Last weekend, Rasheen Aldridge once again found himself with a bullhorn in hand, speaking to a crowd about a black man killed by police.
Days earlier, George Floyd had died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
“We’re tired,” Alridge said as the crowd shouted its agreement. “It’s a simple message. It’s not hard to understand. We’re tired of people of all colors being killed in our streets by police brutality.”
‘Not surprised we’re still marching’
In 2014, before he could even legally drink, Aldridge made a name for himself in the weeks of protest after a Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown. Although he gained a big title — state representative — he remained a key organizer in the movement.
"I’m not surprised we’re still marching.” Aldridge told St. Louis on the Air on Tuesday. “Our communities have not seen the dramatic change and policy change when you talk about shifting power and education and engagement to the communities that have been left out for a long time.”
Tony Rice, who moved to Ferguson nearly 20 years ago, also wasn’t surprised to find himself back out on the streets.
“My dominant emotion is sadness,” he said. “I’m just sad for him, I’m sad for his family, I'm sad he had to experience that while everybody just stood back and watched.”
Rice spent much of 2014 and beyond documenting protests via livestream. Although the crowds are younger, fearless and a bit angrier, Rice said, he sees the same solidarity now as he did back then.
The recent behavior of the police surprised him the most.
“I’ve seen the police response be more poised, to be honest,” Rice said. “I’ve witnessed someone intentionally try to get arrested, and they would not arrest him. When in 2014, we saw people randomly get arrested just for walking up and down the street.”
There is another big difference as well — the occupant of the White House. In 2014, after a grand jury announced that the officer who shot Brown would not face charges, President Barack Obama called on law enforcement officials to use restraint in managing protests. President Donald Trump has deployed federal law enforcement in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere that he feels have not cracked down hard enough.
“Donald Trump is very much a real factor in how and what is happening in this country, not only economically and otherwise, but particularly the issue of race,” said the Rev. F. Willis Johnson, who until 2018 was the pastor of Wellspring Church in Ferguson. He now leads a church in Columbus, Ohio.
Frustration over violence and looting
In the light, thousands take to the streets in nonviolent marches. But after the sun goes down, businesses have been looted or damaged, and there’s often gunfire.
Earlier this week, a retired black police officer was shot and killed trying to defend a friend’s pawn shop in north St. Louis, and four on-duty officers were shot and injured. In response, Mayor Lyda Krewson declared a 9 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew until further notice.
Aldridge and other activists, who work hard to keep protests organized and nonviolent, are frustrated.
“I know how things can get turned to make it seem like the people who organized the protests did it, or the bigger message gets taken off of all the hard work and more focused on some of the burning and some of the vandalism and a death,” he said.
In Ferguson, a crowd shot fireworks at officers stationed outside the police department’s headquarters, injuring several. They also broke some of the building’s windows.
It’s a logical place to protest Floyd’s death — the Ferguson police and municipal government are powerful symbols of a system that targeted and harmed black people.
“I know the pain,” said Annette Jenkins, a longtime Ferguson resident. “But what’s tearing up going to do? Because then we have to rebuild all over again.”
Jenkins has been involved with a variety of groups established by a 2016 federal consent decree that mandated a number of reforms to the city’s police department and municipal courts. In her view, the city is making progress. For example, she said, almost all the officers are new — she helped hire most of them.
“They have listened to us,” she said. “If we say we don’t want them, they don’t hire them.”
Rice also participated in many of those groups, which he said was an exhausting process with little return.
“Six years later we have this, and we have nothing demonstrable to show, 'Hey, we’ve made progress,'” he said. “Most of the progress we probably made has been something on paper. But their lives don’t feel different, that which is written on paper means absolutely nothing at the time.”
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