FERGUSON, Mo. — Artez Hurston was initially content to watch Ferguson ebb between calm and violence from the comfort of his St. Louis living room.
On the fourth night, no longer able to sit on the sidelines, he headed to north St. Louis County with two objectives: to support the outcry over the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer and assume what he saw as a critical gap in a situation marred by escalating tension between police and demonstrators.
“I figured I better get out here so we could police ourselves and get the police to stop tear-gassing us,” said the 34-year-old self-employed landscaper.
In doing so, Hurston enlisted in a small, unheralded and unofficial coalition of local peacemakers — all African-American — who voluntarily and often at great risk to themselves have acted as intermediaries between protesters and police.
Paris Caldwell, 33, of Florissant has been a constant presence in Ferguson since the night Brown was killed.
She has come to see herself a translator in a massive communications breakdown.
“The preachers and the police are older,” Caldwell allowed. “They’re the doctors. I’m the nurse explaining to the kids what the doctor just said.”
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar gives the peacekeeping cadre credit for preventing a bad situation from becoming worse.
“Without them we wouldn’t have the calm that we have,” Belmar said Friday.
Arriving separately shortly before nightfall, Caldwell and Hurston gently and sometimes not so gently urge protesters to heed police orders to remain on the sidewalk, stay in constant motion and avoid congregating in groups.
“They tell me it’s illegal for them to make us stop walking,” Caldwell said. “I completely know where they’re coming from, but I tell them ‘that’s not our fight right now so keep going.’”
Hurston has additionally encouraged young men to remove bandanas and other makeshift coverings on their faces.
“Kids,” he shrugged after one protester brushed aside an argument that covering their faces antagonized police. “They never listen.”
Caldwell often finds herself straddling a fine line between fierce allegiance to the cause that spawned two weeks of demonstrations and a role some construe as being sympathetic to the police.
The disconnect surfaced the night she wore a T-shirt identifying her as a “PEACEKEEPER” when a protester derided Caldwell as a “house (expletive).”
The name-calling barely registers after situations that have repeatedly called upon Hurston and Caldwell to throw themselves into the midst of chaos.
On several occasions Hurston has stood, arms spread, to single-handedly guide taunting demonstrators back from police with night sticks at the ready.
And it was Hurston on Monday night who placed himself between a surge of demonstrators and officers with automatic weapons pointed directly at the crowd rushing toward a SWAT squad forcibly removing a motorist from a vehicle exiting a parking lot. (Authorities said two handguns were confiscated from the car.)
Two nights later, Hurston and Caldwell formed a “human shield” to protect a couple who showed up to support Darren Wilson, the Ferguson officer who shot Brown.
Caldwell says she tries not to dwell on the danger she’s faced.
Hurston is no stranger to the anger that fueled Ferguson in the aftermath of the Brown shooting.
Growing up in North County, Hurston resided primarily in Berkeley but also, briefly, in the Canfield apartment complex where Brown was shot.
Police, he recalls, never hesitated to stop him first as a teenage pedestrian and later as a motorist.
African-American “teens feel like the police declared war on them when they came out of the womb,” Hurston says.
Given his own experiences, Hurston acknowledges being an unlikely candidate to broker relations between demonstrators and police from themselves.
In adulthood, Hurston’s brushes with the law have been limited to probation for failing to pay support for his five children.
He feared the probation might haunt him Monday night after he ordered tear-gassed demonstrators into the bed of his pickup truck to escape an area torn by gunfire.
Police officers who stopped Hurston shortly after discovered two weapons and Molotov cocktails in the truck bed. He was taken into custody and released a few hours later without charges.
The incident left Hurston shaken.
“When you help people you don’t stop to ask if they have guns and bottle bombs,” he says.
Whatever differences he may have had with police in the past, Hurston and his fellow intermediaries are now part of an unlikely police and protester fraternity forged over long and tense hours on West Florissant Avenue.
“I consider them my friends,” said Belmar.
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