Within hours of a fatal police shooting of an 18-year-old man, who police say fired three shots at an officer Wednesday night, angry and distraught protesters were in the streets of St. Louis demanding justice for Vonderrit Myers.
At least that’s how most of the news reports on Thursday will explain it.
But was it really an organic, take-to-the streets protest, the result of genuine grief and anger? Or was it the result of professional agitators who take advantage of these opportunities to promote their agendas? As it turns out, it was some of both.
There were several livestream feeds that popped up almost immediately after the shooting was reported, and they documented the anatomy of these modern protests. If you happened to tune in during the night, you saw a bizarre mix of south St. Louis residents, trained Occupy protesters (some of whom claimed to be veterans of Occupy Oakland), masked anarchists, and people who seemed like they just saw a line and thought the only sensible thing to do was to get in it.
At times the atmosphere was festive. People were singing, mugging for the camera, dancing. Those folks didn’t seem especially upset about the death of Vonderrit Myers, but looked like they were making the most of the gathering and they were having fun socializing. Others were professional protesters. They talked about the uprising in Hong Kong and complained about Monsanto, Ferguson, the greedy corporations, and a whole list of other grievances they thought people should really, really care about. A few pitched their own upcoming protests for their very important causes. Many of them came prepared with gas masks.
There were green-hatted legal observers on hand with clipboards to make sure the police didn’t make any mistakes, a couple of guys in Spider-Man masks, and a few young men wearing ISIS-style head coverings. There were also some (obviously high) blonde kids with black hoodies who were sexually harassing female police officers and there was a group of hipsters in skinny jeans that didn’t seem to belong, except that they were well-versed in direct action protest protocol.
One man, who said he is with the African American Defense League (associated with the Black Panthers), said the time for peaceful protests is over. “They kill us, we gotta kill them back. F**k the march sh**!” he said. He also wanted everyone to know that if you have any melanin in your skin, there is no cure for ebola (because only black people have melanin or something). “Ebola’s got a cure for only white people,” he said, “You type it into google and you’ll see.”
Occasionally a group of what seemed to be genuine, local protesters would chant slogans about the evil cops and how they’re hunting black kids in the streets. Every time they’d see a cop they’d chant “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” or “Give us our sh** or we gonna shut this sh** down!”
Misinformation and speculation were rampant. Throughout the night protesters spread the word that it was 100% certain that the shooting was unjustified, that the police officer had unloaded sixteen rounds into a “boy” and that the boy was armed only with a sandwich (later it changed to an ice cream sandwich). It didn’t matter that none of this was confirmed because “we know the pigs will cover up the truth.”
One livestream documentarian, Bella Eiko, hails from Oakland and is a veteran of the Occupy protests. She had been covering the Ferguson protests and scooted on over to St. Louis to help organize some new ones. Speaking to the camera, she explained that she is both a journalist (badge and all) and a protester and said she made no apologies for that. Throughout the evening she egged on the protesters and gave them tips, informing them of their rights and telling them about what police were likely to do in response to their actions. At one intersection, protesters blocked traffic and surrounded a semi-truck. When the driver complained, Eiko screamed at him and dared him to run over the protesters. A short time later, after someone broke the car window of a police car, she said, “I don’t care. They throw rocks at tanks in Palestine. A black life is worth more than a car window.” Like any good capitalist, she pitched her Amazon wish list and donation page throughout the night.
While for the most part the protesters didn’t cause any damage, it was clear that many of them wanted a confrontation with police. They were monitoring police scanners and coordinating their efforts to direct the crowds toward areas where police were congregating. Once there, they would get in the faces of the officers and scream at them, calling them killers and telling them they deserved to die for killing that unarmed black kid.
Bella Eiko admitted, “I’ve seen amazing restraint by the police tonight, but that’s after they already killed a black kid for the night.”
As some of the protesters were screaming “F**k the police!”one white hipster in a fedora and skinny jeans thought it would be a spectacular time to lecture the angry mob about the importance of political reform and community organizing. Things got dicey for a few minutes and protesters looked like they were going to turn on one another. “This is the kind of sh** that destroyed Occupy Oakland,” Bella Eiko shouted at Jason the Hipster (some on Twitter said he was drunk) and told him it wasn’t the right time to talk about reforming the system. “This happens a lot at these things,” she sighed.
Later in the evening, about two dozen protesters encountered a line of around 40 police officers. A few had clubs, but most stood empty-handed. It was nothing like the militarized forces that descended on Ferguson in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, but they wouldn’t allow the protesters to continue to advance down the street. Jason the Hipster led the remaining protesters in chanting and taunting police. When police ordered protesters off the street and onto the sidewalk, Jason the Hipster had a private conversation with one of the cops, which immediately turned him into “one of them.” He tried to explain to his new friends that they wouldn’t be arrested if they stayed on the sidewalk, but it was too late. He was a white traitor.
“Get in your convertible and go back to where you came from!” a bunch of the black protesters shouted.
The blonde hipster girl who was with Jason whimpered, “That really hurt my feelings.”
Someone took a swing a Jason the Hipster and knocked his fedora off.
Everyone decided to call it a night at that point.