CLAYTON • A rain-soaked crowd of several hundred people marched in downtown Clayton on Friday afternoon, kicking off this weekend’s FergusonOctober rallies and protests.
Hours later, a similar crowd took to the streets of Ferguson for a candlelight march and protest across from the police department, beating drums and chanting into the night as well as blocking West Florissant Avenue. Several protesters used bullhorns to direct the crowd, some asked protesters to move to south St. Louis where a police officer killed a teenager earlier this week after the teen opened fire on him.
The Clayton march began outside St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch’s office. Activists have demanded that McCulloch step aside in the Michael Brown case.
Clayton police had barricaded Carondelet Avenue between Central and Bemiston avenues in anticipation of the event.
Officers on bicycles at the front and back of the crowd escorted the protesters as the march began. However, minutes into the event, the protesters stopped in the middle of the intersection of Bemiston and Bonhomme avenues, blocking traffic. They chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these killer cops have got to go!”
Others shouted, “Who are we? Mike Brown!”
The crowd grew to about 400 people and eventually blocked the intersection of Central and Carondelet avenues in front of the county government center.
The few police in sight did not interfere; several officers stood outside the Buzz Westfall Justice Center and observed the crowd.
Brooklyn College student Ashely Agbasoga, 22, of New York, drove through the night to get to Clayton for the weekend protests with a professor, his partner and another student.
“This is the epicenter of the movement against police brutality,” Agbasoga said, adding that she planned to be active in FergusonOctober events through the weekend.
Brian Crawley, 26, of Wellston, was among those gathered in the street. He said he hoped that county leaders recognized that marchers were serious in their demands, including their call to end racial profiling.
“I have two daughters,” Crawley said. “I don’t want them growing up in a society like this.”
Many in the crowd carried umbrellas, some marked with slogans such as “Ferguson is Forever.”
The marchers drew curious Clayton workers, who huddled outside office buildings to watch.
Before the protest began in Clayton, some marchers clustered beneath tents set up on a county-owned parking lot north of the Buzz Westfall Justice Center.
A table under one tent was staffed by Holly Wagner, a member of the counseling department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Wagner had brought storage bins containing sand and plastic animals.
In another of the incongruous, if not bizarre, incidents that have sometimes marked the protests, Wagner handed out the toy animals to adult protesters seated at a table. They manipulated the figures under the guidance of Wagner and other graduate students inside plastic bins full of sand.
“We wanted to create a space where people can show with these small toys what they are experiencing,” Wagner explained. “It’s a creative expression technique.”
After about two hours of circling blocks and occasionally stopping at intersections, most of the marchers dispersed. At one point after the march ended, at least three men shouted different messages from bullhorns. One ordered the crowd to go to the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis, where the teenager was fatally shot earlier in the week. Another man warned that protesters would likely be facing off at some point this weekend with Darren Wilson supporters.
Nearly two dozen people donned bright yellow vests and kept mostly to the edges of the march, keeping watchful eyes on the direction of protesters, traffic and the tone of the crowd. They were part of a group called Jobs with Justice, but acting as “marshals,” at the protest, said Michael McPhearson who led the group.
They had met several times for training sessions earlier in the week to discuss ways to de-escalate situations and keep the peace, he said.
“We know that tensions can rise, and we want to keep everyone safe in the tradition of Dr. King,” McPhearson said.
The same message urging peace among demonstrators was the theme of a press conference St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, organized Friday before the march in Clayton. About a dozen pastors, along with black and white police officers, gathered with him outside the County Council Chambers to pray that the weekend’s events would be peaceful.
Among them was the state Rep. Tommie Pierson, of north St. Louis County. “You have the right to protest, but you don’t have the right to burn my house down or the businesses in our community,” Pierson said.
Former Missouri state Rep. Betty Thompson recalled her days marching in the South with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. “The only way for justice and peace to prevail is through nonviolence,” she said.
Stenger, who is running against Republican Rick Stream in the Nov. 4 election for county executive, also called for calm. “The only way to move forward is through peace and open discussion,” he said.
Police have said they expect that FergusonOctober events could lead to possibly hostile protests this weekend, 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.
Late in the afternoon, the family of Brown, the black teen shot to death on Aug. 9 by a white police officer in Ferguson, issued a statement encouraging peaceful protests.
“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.”
“We understand first-hand the powerless frustration felt by people of all walks of life regarding their interactions with law enforcement. And for that reason, as Michael Brown’s parents, we ask that those coming to show support for our son do so within the law,” the statement continued.
Around 9 p.m., a group of 100 or so people marched about two miles from West Florissant Avenue to the police department. Some carried candles and others a mirrored casket. Organizers said the “Day of the Dead” march was meant to honor victims of police violence.
By 11 p.m. the crowd had doubled, and used bullhorns and drums to chant before a line of St. Louis County and Ferguson police officers, who formed a line across the entrance to the police department.
Protesters urged each other to abide by police commands to “step back,” as they echoed across a loudspeaker so they could all be available for marches planned for Saturday.
There were no reports of violence or arrests at either march.
Later in the night, some protesters relocated to the Shaw neighborhood, where Myers was killed. They gathered in the street but moved to the sidewalk when asked by police and then marched through the neighborhood. Police said there were no arrests, and no injuries or damage were reported.
Christine Byers, Leah Thorsen and Lisa Brown of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.