During the coverage of the Ferguson protests, activist Joshua Williams, 19, became something of a celebrity as an advocate for peaceful protests. He was profiled by MSNBC and shown walking hand-in-hand with Cornel West. Williams was the counter image of the violent protesters who burned and looted Ferguson. However, this week, Williams was charged for setting fire to a convenience store during those very protests — a crime that police say he confessed to in a videotaped interview. It is sad development for a young man who garnered national attention for his work as a protest leader.
MSNBC featured Williams in a profile entitled “Portrait of a Protester” . In the piece, Williams describes how he also was angry and yelled at police. However, he insisted:
“I think we can be better if we can all come together. We might have to come together and show that we can work together and overthrow the system. But we have to come together as one and show them we can be peaceful, that we can do this. If not they’re going to just want us to act up so they can pull out their toys on us again.”
Police now say that he did more than that. They have introduced surveillance video and news footage showing Williams starting multiple fires inside and outside the Quick Trip convenience store as it was being looted by others.
He was charged with arson in the first degree and with second-degree burglary for entering the convenience store — both are felonies. He was also charged with misdemeanor stealing for taking a lighter, gum and cash from the store. They say that he has confessed to the crimes. However, protesters have demonstrated at the St. Louis County Justice Center over his arrest, insisting that charges be dropped.
With the reported videotape and confession, that is highly unlikely. What will be interesting is whether the court will view his statements advocacy peaceful protests as a positive community service (and thus a mitigating factor) or as an act of hypocrisy (and thus as aggravating factor) in sentencing.
In the profile by MSNBC, Williams speaks of his initial anger but says that he redirected that anger into peaceful and positive protest. He credits the intervention of Rev. Willis Johnson of the Wellspring Church as a turning point for him. Notably, that interview included an admission that could itself be viewed as assault but was not charged:
“I remember one night the police fired tear gas at us and I picked one of them up and threw it back at them. And the more we threw them back they just kept firing them back at us. It’s like it never stopped. I said to myself, we need another plan. This isn’t working.”
The arson however is far more serious. Indeed, with people still in the store when Williams allegedly torched it, there could have been additional charges brought by police.
Source: LA Times