ST. LOUIS • In the latest echo from last year’s Ferguson unrest, protesters invoking Michael Brown’s name burst into an auditorium at Harris-Stowe State University on Monday afternoon and briefly disrupted a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.
The protesters accused the university and clergy at the King event of being part of the “establishment,” and later got into a confrontation with Harris-Stowe students outside the venue, as police converged on the area.
The conflict — which was reminiscent of the internal Civil Rights Movement divisions that King himself had to navigate half a century ago — ultimately dissipated, and the King Day event resumed. There were no immediate reports of arrests.
Brown, 18, was killed Aug. 9 during an altercation with Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. The shooting, and the subsequent decision by a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict Wilson, prompted protests, some of which were violent and led to destruction and looting in the St. Louis region and around the country. They also raised issues of race and police tactics that are still being nationally debated.
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Some of the hundreds of participants who gathered at the Old Courthouse on Monday morning for the King Day observance, and who marched to Harris-Stowe for a midday interfaith service, also carried signs commemorating Brown. But there was no apparent conflict at that time between those two causes.
That changed after the ceremony began in the crowded university auditorium. Shortly before 1 p.m., about two dozen protesters entered waving an upside-down American flag and chanting, “No justice, no peace!”
They took the stage, and as the crowd began filing out angrily, they used a microphone to accuse the university and the clergy of being part of the problem.
Protesters left the stage and the building after Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, appealed for calm. But later, the protesters and Harris-Stowe students confronted each other about the disrupted event.
Some Harris-Stowe students, watching protesters facing off with police, got frustrated and started yelling, asking why protesters would target a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at a historically black college.
As students got louder, protesters moved away from the police and confronted the students. At one point, people in both groups had to be held back as the shouting became intense. The confrontation ended with Harris-Stowe students holding peace signs in the air.
As was the case during King’s activism in the 1960s, some activists disagree on whether to seek change from within existing political and social institutions — or by attacking those institutions.
“This program is more of the same,” protester Tory Russell said of his group’s decision to disrupt the King service.
Russell, who said he attended Harris-Stowe, said the university represents the “establishment” and “the politics of respectability.” He defined that as an ideology that says people who are outside the mainstream don’t deserve the same protections under the law.
“We are the people who worked all those days, and put up all that resistance and went to the U.N.,” Russell said. “Don’t you see how they disrespect us? As soon as we showed up, they wanted us gone. They want to run back to their masters.”
Another protester, DeRay Mckesson, offered a similar explanation on Twitter. “The split is between those who feel like respectability politics isn’t going to lead to freedom,” he wrote. “And that this (King Day) program is respectability.”
For Harris-Stowe senior Andrea Dave, 26, who decried the disruption of the King Day event, the issue was much simpler.
“It’s not that I disagree with their cause, but this is about Martin Luther King,” said Dave. “This is about peace and equality. … There’s no reason for people to be out here yelling at each other while the police stand back and laugh at us. We’re supposed to listen to each other and come to a mutual understanding.”
Harris-Stowe freshman Shaquell Humphries, 18, agreed: “They came in here (being) so very disrespectful. There are old folks and little kids in that auditorium, and they (the protesters) started cussing.”
The day had started on a more unified note in the Old Courthouse rotunda, where hundreds of people sang hymns, held hands and listened to speeches.
Outside, hundreds more gathered on the sidewalks and across the street at Kiener Plaza. They wore T-shirts that said, “Justice for Mike Brown” and carried signs that said “Black Lives Matter.”
Among the crowd was Jimmy Dixon, of Chicago, who traveled to St. Louis with his wife, Teresa, and children Michelle, 12, and Mario, 9, to spend Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the city that has become the current center of America’s ongoing racial debates.
“We’re here because we want our children to know how important this is,” said Dixon, “and that there were brave people who came before them that made sacrifices so that they could have more than their parents and their grandparents did.”
Johnetta Elzie, 25, a major presence at the protests since the killing of Brown, said, “I feel good,” as she stood outside the Old Courthouse. “I just hope we keep true to who and what Martin Luther King stood for.”
Elzie said people tended to emphasize the more docile side of King, rather than his confrontational side. Elzie would later implore those sitting inside the Harris-Stowe auditorium to leave and join the young protesters outside.
Later in the day, about 250 protesters marched on the Ferguson Police Department without incident. There were no arrests.
Lilly Fowler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.