It was almost 2 a.m. on Monday when students at Saint Louis University awoke to the chanting of hundreds of protesters converging on their campus. University security officers, who had little warning that the protests that had roiled the streets of St. Louis and suburban Ferguson, Mo., would spill through their gates, stepped aside to make way for the crowds, which were protesting the killing of an unarmed black teenager in August and another teen last week.
One protest leader greeted the officers: "I am a student, I have my ID, and I have a lot of guests."
A rally and sit-in around the campus’s clock tower extended into the morning, when the president of this Jesuit institution of about 14,000 students sent out a statement to students, faculty and staff members, and parents. At that point, the crowd had dwindled to a few dozen protesters, many of them students camped out in tents that intermittently protected them from a steady rain.
"Having middle-of-the-night protests is unexpected and can be disturbing," the president, Fred P. Pestello, wrote, but everyone on the campus had responded "with great grace and compassion."
Campus security officers were first summoned about 15 minutes before the protesters arrived, after social-media posts hinted that the marchers were heading their way. One top priority: making sure residence-hall monitors were checking anyone who entered for a campus ID.
The focus, the president said, was on making sure students were safe without doing anything to rile up the protesters.
‘Loud’ but ‘Respectful’
The march, one of several protests and acts of civil disobedience planned for this week, started in St. Louis’s Shaw neighborhood, where a white off-duty city police officer who was working on a security job fatally shot a black teenager, Vonderrit D. Myers Jr., five days earlier. The police and witnesses said the youth had fired at the officer first, a charge the victim’s relatives denied.
Among those speaking out at the middle-of-the-night protest, which drew a crowd of about 800, was the slain teen’s father, Vonderitt D. Myers Sr., who is a delivery worker for the university.
News-media and Twitter reports indicated that protest organizers had kept their march route secret to avoid alerting the police, and on video footage of the march, participants can be heard wondering where the crowd is going.
Between 1:30 and 2 a.m., they approached the campus, chanting "hands up, don’t shoot"—a reference to the widely replicated sign of surrender that 18-year-old Michael Brown reportedly was making when he was shot and killed, in August, by a police officer in the suburb of Ferguson. That shooting prompted some professors at St. Louis-area campuses to integrate discussions about race relations and the use of force by the police into classroom lesson plans.
On Sunday evening about 1,800 people crowded into an arena at Saint Louis University to hear clergy members and young activists speak about the issues that had led to the protests. Among those speaking at the university-planned event were Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, and young rap artists and community activitists, who questioned whether an older generation was calling the shots from an outdated playbook.
There were no disturbances, and the campus security officers on hand figured they were done for the night. But a long, tense night was only beginning.
A few students, studying for this week’s midterm examinations, peered from the library windows as the protesters marched through the campus's center shortly after 1:30 a.m. Curious students poured from their residence halls as chants turned to "out of the dorms and into the streets."
University officials put out word through their own social-media sites that a peaceful protest was taking place on the campus.
The officials, after consulting with the the St. Louis police, decided "not to escalate the situation with any confrontation, especially since the protest was nonviolent," the president wrote. "While the protesters were sometimes loud, they were respectful of the students they met."
After consulting with the provost, the officials decided to hold classes as scheduled on Monday for students bleary-eyed but better informed after a night of protests.