Jacob Crawford/AP

News Analysis

Hours after a makeshift memorial to Michael Brown was destroyed by fire on Tuesday morning, a replacement roadside homage was quickly rebuilt as supporters and detractors of the slain Ferguson teen took their ongoing feud online.

Advertisement

The original shrine, which had been decorated with flowers, stuffed animals, candles, and signs, was set ablaze this morning and quickly burned to a char. The cause of the blaze is still being investigated, according to a press release from Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson.

But many frustrated Fergusonians aren’t waiting for the investigation to draw a conclusion about what happened.

​Soon after the memorial was burned, people went online to vent emotive and oftentimes racially charged opinions and theories about what happened. The public’s strong reaction to the incident underscores the tensions that to simmer just under the surface level nearly two months after the unarmed teen’s shooting death on Aug. 9.

Advertisement

“For us, that’s burning a cross,” said state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who believes Brown’s memorial was intentionally set ablaze.  “Everyone thinks it’s on purpose. They’re burning something that’s important and treating us as though we’re less-than-human. The people of this region are pissed off, and rightfully so.”

The shrine was one of two makeshift tributes erected by the local population near the area where Brown was killed and lay dead for more than four hours. Many in Ferguson treat the area with special reverence; out of respect, they drive around one memorial built on the road where Brown fell.

By late Tuesday morning, a new memorial of stuffed animals and balloons was placed on the ashes of the burned memorial. Supporters prayed over the site.

Advertisement

Though the national news cameras left Ferguson weeks ago, the momentum on the ground has not subsided. In recent weeks residents have packed city council and local government meetings and launched frustrated tirades at officials. Others have turned the moment into an opportunity for political engagement, with grassroots activists registering voters and calling for a Michael Brown write-in campaign in the Nov. 4 elections.

Chants of “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” were still heard at a protest earlier this month as angry marchers were arrested after trying to block a highway demanding justice for Brown. Protesters are still calling for the arrest of Officer Darren Wilson, identified as Brown’s shooter, and for the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case.

These and other efforts suggest that after years of feeling defeated and hopeless, the community is resolved to not return to the status quo, and is willing to continue to agitate for change. But their exasperation has also given way to bursts of outrage.

Advertisement

The responses on social media on Tuesday were swift, emotional, and heated.

Advertisement

Arguments erupted in the comment section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website, with one person blaming supporters of Officer Darren Wilson, identified by authorities as Brown’s shooter, for starting the fire. Another asked “why a criminal is being honored in the first place.”

Such sentiments echo the results of a recent poll by a St. Louis-based research group. The results, which were also sorted by race, showed that the city’s black and white residents hold starkly divergent opinions about the Brown case and the unrest that followed in Ferguson.

Advertisement

Specifically, less than a quarter of white residents believed Brown’s shooting was race-related, compared to nearly two-thirds of black residents. More than 70 percent of white people did not think Wilson should be arrested or charged in the case, while roughly the same number of black people felt the opposite.

Only a third of black residents felt that county prosecutor Bob McCulloch would fairly prosecute a case against Wilson, compared to more than 70 percent of white people who felt that way.

A St. Louis grand jury was recently granted more than two additional months to consider whether to indict Wilson, further fueling a sense of black distrust around the investigation. If Wilson is not indicted, some are predicting a day of reckoning in Ferguson, reminiscent of the clashes between police and protesters in the days after Brown’s death — or worse.