Though it’s been almost two weeks since Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the protest movement that has converged on the St. Louis suburb seems only to be growing. Out-of-state activists continue to stream into the area, joining locals in their stand against Rambo police and the National Guard. On Monday and Tuesday evenings, cops arrested 103 people, 23 of them from places outside Missouri.
One such protester was arrested three times in three days. Billy Moreno is a 33-year-old tabletop game designer from Austin, Texas. Until he arrived by himself in Ferguson on Saturday, he’d never participated in a rally or demonstration in his entire life. He’d never been arrested before, either.
“I’m not even here as a protester,” says Moreno, who was released from prison for the third time early this morning. “I’m just here offering support. I’m very plugged in to social media and saw what was going on. It seemed important to come as an observer, and if there are opportunities to move toward a peaceful resolution, I wanted to help.”
Moreno’s ordeal began when he joined demonstrators on Monday. Police had instituted a new rule that forbade protesters from standing in any one area. Moreno says he was careful to keep moving and had been walking in and out of shops, chatting with store owners. He wanted to know if their businesses had suffered any damage during the chaos of the previous few days; he’d been collecting donations from people online and was offering to send them money. Moreno was taking down someone’s information around 3 p.m. when police accosted him. “They put ties on my wrists and brought me to a van,” he says. “I asked them what I had done, and they told me I’d failed to keep moving.” He was locked up in a holding cell and, without explanation, released a few hours later.
But around midnight on Tuesday morning, it happened again. Moreno was standing with a mass of demonstrators in the lot of a Ferguson market. “Police were trying to move us, and then announced we needed to [disperse] immediately,” Moreno recalls. “Everyone was confused and didn’t know where to go.” As police advanced on the crowd, Moreno tried to explain that the protesters weren’t deliberately disobeying orders; they just didn’t understand what was being asked of them. The police ignored his pleas for calm and arrested him. “I said, ‘Fine, but people still don’t know where to go.’” He was released six hours later.
Moreno didn’t rejoin the demonstrators until around 9 p.m. “I was feeling hopeful,” he says. But his good spirits were quickly tempered. “Police were lined up in the middle of the road, and it was starting to get tense,” Moreno recalls. Officers again advanced on the crowd, grabbing demonstrators they considered a threat. “A lot of people were upset,” Moreno says. “Police kept tightening in on the group.” After being herded toward a designated lot, the group was surrounded by police on all sides with nowhere to go. “I was tapped on my shoulder,” he says. “An officer asked what was in my backpack. Then he put ties on me and acknowledged it was my third time being arrested.”
Around midnight, Moreno was taken back to a large holding cell, where he was locked up with a few dozen protesters and journalists. From the metal benches where they sat, they could hear police chatting outside. “They were talking about me,” Moreno says. “One said, ‘Third time’s a charm.’” He was informed that he was the first person to be arrested three times during the Ferguson demonstrations, and that for this grand distinction, he would be held for 24 hours. The experience was pretty uneventful. “They serve you bologna sandwiches,” he says. “The first time I tried eating one, I gagged.”
Following his release, Moreno checked Twitter and sobbed. “It seemed like things weren’t going well,” he says. “I thought they’d been going better.” Now he’s contemplating his next move. “If I go back out there again, I’m going to jail. I’ve gotten a lot of attention, and I’m wondering if it’s right for me to be here.”