For the first time this week, St. Louisans didn't wake up to pictures depicting riot police aiming sniper rifles at nonviolent protesters, arresting journalists or blockading residential streets in Ferguson.
Instead, today's photos showed thousands parading down West Florissant Avenue under the watchful gaze of the black-clad members of the New Black Panther Party. And not a cop in sight.
Local media reports earlier this week warned that the New Black Panthers were coming to town and could incite violence against police officers. Last night, Daily RFT observed something very different.
With the occasional help from Anonymous members in Guy Fawkes masks, roughly half a dozen Black Panthers directed cars through the traffic-choked street in front of the burned out QuikTrip -- the same street where officers commanded by the St. Louis County Police Department dispersed protesters with flash-bang grenades and tear gas just the night before.
"We want to show Ferguson and the world that we can govern ourselves," said Chawn Kweli, the national chief of staff for the Atlanta-based New Black Panther Party. Kweli had just been windmilling his arms to spur on the sluggish line of cars moving past the QuikTrip. Passengers leaned out of windows and even climbed on top of moving cars. On any other day, in any other town, police would have ticketed -- and likely arrested -- many drivers.
But Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson chose to pull nearly all of his officers from the immediate area of the protest, leaving the mile strip of West Florissant to the people of Ferguson and their supporters.
Daily RFT did see one potentially serious injury -- a woman appeared to hit the ground hard after attempting to leap onto the back of a moving vehicle. When police cruisers inched their way across West Florissant to retrieve the woman, it was the New Back Panthers who cleared a path for the officers and urged the crowd to resist attacking the police.
"We're taking charge of the streets, making sure that the traffic is flowing, making sure that there's peace here," Kweli said. He was dressed in a simple black button-down shirt with gold stars on the collar, a sign of his rank in the party. Other members sported military-style tactical vests and masks.
Before the Thursday night's protest-turned-parade, the presence of the New Black Panther Party in St. Louis caused worried reactiond from local media, as well as a warning from the FBI. On Wednesday, KTVI (Channel 2) reported that the FBI had issued an alert that Kweli and other members of the New Black Panther Party had arrived in St. Louis and were advocating violence against police officers. (The report starts at 2:46 in the video below.)
Then, early Thursday afternoon -- prior to Governor Jay Nixon's announcement that the Missouri State Highway Patrol would take control from the St. Louis County Police Department in Ferguson -- KTVI reported the New Black Panthers joined with other protesters in crashing a press conference delivered by Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson.
Indeed, the New Black Panther Party has been linked with voter intimidation in Philadelphia during the 2008 election, and more recently offered a $10,000 bounty for the citizen's arrest of Trayvon Martin's shooter, George Zimmerman.
It also worth nothing that the New Black Panther Party isn't affiliated with the Civil Rights-era Black Panther Party. The Huey Newton Foundation -- which counts many original Black Panthers as members -- condemned the New Black Panthers for advocating hatred and violence against whites.
However, we didn't spot any New Black Panther members targeting or harassing white protesters or police officers.
For all the optimism generated from Thursday's cop-less gathering in Ferguson, it hasn't lessened the unrest surrounding the shooting death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown on Saturday. Many residents and protesters reject the police's narrative -- that an unarmed Brown attacked a Ferguson Police Department officer, who then shot the teen multiple times in the street. The vast majority of residents interviewed by Daily RFT expressed hope the officer will be charged and tried for murder.
When asked about the possibility of violence returning to the streets of Ferguson, Kweli answered, "It's all in the hand of the people. Until justice is served, until black people and people of color get justice, this type of stuff is not going to stop."
This morning's official announcement of the name of the officer who shot Brown -- a six-year veteran of the Ferguson police force named Darren Wilson -- threatens to derail the progress made last night. Police say Brown robbed a convenience store before Wilson shot him dead. For more on that story, check out our continuing coverage. Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com