FERGUSON, Mo. — At 11:15 Friday night, the rain was coming down harder, and the Mardi Gras-like revelry along West Florissant Ave seemed to be winding down. The live band had long since stopped playing music, the crew of break dancers had collected their cardboard mats, and motorists were moving more smoothly through the streets.
Finally, it seemed, Ferguson was nearing a much-needed catharsis. But within half an hour, the street party had turned into a standoff.
In the parking lot outside the convenience store where Michael Brown allegedly stole a box of Swisher Sweets cigars, police officers, most of them white men, were wearing ordinary uniforms — no SWAT-style helmets or batons. Across the parking lot, hundreds of teenagers, most of them black and male, many shirtless, began to taunt the police. “Pussies!” some shouted. “Fuck yo bitch asses!” An unidentified man tossed an empty liquor bottle in the direction of the police. By the time it shattered, dozens of people were rushing away from the scene, and police were scrambling for their riot gear.
“We got guns too,” one man screamed back at the officers. “Let’s bang it out.”
Today it’s worth wondering if, and when, it will all end. Protests have been scheduled for at least the next three days, and many of the young men who took part in last night’s chaotic scene promised to hit the streets again the following night — some to protest but some just to torment the police.
That might mean a direct challenge of Gov. Jay Nixon’s order, issued today, of a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. “This is a test,” Nixon said, while declaring a state of emergency. “The eyes of the world are watching.”
But if last night night is any indication, the world may watch another confrontation.
During the evening, peaceful protesters moved easily through the streets, resuming the chant that has come to define their movement: “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Teenagers parked their cars along the street, listening to music and playfully running around. Some climbed on top of the hoods and roofs of their vehicles, dancing and whooping the night away. A few even gathered outside the scorched remains of a gas station destroyed during a protest earlier in the week, watching a young boy, no older than 7, jump into a break-dancing session.
This seemed exactly what Nixon and federal officials had hoped for the day before when they promised less restrictive enforcement after days of angry, combative clashes between officers and protesters. The police had only a minimal presence on the street throughout much of the night.
But the tenor of the evening started to change as the rain began to fall, and older protesters and families headed home. Left behind was a crowd of young people, many drinking and smoking, mostly men, who became increasingly hostile toward the officers working the streets.
Later, Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald Johnson, a native of the area who is in charge of crowd control, said officers were confronted by young agitators in the parking lot of Ferguson Market and Liquor. Johnson said he ordered another armored truck over to the store to assist the officers, which only ignited the tension. Three officers were injured in the subsequent melee, Johnson said, and at least one of them deployed a can of tear gas.
Not long after that, police in riot gear stood at the corner of West Florissant and Ferguson avenues, ordering people to go home. That didn’t happen. Instead, some people yelled and cursed at the officers from about 100 yards away — “Fuck the police!” echoed throughout the streets — while others took the opportunity to loot several nearby stores, including some that had been hit earlier in the week.
Several community leaders, including St. Louis Alderman Antonio French and members of the New Black Panther Party, worked hard to prevent the crowd from provoking the officers. Others pleaded with the mob to leave the stores alone and go home. Even rival gang members joined together to protect some businesses and urge calm.
The fracas went on for about three hours, a high-stakes blinking contest, with the city on the precipice of an even more dangerous revolt. Then, around 4 a.m., the officers got into their vehicles and drove away. Johnson said later that no arrests were made.
“We did it, now let’s go,” said Anthony Shahid, a longtime Ferguson resident and leader in the New Black Panther Party. He tried to shoo away the remaining stragglers. “See you tomorrow.”
Left behind were streets strewn with trash, tear gas lingering in the air, and uncertainty about what was to come next.
In a few hours a curfew takes effect. “I’m going to make sure we’re not going to use any force that’s not necessary,” Johnson said.
Ferguson, and the world, will be watching.