After the controversial officer-involved shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown, angry protests erupted in Ferguson, MO, a suburb of St. Louis. The Ferguson Police Department responded to the protests with a belligerent approach, putting to use an arsenal of surplus military hardware donated by the Department of Defense in an effort to intimidate protesters. What followed was a shocking crackdown on citizens that escalated the already-tense environment into a full-blown riot. Businesses were vandalized and looted, and officers began deploying teargas, pointing rifles at peaceful protesters, and detaining journalists and elected officials. US Senator Rand Paul said in a Time magazine op-ed that the situation in Ferguson resembled “war more than traditional police action.”
Consequently, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon stepped in on Wednesday, ordering the Ferguson Police Department to discontinue its coverage of the protests, and then sent in the Missouri State Highway Patrol on Thursday, led by Ferguson native Captain Ronald S. Johnson. Nixon promised a change in tone in an effort to respect the rights of protesters. While some might argue that Ferguson police demonstrated how not to deal with protesters, Captain Johnson, on the other hand, has since been putting on a clinic on how to keep a tense situation peaceful. Even today, as Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announced the name of the officer who shot Brown, the protests have remained comparatively tranquil, in no small part due to Johnson’s management of the relationship between police and the community. As an example, when Chief Jackson alleged during the announcement that Michael Brown had committed a robbery on the same day in which he was shot, Captain Johnson, recognizing the community outrage that would follow, referred to the two incidents as separate issues and indicated that he wished he had been consulted prior to the press conference.
According to CBS News, Captain Ron Johnson, an African American native of Ferguson, said, “it means a lot to me personally that we break this cycle of violence.” His leadership dramatically transformed the once-chaotic community, bringing an environment of calm. He approached the protest, not with armored vehicles, riot gear, blockades, and rifles, but instead assisted protesters with planning their route, provided a media staging center for journalists, and even joined the protesters on their march, walking right along with thousands who wanted to express their frustration with the tactics of the Ferguson Police Department. When night fell on Thursday, rather than ramping up the police presence, Johnson took a hands-off approach, resulting in a calmer atmosphere than previous nights, which had been climactically out of control.
Captain Johnson’s mission was to heal the relationship between the community and police. Said Johnson according to The Washington Post, “When I see a young lady cry because of fear of this uniform, that’s a problem. We’ve got to solve that.” He apologized on behalf of police to a man whose niece had been teargassed. He met with representatives of the NAACP and assured the media that there would be a dramatic shift in tone towards peace and cooperation.
Johnson’s approach was met with hugs and tears of joy. A protest leader announced over a megaphone, “[The police] respect us, so let’s respect them. They’ve given us the sidewalk so lets stay out of their street.” Jerroll Sanders, an organizer of the protest, told The Washington Post, “This is what our community was like before a child was killed in our streets. But what we’ve seen is a change in the policing approach. The aggression was never brought on by us.”
Under Captain Johnson’s leadership, riot gear and battle lines were replaced by officers in traditional police uniforms, walking right along with protesters, assuring that matters would remain peaceful. On Wednesday, during a time when Ferguson police were still assigned to cover the protests, St. Louis County police spokesperson Brian Schellman told CBS News, “In talking to [the protesters], it is scary.” By contrast, Captain Johnson said, “I’m not afraid to be in this crowd.” He described his new style for dealing with the protests, saying, “We are going to have a different approach. We’re going to have the approach that we’re in this together.”
So far, it appears that Captain Johnson’s tactics have been vindicated, because, after he took over on Thursday, the war-like mayhem that had scorched Ferguson since last Saturday has effectively ceased. Fox News likened the new mood of the protest to a block party. Protester Cleo Willis told Fox News, “You can feel [the change]. You can see it. Now it’s up to us to ride that feeling.”