Brightly colored ribbons flutter from a wrought-iron fence along the downtown business district's main thoroughfare, snapping in the harsh winter breeze like dozens of tiny Buddhist prayer flags, each inscribed with words of inspiration: "Be Kind," ''Hope and Love," ''Change the World."
Brightly colored ribbons flutter from a wrought-iron fence along the downtown business district’s main thoroughfare, snapping in the harsh winter breeze like dozens of tiny Buddhist prayer flags, each inscribed with words of inspiration: “Be Kind,” ”Hope and Love,” ”Change the World.”
Up and down South Florissant Road, paint has transformed the sheets of plywood covering windows broken during last month’s rioting into works of art. Red hearts, white doves and peace signs in all the colors of the rainbow mingle with quotations from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, even the Beatles.
Messages of healing are everywhere, but the wounds in this city torn by anger are still raw and, for some, very deep.
Before this summer, few outside St. Louis County knew that Ferguson existed. That changed on Aug. 9, when white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Today, angry protesters from New York City to Berkeley, California, carry signs declaring, “Ferguson is Everywhere.”
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To many, the name has become a byword for racial injustice, for what’s wrong with America.
“I mean, here’s my little town, and now we’re the focus of the world almost,” says Kenneth Wheat. “It’s almost like we’re set up as a model now, (of) how a community can get through something like this.”
It’s a heavy burden to place on a town of 21,000 residents. Former mayor Brian Fletcher chooses to view it as an opportunity to determine what “our legacy truly becomes from this point forward.”
But as city officials debate reforms and business owners decide whether to rebuild torched shops, a governor’s commission is studying “the underlying social and economic conditions underscored by the unrest” following Brown’s death and a grand jury’s subsequent decision not to indict Wilson. Meanwhile, many are waiting to see if federal officials will pursue civil rights charges in the case.
“No justice, no peace,” the protesters shout. But “justice” means different things to different groups, and only time will tell whose definition will prevail.
For the people of Ferguson, controlling their own narrative may prove one of the most difficult tasks of all.
A reporter is shooting footage of a boarded-up storefront just down from city hall when a man in a white van rolls down his window and calmly declares, “Ferguson was caused by out-of-towners.” Before the reporter can react, the light turns green, and the van speeds around the corner and disappears up the street.
The saying goes that the first step toward recovery is acknowledging there’s a problem. But for many of the volunteers at the I Love Ferguson store across from police headquarters, the violence following Brown’s shooting and the Nov. 24 announcement that Wilson would not be charged seemed to come out of nowhere.
During his two terms as mayor, Fletcher — who helped launch the I Love Ferguson Committee this summer — says he received plenty of complaints about potholes and barking dogs. But nothing of a racial nature.
“So the part about how some people said this has been brewing for decades was surprising a little bit,” says Fletcher, who is white. “Because I never heard from any of the African-American elected officials that there were issues. If there had been something, they neglected in telling me that there was an issue.”
“It has truly been ironic that Ferguson became the forum to fight the large battle of diversity when, in fact, Ferguson is a very diverse city,” Ruffina Farrokh Anklesaria, an ethnic Indian from Trinidad and Tobago, said as she folded T-shirts for shipment. “We have more minorities here than we have whites … It was fought in the wrong place, so to speak.”
But across town at the Canfield Green Apartments, the disaffection and anger are palpable.
Rotting flowers and Teddy bears in St. Louis Cardinals caps line the center line of Canfield Drive, where Michael Brown’s body lay for four hours in the August sun. Along the curb, someone has spray painted the words “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” — the chant echoing at protests across the country.
On a recent chilly morning, Ken “Kennyboy” Boyd’s breath hangs in the air as he and a man who identified himself only as Love-el debate the Brown case.
Boyd repeats a rumor that at least one of the fires that destroyed a dozen businesses during the Nov. 24 unrest was actually set by a National Guard flash grenade. The other man reports that at least two witnesses in the Brown case have mysteriously died, suggesting they were killed to prevent them testifying at a federal trial.
“I don’t know if the power got the message,” says Boyd. “They want to sacrifice a whole country for one man.”
The population of Ferguson is nearly 70 percent black. But at the time of Brown’s death, only three of the city’s 53 police officers were African-American.
Like many in the black community, Anthony Cage is convinced that police and firefighters allowed “the hood” parts of Ferguson to burn so they could justify bringing in the National Guard, “occupying us. Treating us like we were Russians or Cubans or somewhat, invading America.”
The 48-year-old house painter, wearing a black T-shirt with the words “Don’t Shoot” on the front and a photo of Brown on the back, says he’s been pulled over for no reason, threatened and “smacked upside the head.”
Although some whites may be in denial, he says, “it does happen. We’re not just out here saying this because we ain’t got nothing better to do.”
Cage says things won’t get better until more whites accept that blacks are subjected to persistent oppression. But Boyd doesn’t think people are ready for that kind of change.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he says.
