It hasn’t been so easy for traditional civil rights-era activists in this small St. Louis suburb in recent weeks, where the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer has put them on all-too-familiar turf: challenging the treatment of African American men by police.
They, like so many around the country — including President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. — have been deeply concerned about the militarized police response with tanks and tear gas and scores of arrests.
But what also has affected these activists is the realization that there is a generational divide between them and young protesters, who are organizing on their own. They are fueled by rage, mobilized by social media and sometimes, or so it seems to the old guard, capable of a bit of disrespect.
“The difference is in the ‘60s, we were disciplined,” Ron Gregory, 72, told a crowd gathered at a historic church on Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis to discuss protest strategies. The city is just minutes away from Ferguson.
“We were trained when we marched. We were taught if they spit on you, just wipe it off and continue marching. But we are dealing with a new breed of youngster. They say, ‘You better not spit on me.’”
Generational divides are not new. Even John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee challenged leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference because they believed they weren’t pushing hard enough, fast enough. Later, the Black Panther Party took up arms and argued that African Americans have a right to defend themselves.
For years, younger activists have complained that the civil rights generation wasn’t building bridges with them. Now in Ferguson, the gulf appears to have grown, widened by tensions over economic and social marginalization – and underscored by the perception that not even an African American president can help.
So a group, many of them clergy members, met Tuesday in the basement of Williams Temple Church of God in Christ before they were scheduled to march. The discussion turned to young protesters and what they had been seeing.
Dennis Brown, 48, who had worked on the streets of St. Louis for almost 30 years, felt a need to explain young people’s perspectives.
“They have been to so many funerals. . . . They are not afraid to die,” he said.
“That brazen defiance is fueled by an anger a lot of older people can’t comprehend,” he added.
During the day, those who helped win the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 march alongside others who carry signs, shout slogans and gather peacefully.
At night, they watch young people defying hundreds of police officers in riot gear.
Some young people ignore orders to disperse. They’ve been known to shout back, “F–- you!” And when police fire tear gas, some pick up the canisters and throw them back.
Bradley Rayford, 22, chief executive of the Student Government Association at Florissant Valley Community College in Ferguson, stresses two things: First, there is considerable anger toward police, and not just for Michael Brown’s death. Even so, not all young people are out throwing Molotov cocktails.
“A lot of older leaders, they came from a different time,” said Rayford, who was among the college students who met with Holder on Wednesday. “They didn’t have this kind of music, television shows and social media. Their reaction was civil disobedience and sit- ins.”
His generation can be “more rageful,” he said. “They see TV shows that are violent. They listen to music that is violent. They are amped by social media.”
On Tuesday, the older activists and clergy members piled into cars and drove to West Florissant Avenue, where they joined elbows and prayed.
A young protester bounded by. “It’s too quiet up in here,” he said.
“Come on: Hands up, don’t shoot! You are forgetting what we are out here for,” he shouted.
One minister tried shushing him to explain that they had planned to pray before marching, but the young man kept shouting. Finally, the clergy members marched down the street singing “We Shall Overcome.”
In their wake stood the protester and other young people who had joined him. They were shouting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “No justice, no peace!”