FERGUSON, Mo. — “Agitators” triggering chaos and violence amid the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, aren’t all locals. Many are among the throngs of people who have flocked to the St. Louis suburb in recent days.
“Thirty-one people have been arrested tonight,” Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson said late Monday. Some, he said, “came from as far away as New York and California.”
It’s unclear just how many from outside the community are taking part in the fighting that disrupts peaceful protests.
“I was hiding with a few people last night and they were telling me that people were coming from Chicago, California, West Virginia,” Leo York, a freelance photographer who said he was tear gassed, told CNN Tuesday. The people he talked to believe some visitors “are coming here to steal from the stores just to take advantage of the situation,” York said.
Some of the “hooligans” are the “normal, after-midnight clientele of the police” as well, said Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director who is now a CNN law enforcement analyst.
By all accounts, those stirring up trouble are a small minority. People from around the country and even other parts of the world have come to Ferguson to express outrage over the police shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
“There is a dangerous dynamic in the night. It allows a small number of agitators to hide in the crowd and then attempt to create chaos,” Johnson said.
“Protesters are peaceful and respectful,” he said. “Protesters don’t clash with police. … It is criminals who throw Molotov cocktails and fire shots that endangers life and property.”
Whether locals or outsiders, those stirring up trouble are “fools,” said State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal. “They are a disgrace to this entire movement.”
“What we are trying to address is the intimidation and harassment of police officers onto young people,” she told CNN. But by shooting guns, throwing Molotov cocktails, and looting stores, these so-called agitators are making conditions unsafe and spurring a crackdown by authorities. “It completely changes the narrative,” she said Monday.
“We don’t need these antagonizers out here,” said protester Jerrell Bourrage, who said he grabbed a bottle-hurling demonstrator and told him to stop. “We need people who can stand out here to the side and still let your word be known.”
Michael Brown’s parents spoke out against the violence Tuesday. “It is a distraction, but we won’t let it distract us to the point where we lose focus,” Lesley McSpadden told NBC’s “Today.” “We have to remain focused and we have to remain strong and the violence needs to stop. When justice has prevailed, it may regain the trust in the locals, but right now it’s really out of control.”
Participants in the protests also blame the authorities for violence. Police have fired tear gas and used stun grenades, angering some who believe the tactics are too heavy-handed and a sign of the dangers of police militarization.
The situation presents a difficult challenge for police, said Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director who is now a CNN law enforcement analyst. The “normal, after-midnight clientele of the police — these hooligans” mix in with the crowd, he said. “So, that is what the police have to contend with.”
The police tried putting away the heavy weaponry at one point last week, Fuentes noted. But then, as late night violence broke out in recent days, “they had no alternative, and they brought them back out.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who famously defused tensions in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, said there’s one tactic authorities should be sure to use. “They have to continue to walk with the people as opposed to walk against them,” he said.
But quelling these protests will require a political and judicial solution, he said. “The political and justice in this country need to find a way out of this that convinces people the right things will be done,” he said.
Some protesters, meanwhile, are trying a tactic of their own. On Monday night, a group of community leaders formed a human chain and walked hand-in-hand — hoping not only to provide a buffer between police and peaceful protesters, but also to block the agitators.