FERGUSON, Mo. — An overflowing, unquestionable fire hazard of a crowd packed like sardines into Greater Grace Church in St. Louis, Mo. on a humid, overcast Sunday afternoon to hear local and national luminaries — including Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III — speak about the police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
The festivities kicked off with a few rollicking gospel jams performed by a live band, and then a long, meandering and very spirited prayer.
The theme among the several speakers who followed was justice — for Brown, for his grieving family members and for people in the community.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who had promised — wrongly, it turned out — that officers under his control would not use tear gas to enforce a curfew in the St. Louis County town of Ferguson, received an epic standing ovation when he spoke.
“I wear this uniform. I’m sorry,” Johnson told the congregated 1,300 or so people jammed in the pews and beyond in the lobby. “This is my neighborhood. You are my family.”
Johnson, a natural and adept, soft-spoken but firm performer, also spoke about his own son who, he said, wears his pants saggy, his hat crooked, and has tattoos running up his arm.
“And that’s my baby! That’s my son,” the police captain said, to raucous applause.
Later, the parents of Michael Brown, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., emerged on stage with a very angry Benjamin Crump, the attorney for the family of Trayvon Martin. Neither parent spoke. McSpadden silently wiped tears from her eyes.
Sharpton was definitely the orator the huge crowd came to see, and he did not disappoint.
He began a short, powerful, applause-line-filled speech by declaring that the shooting of Brown represents a pivotal moment in what he views as a much larger fight for the rights of people around the world against the repressive forces of government.
“We…have…had…enough!” Sharpton pronounced, adding that people who agree with him could make a difference at the ballot box.
“Nobody can go to the White House until they stop by our house!”
The famous activist demanded to know why police had released a videotape of Brown shoplifting from a now-looted and burned-out convenience store. Sharpton said that he does not condone shoplifting, but he also doesn’t believe the tape has anything to do with the subsequent shooting of Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.
Sharpton demanded a federal investigation of the shooting, called for federal jobs programs in the area and urged community members to protest peacefully.
“We are not looters. We are liberators,” he said, to a massive amount of applause.
Sharpton concluded by observing that the “shocking display of military equipment” used by local police has been frightening.
He also reminded the audience that Ferguson only has three black police officers out of 53 and has no black people on the school board.
“Michael Brown gonna change this town!” he bellowed.
Martin Luther King III followed Sharpton in a short speech that was utterly unremarkable in comparison to Sharpton’s rhetorical bombast.
The next part of the event was a direct appeal for cash for the family of the deceased teenager. Sharpton noted that the family needs money for the impending funeral and for other expenses. He asked all preachers in attendance to donate $100. The suggested amount went down to $50, then to $20 and finally to whatever anyone could give.
“Come on. Come on,” he said, over and over, in a pseudo-auctioneer style.
In the grand finale, Sharpton stood in front of the crowd and impressively sang an old gospel standard.
Outside, and after all that talk of peaceful demonstrations inside the church, chants of “no justice no peace” could be heard amid a sea of people.
(Photos by Seth Richardson; Follow Seth on Twitter)