As people continued to protest the police shooting death of Michael Brown Friday night, Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson took responsibility for the streets with a daring gambit that changed the tone of what promises to be protracted protests and struggles here in Ferguson, Mo.
At way over 6 feet tall with a bald imposing dome, Johnson, after watching local police wage pitched battles against protesters earlier last week, took command by engaging protesters and defending their right to express anger at police for the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, and the failure to arrest Darren Wilson, the officer who they believe killed him without justification.
The stance put the black commander at odds with the white police structure in Ferguson and St. Louis County, which had responded to the protests with riot gear, armored vehicles, high-powered rifles, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
Bob McCulloch, the white county prosecutor who is in charge of investigating whether Mr. Brown was justifiably killed or murdered, criticized the decision to elevate Johnson over local police as disrespectful.
For the second night in a row, Johnson kept his officers back as a thousand protesters swelled along West Florissant Avenue – the thoroughfare near where Brown was shot and killed, witnesses say, with his hands up.
Throngs of mostly African American residents swore, danced, chanted, and at times surrounded honking cars with swaying dance moves. Along the street, late into the night, young children jumped up and down crying, “No justice, no peace!” and “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
Asked if he thought it was a gamble to draw back the police line in stark contrast to the much-criticized military response, Johnson said no. “I see people out here smiling and walking and speaking their piece,” he told the Monitor.
But shortly after midnight, in a drenching rain, that assessment changed as a group of protesters broke away and began looting the same liquor store pictured in a video released Friday that police say shows Brown stealing cigars and strong-arming a much smaller clerk.
After looters were finally dispersed by police, protesters took up guard outside the stores to prevent more looting. At Sam’s Meat Market, store owners brandished rifles to warn looters.
While Johnson may be criticized for allowing the looting to happen, the image of protesters helping protect their community is also notable as the nature of the protests evolve with the more respectful stance from police.
Protesters like Camese Bedford say a sense of deep injustice and distrust in the white political and police structure will continue to drive the protests. Officer Wilson “needs to be behind bars, flat out,” Mr. Bedford said.
The decision by Gov. Jay Nixon to put Johnson in charge came as national leaders, including President Obama, condemned the “bullying” police response, where journalists were attacked and detained. Nixon’s decision was certainly a coup for protesters, who saw the armed response – earlier, police pointed high-powered rifles at protesters and journalists – wither away.
“You the man who shook the world,” one protester told Johnson before shaking his hand late Friday night.
Earlier in the day, Johnson moved through the crowd as people shook his hand and took selfies with the imposing commander, who occasionally used a white kerchief to wipe sweat from his brow.
Johnson defended the right of protesters to take over the streets, especially as infractions, before the looting, were minor – some pot smoking and traffic violations as people climbed on top of vans and cars as they honked their horns wildly.
At one point, Johnson said he would have handled the release of the Brown video differently.
After releasing the video earlier Friday, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson first said Wilson was investigating what police called a strong-arm robbery – protesters called it shoplifting – and then came back to say Wilson wasn’t aware that Brown was a suspect, and later clarified that to say Wilson saw Brown with the box of cigars and so suspected him when the altercation began.
Johnson, in charge of public safety, was never told the Brown video – which turned out to be a powder keg – would be released. He was incensed enough to tell protesters surrounding him that lots of people in the crowd may have committed crimes, “but they’re still standing here” – a jab at what Brown’s family alleged is a building narrative to paint Brown as an aggressor who may have done something to justify his own death.
Such stances have made the decision to install Johnson, who grew up in the area, “very controversial,” says the Rev. Darrell Burgess, who has lived all his life in Ferguson.
Johnson’s appointment and less confrontational approach also highlighted a vexing backdrop to Brown’s death: The appearance of police agencies at odds, which is fueling skepticism about whether justice will be served for Brown and his family.
The seeming disconnect between the various agencies in handling the investigation and the protests is unnecessary and counterproductive, Daniel Isom, a retired St. Louis police chief who now teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told the Associated Press.
"There are several agencies involved in this endeavor," Mr. Isom told the wire service. "It seems that everyone is on their own page. And that's not good for us moving forward."