FERGUSON, Mo. — The tall black man walked up and down West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, working a bullhorn, imploring protesters to behave themselves.
“All right, y’all doing good!” Malik Zulu Shabazz told one group of young men. “Just keep it peaceful. Keep it peaceful, black man!”
Shabazz isn’t a police officer. He is president of Black Lawyers for Justice and former chairman of the New Black Panther Party. Those organizations and others, made up mostly of black volunteers, have taken it upon themselves to help ease tensions in Ferguson, confident the protesters are more likely to listen to them than police.
In many cases, they’re right. Shabazz was gentle with some, firm with others on a recent night as he urged them to get off the streets at night, and to stay away from looting. One young man wearing a bandanna around his neck seemed primed for trouble standing near a closed restaurant until Shabazz put a hand on his shoulder and had a quiet talk. Soon, the young man nodded and walked away.
The shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer on Aug. 9 has created a volatile situation in the St. Louis suburb. Officer Darren Wilson is on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. It could be weeks before a decision is made on whether the officer will face charges.
In the meantime, protesters gather every night along a few blocks of West Florissant, not far from where Brown died. Most are peaceful, but police have used tear gas and rubber bullets to control the rowdy ones, who have pelted officers with Molotov cocktails and bricks. Gunfire is common at night.
It’s an odd situation for some of the volunteers, many of whom have spent their lives railing against police brutality. It’s not that they’re siding with police. But there is a sense that the real message of the protests – that Brown’s death deserves justice – is being overshadowed by the looting and unrest.
So groups of activists, clergy, even a motorcycle gang, are pitching in, hoping the message will resonate more clearly coming from black men and women who aren’t wearing badges.
It isn’t easy. Shabazz admitted that keeping the peace is often a challenge as he deals with what he called “infiltrators and provocateurs” seeking to cause trouble.
“This is extremely tenuous,” he said. “I risk my life out there running between that (police) line and all of those men. I don’t know what’s in those guns they got.”
Paul Muhammad, 36, of St. Louis, a barrel-chested man in a black T-shirt and camouflage pants, said his group, the Peacekeepers, was serving as a buffer between protesters and police.
“Let’s go black people!” Muhammad yelled at young people loitering in front of a store. “Off the lot!”
Muhammad was among several men wearing “Peacekeepers” T-shirts around Ferguson. At least 200 had volunteered through the group Disciples of Justice. Shabazz said up to 150 men were helping through an affiliation with the New Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, the National Action Network and Black Lawyers for Justice.
Akbar Muhammad of the Nation of Islam said he and other older activists are as worried about the protesters as police. “We do not want our young people getting hurt,” he said.
Many of the volunteers say they’re just as put off by the heavy police presence and the use of National Guard as the protesters. They also understand the frustrations of the protesters.
Terrance Ivy, 28, of Disciples of Justice, said the unrest “is their way of expressing themselves. It’s their voice. We feel like a lot of people say they hear us, but they don’t. They don’t listen to us. The cops who do things like this aren’t facing time (in prison) like we would.”
Muhammad said, “The injustice has not been corrected yet. But we’re taking a stand for our people. Who better to police family than family?”