ARISE stages demonstration in Springfield to protest Ferguson shooting, racism, police militarization
RINGFIELD — People from Western Massachusetts on Thursday night took to the streets of Springfield to protest what they called an injustice 1,100 miles away in Ferguson, Missouri.
In a demonstration at the intersection of State, Federal and Walnut streets, protesters held signs and chanted, while passing motorists blared their horns in support. Roughly 20 people positioned themselves at each of the four corners and on the two traffic islands at the intersection.
The demonstration, planned by the Springfield-based organization ARISE For Social Justice, was called to protest not only the shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by police in Ferguson, but also to protest what they called heavy-handed militarized tactics used by police to quell the civilian protests that have sprung up in the wake of Brown’s death.
“If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere,” said Ellen Graves, the Peace and Anti-Violence Organizer for ARISE. “It can happen anywhere."
Brown, who was due to start his freshman year at college, was shot and killed Saturday by a police officer after the officer told him and a friend to use the sidewalk instead of walking in the road.
Although accounts of the shooting vary – the initial police report has the officer opening fire after Brown and his friend attacked him in his cruiser, while witnesses say Brown was shot once as he was running away and then again as he held his hands up and said “don’t shoot” – no one is disputing that Brown was unarmed.
Key details of the incident remain unclear, including the identity of the officer involved in the shooting and how many times Brown was shot or where he was struck.
The shooting has led to days of disturbances, protests and looting in the predominantly black community of about 22,000 people just north of St. Louis. Over the last few nights, the demonstrations have grown larger, and police in riot gear and armored vehicles have used tear gas, rubber bullets and other militarized tactics to quell crowds. Members of the press covering the riots have been threatened with arrest and in some cases actually arrested.
On Thursday, the unrest in Ferguson prompted President Obama to comment briefly to appeal for calm. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon also announced the state Highway Patrolwill be in charge of security in Ferguson instead of the local police.
Michael Edwards, standing at State and Walnut, said the news out of Ferguson has been shocking.
“For them to be using military weapons for a civilian demonstration is an affront to the Constitution,” he said.
He said he was shocked watching footage on the news over the last few days, saying it was ironic the U.S. is sending military aid to Iraq to aid those seeking freedom, while police in Ferguson are using military aid against people seeking justice.
Holding a sign representing a pair of hands raised in surrender with the words “don’t shoot,” Edwards said “It makes no difference if it was in Missouri, Florida or Massachusetts; the same thing can happen in any place in America.”
Asked if he felt he was making a difference by holding a sign in Springfield, Edwards said “Whether we’re making a difference or not, we’re making some noise.”
Michaelann Bewsee of ARISE said the public outrage over the Brown shooting is only growing as people learn more about it.
“This kind of rage they have in Ferguson is contagious,” she said.
“There have been too many cases like this,” she said. “We shouldn’t be putting up with it.”
Elissa Small of Amherst, shielding her eyes from the sun with a large sign reading “stop the militarization of law enforcement," said her family lived in southern Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement, and the news coming out of Missouri “seems to me like we’ve taken a big step backward.”
She said she turned out for the demonstration on short notice because she felt it was an important enough issue for public protest.
“It’s time to get off Facebook and get into the streets,” she said.