The morning portion of St. Louis’ 46th annual civic ceremony to honor the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. seemed planned to discourage potential demonstrators from disrupting the services at the Old Courthouse.
After being mentioned as scheduled speakers, politically polarizing leaders Mayor Francis Slay and newly elected St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger – both targets during previous protests – were quietly absent from the podium.
Michael Brown Jr.’s mother Lesley McSpadden was given the floor. She spoke of keeping faith in the wake of tragically losing her son – then her family subsequently becoming the focus of a sustained, very public conversation about race, policing and the criminal justice system.
“I kept asking God, ‘Help me understand this,’” McSpadden said. “You all give me strength. And I hope that we will realize that we are all one nation under God.”
Speakers, including Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis President and CEO Michael McMillan and St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Greene, spoke of coming to a place of healing and using Ferguson as a platform to build a better, stronger, more unified St. Louis.
“The question that I ask as we gather to celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy is: ‘What city do we want to be?’” McMillan said. “Do we want to be known as a city of segregation – where we don’t have diversity, where we don’t have inclusion, where we don’t make sure everyone is at the table – a city with bad schools, bad police/community relations, police brutality and a city where no one wants to be?”
A faith-based program that consisted of mostly gospel music and prayer seemed to deter people who appeared to be protesters from acting out in the Old Courthouse rotunda. Many eased out towards the marching area as the program continued uninterrupted.
It would be the only moment when protestors would stand down during scheduled events that stretched nearly a full day.
Before the program had concluded inside the Old Courthouse, groups of protestors had already started on their mission to “reclaim MLK.” At about 11:30 a.m. – half an hour after the scheduled departure time – protestors began the march without waiting for the organizers and dignitaries still inside the Old Courthouse. Most people followed.
William Whittaker, an activist who has led the march for 29 years, tried to stop people from leaving and splitting up the march. Angry, he confronted activist Kayla Reed, who is a leader in the Ferguson movement.
“We’re not out here for ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,’” he said.
In an interview with The St. Louis American, Whittaker said, “The younger generation is the disconnect. They’ve been taught the wrong issue.”
When asked if he disagreed with the younger generation’s fight against police brutality, he said, “How do we stop it? We can’t. There should be something done about it, but that’s what your courts are for – and higher-ups.”
Reed said it’s important for people to remember that King was a revolutionary.
“The people were the motivation for everything he did,” Reed said. “We decided not to let the politicians and dignitaries lead up the march because they sign the papers that oppress us.”
Whittaker kept referring to protestors’ tactics as violent. Reed responded that they were not violent.
She said, “For people to assume that a chant means violence, where we are voicing our opinions that we matter, it shows that we need to sit down and get on the same page about a lot of things.”
Marshall Booth, 26, was carrying his son, Mack, on his shoulders as the march departed. He said he believes in the Ferguson movement but also wants to see unity, which many others expressed as well. He didn’t think Whittaker should have been upset about the march leaving because, he said, “it was going to start anyway.”
At 15th Street, the protestors held up large “Reclaim MLK” banners, blocking Market Street. On their knees, they shouted, “It’s not a parade. The system is broke.” They urged marchers to turn right towards the Larry Rice’s homeless shelter at 1411 Locust Street, which the city has ordered to close if it does not radically reduce the number of people it shelters.
St. Charles resident Rashad Boone pushed a cart with his son past the group. He was marching with 15 family members, and they have been coming to the march every year since he was a child. He grew up just a few blocks from where Michael Brown Jr. was killed.
“It had nothing to do with my family not supporting the cause, but right now we came to support MLK,” Boone said, “and that’s why we decided to keep straight.”
For YWCA employee Amy Hunter, her decision to turn towards the homeless shelter was an “easy one,” she said. She felt that the march diversion was in line with King’s mission “for us to care about each other across economic and racial lines.”
Hunter, who attended the march with her teenage son, said the older generations needs to learn how to hand over the reins.
“It’s a new day,” she said. “I think what you can see, particularly with Michael Brown, is that we did not prepare the youth to take the lead – and now they are taking it. We need to let them take it. There comes a point in time in our lives when we need to stop asking what our titles are.”
Although the action agitated many marchers, most carried on as the public has been doing for the better part of 50 years in honor of Dr. King.
