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Protester who advocates peace charged with setting fire at Berkeley QT

Protester who advocates peace charged with setting fire at Berkeley QT

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One of the most frequently quoted and photographed Ferguson protesters was charged Saturday with setting fire to a Berkeley convenience store last week.

St. Louis County police arrested Joshua Williams, 19, of St. Louis, on Friday after several local media outlets and store surveillance captured images of him trying to set a pile of wood on fire outside the QuikTrip on North Hanley Road early Wednesday.

Williams confessed to setting fires at the store in a videotaped interview, according to court documents.

Police say Williams entered the QuikTrip shortly after looters shattered its glass doors during protests of the death of Antonio Martin, 18, who a police officer had shot earlier at the Mobil station across the street. Surveillance footage from the Mobil store shows Martin point what police say is a gun at a Berkeley officer before the officer fatally shoots him.

Williams can be seen in videos both inside and outside the looted QuikTrip, authorities said.

On Friday night and Saturday morning, a small group gathered at the St. Louis County Justice Center in Clayton to protest Williams’ arrest. Some were in disbelief over his reported confession and said the video images are not clear enough.

“Josh is one of the young activists, and all of us have gotten close to him. We got to know his heart, and he got to know ours,” said Bishop Derrick Robinson, of Kingdom Destiny Fellowship International. “He’s a great kid, an educated kid, a child who knows what he wants and is very active in the community.”

The Post-Dispatch, Bloomberg, USA Today and the Associated Press have quoted and photographed Williams. On Oct. 13, he was photographed walking arm-in-arm with author and activist Cornel West toward the St. Louis University campus where protesters staged a sit-in.

Williams’ most recent confrontation of St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson during a Ferguson Commission meeting landed him in the pages of this newspaper.

Williams came within feet of Dotson and shouted at him as he tried to answer questions from the panel. “Can someone please get this lying (expletive) ho off the mic!” Williams yelled.

Williams has been arrested at least twice during Ferguson-related protests for unlawful assembly as well as refusal to disperse.

Police say Williams used lighter fluid to set fires inside and outside the QuikTrip early Wednesday. He was charged with arson in the first degree, a felony. He is also charged with felony burglary and misdemeanor stealing for allegedly taking a lighter, gum and money from the store.

Williams has been quoted as an advocate for peaceful protests.

An MSNBC profile of Williams in September quoted him as saying, “We have to come together as one and show them we can be peaceful, that we can do this. If not, they’re going to just want us to act up so (police) can pull out their toys on us again.”

Later, he continued: “I learned that we have to stand up and that you can’t get nowhere with violence but you can always move people without it.”

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Christine Byers is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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