FERGUSON, Mo. -- There was no tear gas, no rubber bullets. After nearly a week of unrest, the people of Ferguson, Missouri, peacefully walked their streets Thursday night, still seeking answers, but somewhat less fearful. For the fifth consecutive night, protesters gathered in the St. Louis suburb to speak out against the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer on Saturday. Families with young children, church groups and well-wishers from across the nation lined the streets, sharing a moment.
Only days earlier, local protesters looted and burned down a QuikTrip convenience store and police gathered with tanks and weapons. Witnesses said Brown was unarmed when he was killed, while police said the shooting was warranted. But the mood had changed by Thursday night. Near the chain link fence surrounding the store, Erica Thomas, 25, used her cellphone to shine light on her five sons around her, all between 1 and 5 years old.
“This is not a game, and I need them to know that,” she said, ushering three of them together for a photo, balancing a box of graham crackers in her other hand. “I felt compelled to bring them.”
She urged them to hold their hands up, mimicking the protesters symbolic gesture, while yelling the slogan, “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”
Her oldest, Skylyn, pointed to the burned-out QuikTrip and asked whether Michael Brown was in there. “They understand what’s going on, even if it’s only a little bit,” Thomas said.
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A block away, Rev. Melissa Bennet was making her way through the crowds. She said her church group had come to the city on Monday to help with cleanup efforts but ended up trapped in an apartment building after police sent tear gas their way. “It was terrible. We were stuck in there,” she said.
Bennet's church in Belleville, Illinois, is a 30-minute drive away. Others came from much farther.
Tara McCall, 45, drove from Texas with her cousins to attend the demonstrations. “I came because these are my people,” she said. “It’s as simple as that. The violence has to stop.”
But Ferguson no longer felt like a war zone Thursday. Demonstrators said tensions lifted after state officials called off local police early Thursday. Hours later, Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Police Patrol walked the streets alongside protesters, a moving and stark change. Some wary protesters still wore gas masks or bandanas around their faces, but the need for such precautions had passed.
“It’s different today, there are a lot more people -- different kinds of people, too, ” said Charles Singleton, who had attended various protests throughout the week in Ferguson. “It’s more peaceful,” he said, as walked down the sidewalk handing out bottles of water.