McSpadden and most of the demonstrators wanted it yesterday. That they don't see it is what enrages them. But in America justice is a deliberate and bureaucratic affair.
Evidence surrounding the shooting that has been collected so far, most of which we haven't seen, will be presented for the first time by the St Louis prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, to a special grand jury.
But that process may take weeks to complete. American justice is a thing of cogs and they turn slowly, far too slowly for the family and its supporters.
Justice means allowing everyone out here on this sultry night to voice their anger, as the US constitution requires. And it means listening.