Ron Johnson marched down the center of West Florissant Avenue, trailed by a crowd of raucous protesters as he weaved through a scene of orderly chaos.
Hour after hour on Thursday night, a crush of cars teeming with people inched down the main drag of riot-racked Ferguson, Mo. Protesters flooded the street and sidewalks, hung out the doors of their vehicles, climbed up through their sun roofs and onto the hoods. A cacophony of car horns mixed with chanted slogans and blaring music. Men with bandanas and Guy Fawkes masks streamed through the streets, denouncing the police at the top of their lungs.
For five restive nights, this suburban strip has been the site of gruesome clashes between the nearly all-white local police force and the town’s mostly black inhabitants. After Saturday’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot to death by a local police officer, this St. Louis suburb has been a disaster zone, with violent altercations punctuated by tear gas and rubber bullets.
But the scene on Thursday was a dramatic departure: a peaceful—if extremely chaotic—demonstration that had the vibe of a street party. And some of the credit should go to Johnson, an African-American captain with the Missouri State Highway Patrol who was appointed Thursday by Gov. Jay Nixon to assume control of a situation that had veered badly out of hand. With the change in leadership came a change in tactics. Gone were the gas masks, the armored SWAT tanks and the semiautomatic weapons trained on angry crowds. There were no barricade lines, no cops in riot gear. For long stretches of the night, there were barely any police in sight at all.
But there was Johnson, striding through the crowd in his blue uniform, approaching groups and glad-handing as if the contentious scene were a reunion of old acquaintances. “This is my family. These are my friends,” he said. “And I’m making new friends here tonight.”
Sweat pouring off his temples, he stopped to kibitz with a crowd of teens crammed into a car, interrogated a man about his motorcycle and clapped a hand on women’s shoulders. He was engulfed by the crowd.
“I think we all trust each other tonight,” Johnson told TIME. “Because we’re talking from the heart. They’re telling me what they want and what they feel, and I’m telling them what I’m feeling.”
After five days of aggression and confrontation, the hands-off approach inspired a joyous scene. Outside the QuikTrip convenience store—now a hollowed black shell after looters incinerated the store—a man toasted the assembled crowd with a martini glass. A youth dance troupe called “Diamond Hearts” chanted cheers. Toddlers scampered around in superhero pajamas, and mothers cradled their children and tucked them into strollers. “This is how it should have been,” said protester Richard Harrison of the rowdy but peaceful affair.
“It’s turning around,” said Damon Rose, 30, a truck driver from Ferguson. “You feel like this is now being handled by somebody who wants to hear what you have to say.”
This was the change that Nixon had in mind when he pulled overmatched and hostile city and county cops off a situation spiraling out of control. “This is a place where people work, go to school, raise their families and go to church,” Nixon said during a news conference. “But lately it’s looked a little bit more like a war zone and that’s unacceptable.”
The clashes had threatened to engulf national elected officials. President Barack Obama interrupted his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard on Thursday to decry both the protesters’ violence and the heavy-handed tactics of local police. “There is never an excuse for violence against police, or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting,” Obama said. “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests, or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”
In interviews, protesters pointed to the changing tactics as a key ingredient in defusing the tension. “It is less oppressive,” said Aaron Jackson, 45, a regular protester who lives in a nearby apartment complex. “We have a chance to go down in the history books, in a positive way.”
The community is far from out of the woods. As the night dragged on, there were isolated incidents of violence. TIME reporters met a 21-year-old college student from nearby Washington University in St. Louis who had been punched, unprovoked, by an assailant. His mobile phone was stolen in the attack. The victim had bruises and fresh blood on his face, and several witnesses corroborated his story. He declined to give his name or be photographed, saying he had attended several nights of protests and did not want to taint the fight for justice. A photographer for a local news station was reportedly assaulted as well.
It was a scene one almost never sees in the U.S., a strange mix of order and anarchy, giddiness and anger. Protesters calmly sipped drinks and goofed around on the sidewalk, chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” A makeshift vehicle sputtered down the street, its grill adorned with the face of Thomas the Tank Engine and a banner that read “Stop Killing Us.” The festive atmosphere felt capable of curdling given the right provocation.
But after five bad nights it was a big step in the right direction—and, one hopes, a sign of things to come.
— Additional reporting by Kristina Sauerwein / Ferguson, Mo.