But push came to shove when a group of demonstrators marched down the aisle of the auditorium at Harris-Stowe State University’s Dr. Henry Givens Jr. Administration Building to commandeer the stage as officials were in the final stage of pre-show activities.
“If y’all don’t give us our [expletive], we gon’ shut the [expletive] down,” the protestors chanted as they marched into the annual interfaith service. “I am … Mike Brown. I am … Mike Brown.”
“Y’all are out of order,” one woman screamed at the top of her lungs.
“There are babies in here. We are celebrating Dr. King,” another woman shouted.
“If Dr. King were alive today, he would not only want us to celebrate him, but he would want us to take a stand against injustice,” a protestor said from the stage.
The chants continued, but the people in their seats shouted back for them to leave. The organizers attempted to diffuse the disruption by requesting that the audience applaud the activists.
“We don’t want a damn hand,” Tory Russell said. “We want y’all’s feet on the ground with the people. This is nothing but a façade – and I just pulled back the curtain. Look at these puppets.”
At that very moment, the sound technician pulled the plug on the microphones. But the group of about 50 remained on stage.
The crowd responded with a chant of their own.
“Martin Luther King … respect. Martin Luther King … respect.”
A confrontation between protestors and audience members ensued near the front of the stage. The exchange compelled McSpadden to help quell the incident.
“I’m confused on who lost a son in here,” McSpadden said. “Ain’t nobody in here more mad than me. Now it’s two-way disrespect. You need to respect Martin Luther King first.”
She grabbed a microphone, and then a bullhorn before sound was restored and the sound operator handed her a working mic.
“Change starts with self,” McSpadden said. “And when you change yourself, then you can try to change somebody else.”
She was absent for several minutes before returning to sit onstage alongside about two dozen guests.
Harris-Stowe vs. protestors
Protestors made their way out of the auditorium, but the conflict was far from over. Chaos continued outside as the protestors coming from inside the auditorium met up with about 200 additional demonstrators waiting outside – where they squared off with university students.
Highly protective of their campus, the students took offense at the disruption and made that clear.
Andrea Dave, a senior majoring in criminal justice, is from East St. Louis where she has seen murders looking out her front door.
“For me to come over here, it’s like I was born again,” Dave said in an interview with The American. “A lot of us are from the streets, and we come here to be okay. We are proud of this. We don’t want anyone to come over here and mess this up.”
Any productive conversations between the two groups were soon drowned out by name-calling and yelling on both sides. Several students tried to fight with the protestors and were dragged away from the scene by other students.
Activist Jonathon Pulphus of Tribe X said he was shocked at the students’ reactions. Pulphus, a Saint Louis University student, tried to talk to some of the Harris-Stowe students, but the conversation did not get past the students’ efforts to protect their campus.
He felt that the action was successful because it forced them to have those conversations. But the fights happened right in front of the police, who were called to the scene by university officials.
“You don’t want to present the front that you can’t stand together,” Pulphus said.
Dave, who supports the Ferguson movement, said the action itself showed division in front of the police – which is exactly what they want.
“The same people you’re supposed to be fighting against, you’re fighting with them, for real,” Dave said. “You will turn your back on your own people. I didn’t get that.”
Neither police nor campus security stepped in to prevent fights. Emmanuel Lalande, dean of students at Harris-Stowe, said that was deliberate.
“As you know, law enforcement and community, it can get really sketchy,” said Lalande. “I wanted to make sure that we took care of that situation so it didn’t escalate.”
Lalande said the staff successfully got the students – many of them either crying or enraged – back to their dorms.
As they parted, students and protestors agreed that the police allowed the potential fights to escalate because it was “black on black” confrontation.
Activist Elizabeth Vega said the action was appropriate because King did not want to be revered; he wanted to change the world.
“We are in a movement,” she said. “We have people all over the country joining us – and you chose to do a parade with the same old tired things? We don’t need parades. We need people to feel this in their hearts and join us in the streets.”
As the program commenced inside, speakers created a teachable moment from the experience – whether they supported or opposed the action.
“The young brother on stage said, ‘We’ve been out there for six months,’” said Dwight Smith, provost and vice president of Harris-Stowe. “Norman Seay has been out there for more than 40 years. We respect our elders – and we understand the quest for social justice and equality is an ongoing one. If there is one thing that those young people have taught us this afternoon, it is a sense of urgency.”