FERGUSON, MO. — You hear him before you see him, blowing in the dark, in the rain, even. A solitary trumpeter, caressing the ears of the angry with cool, melancholy jazz and soul.
Eugene Gillis, 56, was here late Saturday night, doing his soothing best barely a block from where unarmed black teen Michael Brown was shot dead in August. Blowing in the drizzle, trying to “bring down the temperature” as a crowd of protesters half his age or less marched past riot police in memory of what happened and fury at what may come.
Call him The Rage Whisperer: Gillis, 56, pays the bills as an autoworker at General Motors plant in nearby Wentzville. But he’s got serious musical chops, honed during his younger years in Memphis, where he recorded for Hi Records alongside soul greats like Al Green.
And now he’s sharing it on the streets of Ferguson, the working-class St. Louis suburb trapped in an interminable waiting game, braced for a grand jury decision that could come Monday on the fate of Darren Wilson, the policeman who felled Brown.
“The tension is palpable and these kids Michael Brown’s age, it’s festering in their minds but they don’t know what to do with it,” Gillis told the Star as he caught his breath.
“I’m just trying to bring down the temperature. Help channel that energy in a positive direction.”
Gillis has been a fixture of the protest community in Ferguson, where he has grandchildren, counselling youth that want to hear words to go with the music. The rest of the time, he says it with sound.
He’s under no illusions as Ferguson and the rest of the country await the grand jury’s answer. But he’s far from alone in working to channel pent-up emotions.
Rhetoric has been flying furiously as the secretive grand jury process drags on. Democratic lawmaker John Lewis, the legendary Georgia Democrat and elder statesman of the U.S. civil rights movement, made headlines predicting a “miscarriage” of justice would make Ferguson “a turning point” in U.S. race relations as powerful as Selma was a half-century ago.
President Barack Obama dismissed the comparison in an interview with ABC, saying, “the kinds of ongoing problems we have with police and communities of colour around the country are not the sort that we saw in Selma.
“We’re not talking about systematic segregation or discrimination,” said Obama. “They are solvable problems if in fact law enforcement officials are open to the kind of training and practices that we’ve seen instituted in lots of parts of the country.”
Adding to the confusion and doubt, however, St. Louis County officials on Sunday backtracked on earlier promises that the secretive grand jury proceedings would be published simultaneously with the announced outcome.
Instead, officials said, the material would be subject to further judicial review, with no records released until after the material is analyzed and approved by St. Louis Judge Carolyn Whittington.