Thousands gathered Saturday in downtown St. Louis to protest the death of Michael Brown and call for an end to police violence nationwide.
Part of a four-day series of events, dubbed “FergusonOctober” by organizers, the protest drew a diverse crowd of activists from across the nation who marched side-by-side with local residents, chanting, “We are Mike Brown.”
“We’re fighting for our lives,’’ Kareem Jackson, the St. Louis rapper and activist who goes by the stage name Tef Poe, told the crowd downtown.
The march, organized by labor unions, churches, Hands Up United, the Organization for Black Struggle and other groups, started in the middle of Market Street at 15th Street and ended at Kiener Plaza.
Police used barricades to keep traffic away from the crowd. Officers patrolled on bicycles and foot. But unlike the protests in August after Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson shot Brown, St. Louis police avoided any visible show of force during Saturday’s downtown march.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson worked the crowd, shaking hands and talking to protesters.
When asked, Dotson refused to say how many officers he had in the area or how many were staging nearby.
“What’s important is that we’re out here dressed in our normal uniforms. We’re not in tactical gear,” Dotson told the Post-Dispatch. “What’s also important is that everybody has a right to be here and have their message heard.”
In March, at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade downtown, Dotson kept a force of tactical officers nearby but out of sight. They were never needed.
Saturday’s march included a large papier-mâché likeness of Michael Brown with his hands up. It’s a pose that’s become common at protests since Brown’s shooting.
Antonia Cuffee, 30, drove 13 hours from Baltimore with six others to join in the protests.
“We felt we had to come out here to be part of change,” Cuffee, a policy worker, said.
“It’s a shame so many black people are getting killed by police,” she said. “Just by the nature of being black we are targeted, we are suspect.”
The crowd was peaceful and jovial, and organizers implored them to stay that way. “We need you to show discipline and respect,” one organizer said.
Small groups came from as far away as Washington, D.C., and California to join the events.
Marlene Sinquefield and her two sisters arrived in St. Louis from Oakland, Calif., Friday night.
“There’s no way we weren’t going to come here for this,” Sinquefield said. “It matters. It’s important. When I have kids someday, I want them to know I stood up for their future.”
LaDarius Torrey, 19, a sophomore at Georgetown University in Washington, said he and his two friends came for similar reasons.
“There’s been a lot of mischaracterizations made about young black males in this country,” he said. “We need to have serious discussions on race, or it could get worse. I don’t want to be next.”
As the crowd gathered at Kiener Plaza, Tef Poe took the stage.
“I’m so proud of this city for standing against institutionalized racism — I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” he said. “We are still knee-deep in this situation. We’re still fighting.”
He added: “I’m here to make sure my kids don’t have to go through what I did.”
Pastor Carlton Lee of the Flood Christian Church, on West Florissant Avenue near Ferguson, was there to represent Michael Brown’s family. He also spoke on stage.
“They are extremely humbled, privileged and honored that everyone came out today to show their love,” Lee said. “We support peaceful protesting all the way.”
That echoed a statement Brown’s family issued Friday: “While we respect every citizen’s right to free expression, it is our hope that those coming to Ferguson to protest the shooting of our son this weekend do so peacefully and lawfully.”
Others on stage, from New York to Los Angeles, told stories of mistreatment by police and reminded the crowd that Oct. 22 marks the National Day Against Police Brutality.
The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a pastor from Boston, gave an impassioned speech, shouting that clergy had an “ethical responsibility to stand behind these youth. Anything less is a betrayal of the Gospel.”
The crowd began to disperse about 2 p.m., with some circling around different parts of downtown. Organizers later held a Law In Action Teach-In at St. Louis University School of Law downtown.
The same group held protests in Clayton and Ferguson Friday.
Police have said they are concerned that FergusonOctober events could lead to possibly hostile protests, especially in the wake of Wednesday’s death of VonDerrit Myers Jr., 18, who was shot by a St. Louis police officer in the Shaw neighborhood.
The officer, whose name hasn’t been released, fired 17 rounds after police say Myers opened fire.
FROM FERGUSON TO SHAW
Later Saturday, protests were held outside Busch Stadium before the Cardinals-Giants game, in Ferguson and on Shaw Boulevard. About 50 people stood on the sidewalk in front of Ballpark Village on Clark Street and tried to compete with fan noise as they chanted slogans.
Many of the protesters had taken part in other FergusonOctober events, which drew mainly young people from across the country.
Talal Ahmad, of the O’Fallon Park neighborhood in north St. Louis, said, “For us, this is not a Ferguson issue. This is a global issue. We’re black wherever we go.”
Ahmad said most passing fans ignored their protest, although a few offered encouragement and a few others made critical remarks. Two people countered with the chant, “Cop lives matter,” then headed for the stadium.
In Ferguson, a crowd gathered in Canfield Green apartments at the site of Brown’s death, then marched two miles to the Ferguson police station. A man who had marched with Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, told protesters to have a peaceful event.
They chanted “I am Mike Brown” as they approached a line of about 50 St. Louis County police officers and state troopers, who blocked the lot to the police station. Yellow tape separated the marchers from police.
Among participants were five friends who attended high school together in Minneapolis and now live in Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis and Minneapolis.
“Our intent to come was to see a recognition of (Michael Brown’s) life,” said Maria Schneider, 23, of New Orleans, one of the five.
Outside the Shaw Market, at 4200 Shaw, about 30 protesters gathered near the scene of Myers’ death.
Lisa Brown, Jacob Barker and Tim O’Neil of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Antonia Cuffee participated in Saturday's march. An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect name.
Talal Ahmad is not currently enrolled at Washington University. An earlier version of this story identified him as a student.