Protestors in Ferguson enjoyed a festive atmosphere Thursday night on streets that were covered with spent tear gas canisters and rubber bullets the night before. Gov. Jay Nixon intervened Thursday afternoon, relieving St. Louis County Police from security and replacing them with the Missouri Highway Patrol. The change brought a more relaxed approach from police. Instead of closing roads and confronting protesters with automatic weapons and armored cars, a handful of police officers—all of them African American—mingled with the crowds.
“They (the police) came here, they don't know anything about black folks and most of the people over here don't know anything about them," Deanel Trout told Courthouse News. "So they need to see somebody out they can relate with. The police officers are out, they're marching with them, it's not confrontational. It's almost like a festivity today. It's completely different."
Hundreds of protesters lined both sides of West Florissant, a major roadway in Ferguson. It was the most diverse group all week, with people of all colors, ages, religions and national origins side by side. The crowd policed itself. Leaders, including the New Black Panthers, helped direct traffic through the rally.
"We just started tonight and I'm out here walking just to see what the people are talking about and feel how they feel, try to get a feeling on how they feel," Major Ronnie Robinson of the St. Louis Police Department told Courthouse News. "It's a sad time in this community and we need to be out here paying attention to what they've got to say and recognize the good people and treat them accordingly."
Robinson was one of a few uniformed officers at the scene. "We've got to listen to these people," Robinson said. "They've got a story to tell and the more we listen, the better it's going to be and it's a new day."
The only tense moments Thursday occurred when police cars approached the protest on two occasions. The first incident was two cars responding to a 911 call. The second occurred after 9:30pm, when police cars appeared to attempt to close West Florissant south of the protest. The police cars eventually left, at the urging of Malik Shabazz, founder of Black Attorneys for Justice.
"I don't know what happened, but I knew what wasn't going to happen and that was we weren't going to let police come down here and antagonize the people," Shabazz told Courthouse News. "I asked the police to leave and they did."
Thursday's protest began with a multi-faith march to the location where Michael Brown was shot to death. Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders were all represented. Tyson Manker, a former Marine and Iraq war veteran, drove two hours from his home in Jacksonville, Ill., to take part.
"When you have people exercising their right to assemble, their right to freedom of speech and you respond with tanks and snipers pointed on innocent people, that is uncalled for," Manker told Courthouse News. "I didn't fight in Iraq to defend the Constitution to come back and see it violated by police in my own neighborhood. I didn't go protect Iraqis to come back and see my fellow citizens brutalized by the police."
Mike Varner drove in from Alton, Ill. "I think it went well," Varner told Courthouse News. "You're always going to have the people who are going to voice their opinions no matter what, not that I agree with all of them, and that's OK. It was good to walk into that community and talk to some of the people there and tell them I'm praying for them."
Ferguson resident Christopher Johnson felt the event brought people together. "People think it's a race thing; it's not a race thing," Johnson told Courthouse News. "It's the fact that we have police offers that are killing innocent people that are unarmed, and that's not right. It's time for a change."
Also Thursday, two lawsuits were filed, a state court complaint seeking "a copy of the incident report for the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014," and a federal complaint asking a judge to restrain police from prohibiting protestors from recording the protests, as police have done this week.
The ACLU and two citizens asked for a copy of the police report, in St. Louis County Circuit Court. Such a report would reveal the name of the officer who shot Brown to death. Police have refused to release the officer's name, saying doing so could jeopardize him or his family. Defendants St. Louis County and St. Louis County Police responded to the open-records requests by saying "this is an ongoing investigation and we are unable to release a copy at this time," according to the complaint.
The ACLU asked the court to declare the police report an open record under the Missouri Sunshine Law, and order it released.
In the federal complaint, Mustafa Hussein asks that St. Louis County, the City of Ferguson and Missouri Highway Patrol Superintendent Ronald K. Replogle be restrained from restricting coverage of the protests, by media workers and the public.
After pointing out the great public interest in the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown, Hussein says: "Defendants' response to the demonstrations has been controversial, including using force, ordering peaceful protestors to disband and evacuate the streets and sidewalks, and ordering protestors and observers to stop documenting and videotaping the demonstrations."
Hussein claims such an order is unconstitutional.
The lawsuit continues: "In order to document what is occurring on the streets and sidewalks of Ferguson, plaintiff went to Ferguson on Wednesday, August 13, 2014, to document and record what he could see and hear and to share it with the world.
"Over a speaker, police officials implementing defendants' policy ordered everyone on the street to stop recording.
"Upon hearing the order, plaintiff was required to choose between surrendering his First Amendment right to record the action unfolding on the street before him or risking arrest or serious bodily injury inflicted by law enforcement officials if he continued recording and exercising his First Amendment rights.
“Plaintiff chose to continue recording, putting his liberty and physical safety at serious risk.
"Plaintiff is aware that, in recent days, other journalists have been arrested while engaging in no unlawful activity, have been fired upon by police with teargas, and their recording equipment has been taken by police.
"Plaintiff is aware that, in recent days in Ferguson, other members of the public and media have been ordered by law enforcement officials to stop recording.
"Plaintiff would like to peacefully observe and record the interactions between the community and law enforcement officials in the future; however, to do so he must risk the infliction of serious physical harm and the loss of his property by law enforcement or arrest."
Hussein's complaint lists the URL of a video he took of the Wednesday protest, but it was not available online Friday morning.
Plaintiffs in both lawsuits are represented by Anthony Rothert, with the ACLU Foundation of Missouri.