FERGUSON, Mo. — We have seen the riot police before.
Their grim faces capped with helmets, their tough hands clenched around batons, their German shepherds growling and howling in a cloud of tear gas.
We have seen them in South Central Los Angeles after Rodney King, in Chicago after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and flanked across Detroit’s inner city streets after the civil rights movement came to a boil.
We have seen the demonstrators, too. The lone “tank man” in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The Arab Spring movement tightly packed into downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Protesters in Kiev holding off police with a ring of fire.
But we haven’t seen them together like this: hurling rocks and rubber bullets on wide open suburban streets. After all, this is Ferguson, pop. 21,135.
The images are striking, and all the more frightening, because of the backdrop. Ground zero for the chaos is a torched QuikTrip, a chain convenience store built on the edge of the four-lane road across from a carwash.
The aftermath of a fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager has created a jarring picture of suburban warfare. Far from the sprawling plazas or dense inner cities or lunch counters normally conjured up in thoughts of political unrest, the images here have mixed a familiar American setting with a surreal situation. The nightly ritual of police hurling smoke bombs and shouting on megaphones in attempts to clear demonstrators has played out on an asphalt strip normally traveled by SUVs and minivans on their way home from Walmart.
But the Ferguson Walmart is different. The giant suburban icon on Sunday night saw looters hit its well-lighted aisles as police trailed them with guns drawn. The scenario was replayed at the nearby Walgreens.
“In the other riots you think of the high-rise public housing and the city backdrop, but this has a different feel because you are not dealing with a major city,” said St. Louis Aldermanic President Lewis Reed.
Reed remembered the civil rights rebellion that gripped Los Angeles in 1965. Over six summer days, 34 people were killed, more than 1,000 injured, and about 600 buildings destroyed in the Watts neighborhood, just a few miles removed from the city center.
“You are in a suburban community,” Reed said of the Ferguson protests. “This is so different than anything I’ve seen.”
How different? The sea of tactical trucks and military-style equipment was staged not at an armory or police station, but in a Target parking lot.
That has the power to grab at someone who traded the big city for a cul-de-sac. Not surprisingly, Mid America Arms in suburban south St. Louis County reported that firearm sales were up by about 50 percent this week.
“This is a manifestation of what happened over decades of mistrust,” said Michael McMillan, the leader of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. “We have seen the issues of the inner city move to the suburbs.”
McMillan said: “We are together now. It’s our job to listen, to meet, to ensure a safe quality of life.”
But right now, little of that is happening. The scenes from Wednesday night prompted CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin to say the police response in Ferguson made the place look like Belfast during the Northern Ireland bombings. And he noted that it’s the big cities that saw riots in the 1960s that have been more peaceful.
“And if you look at the many, many protests that take place in cities like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, where people protest even at night, and there are not rubber bullets, they’re not tear gassed, there are not reporters being arrested for sitting in McDonald’s,” Toobin said.
Perhaps that is why this story is shocking so many in the region and across the nation, causing civil rights leader Jesse Jackson to write: “There’s a Ferguson near you.”
©2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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