From Tear Gas to Empathy: How Capt. Ronald Johnson Transformed the Scene in Ferguson

The scene in the troubled Missouri town changed dramatically when new police leadership arrived.

Capt. Ronald Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol in Ferguson on Aug. 15. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Aug 15, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

Protests and police brutality have plagued the small town of Ferguson, Mo., since an officer shot an unarmed 18-year-old named Michael Brown last Saturday. During four nights of chaos, Ferguson cops and St. Louis County officers repeatedly fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters. Yesterday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon put State Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald Johnson in charge of security in Ferguson, saying the town looked like a “war zone.”

“Suddenly, everything has changed” in Ferguson, The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery reported.

Johnson, who grew up in Ferguson, told CNN, “This is my community.”

Johnson then marched through the streets of Ferguson with a crowd of about 1,000 people. He instructed officers to take off their gas masks, said law enforcement wouldn’t blockade the streets, and hugged and kissed people who walked by.

“I’m not afraid to be in this crowd,” Johnson said.

Though things had calmed down, some residents were still protesting.

According to reporters, the police response was much less severe than on previous nights.

Later in the evening, the atmosphere was almost like a party. This might say more about how oppressive earlier police action was than about how good things are now. But it’s clear that a little respect has given protesters reason to celebrate.

After last night’s relative peace, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announced during a bumbling press conference that an officer named Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown. Jackson released the incident report from a convenience store robbery in which Brown was a suspect but refused to answer questions about the shooting during the press conference.

After the press conference, Johnson told the local NBC News affiliate KSDK that he’d be taking a select group of activists and community leaders to a press conference with Nixon later today. “I don’t think that we should just have a press conference and have anybody—the activists, the leaders—down here,” he said.