Kenneth Wheat isn’t saying there is no racial tension in Ferguson — only that he’d never felt it.
“To be actually honest with you, I didn’t think there was much wrong to begin with,” says the 47-year-old black father, who works as a banquet captain at a luxury hotel in St. Louis.
If anything was wrong with Ferguson, he said, it’s that the black community was not engaged enough.
Wheat has served on the Fourth of July parade committee. He and his wife, Stefannie– who is white — helped start a group for their neighborhood in Ferguson West. He’s run basketball camps and volunteered at his kids’ schools.
And at most of those gatherings, Wheat says, he’s one of the only black faces in the crowd.
After the rampage, Wheat came out with buckets of nails to help board up looted businesses. Most days, he or his 10-year-old son, Christopher, can be found at the I Love Ferguson store, making buttons or packing yard signs, coffee mugs and magnets for shipment.
“To me, it’s all about getting out of your comfort zone — getting out and just getting involved,” he says as Bing Crosby croons “White Christmas” over the store speakers. “And you might be the only person there of your race. But if you’re there to help better your community, it shouldn’t matter.”
But what do you do when people don’t trust the system?
In mid-November, Gov. Jay Nixon appointed a 16-member commission to study the “underlying social and economic conditions” that led to the unrest following Brown’s shooting, and to “help chart a new path toward healing and positive change.”
“However,” its mission statement continues, “as these challenges are not unique to our region, the Commission looks to serve as a role model and offer best practices to communities across the country.”
But if the first meetings of the so-called Ferguson Commission are any indication, that path forward is a bumpy one.
A recent meeting in St. Louis’s Shaw neighborhood began positively enough. Diana Oleskovich said what was happening in Ferguson and greater St. Louis was big and important.
“We are having birth pains,” the white grandmother told the panel during a public comment period. “All of us who have been mothers know that giving birth to something hurts — a lot. A HELL of a lot. We have exposed my white privilege and OUR white privilege. The systemic injustice. It’s time for me and all of us with light-colored skins to let go and let the birth come.”
The commission had invited St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson to speak about efforts to curb bias, excessive force and racial profiling within the ranks. Dotson declared that most police officers believe in the “noble cause,” and that it is a few bad actors who “taint the pool for all of us.”
“What happened in Ferguson in August is writing a narrative,” he said. “And the Ferguson Commission has the opportunity to finish that narrative. . We want that narrative to be a positive one that moves our region forward.”
But several minutes into his address, the meeting dissolved into chaos.
Expletive-laced shouts of “liar” drowned out the chief. People stood and turned their backs on him. One man held aloft a poster board festooned with 50 white dots and three black ones — representing the racial makeup of the Ferguson police force.
Dotson sought to assure the crowd that his department had an overarching “reverence for human life,” and that its goals were, “protection of the innocent, pursuit of peaceful society, along with the prohibitions against bias, malice and excessive force.”
“Law-abiding citizens are our customers,” he said as people in the audience scoffed. “And you are our bosses. It is not the other way around. And we are not an occupying force.”
Three men wearing the now familiar Guy Fawkes masks of the Anonymous movement stood and began chanting, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” The refrain soon morphed into “No justice, no peace,” punctuated by more cursing and “Shut it down!”
Police officers calmly clustered near Dotson, but were careful not to intervene. The chief never recovered and quietly walked away.
Several people complained about the panel’s makeup. The only commission member with a direct Ferguson connection is a white man who owns a business in town, but no longer lives there.
Ferguson veterinarian Dan Wentz says that’s no excuse.
Wentz, who is white, has attended every commission meeting and spent hours in smaller breakout discussions.
“My eyes are getting opened to a lot of things,” says Wentz. “My opinions are constantly changing.”
But of the hundreds of people in attendance, he recognized only a few Ferguson faces. He says residents need to take ownership of the process.
“The only way change is going to happen,” he says, “is for people to be involved.”
Before Brown’s death, the modest chamber in the city hall basement was plenty big enough to accommodate those wishing to attend a Ferguson City Council meeting. In the shooting’s immediate aftermath, a church sanctuary couldn’t hold the angry throngs clamoring to be heard.
“It’s frustrating, having grown up here and understanding what Ferguson as a city is really all about, and what the community and the people have been about,” says Mayor James W. Knowles III, who was elected in 2011 with 49 percent of the vote. “It’s disheartening to see Ferguson being raised to a symbol.”
When he asks residents why they’re demonstrating, Knowles says, “A lot of times, it has nothing to do with things that we can address in the city of Ferguson.”
One area in which most agree the city can and must improve: Police relations.
Since the shooting, the police have begun using body and dashboard cameras. The council has started the process of establishing a citizen review board and is increasing monetary incentives to encourage officers to live in the city.
Chief Tom Jackson says there are now four black officers on the force. Councilors have established a scholarship to help minority recruits pay for academy training, something the city had abandoned in the past.
The department is also working with the Ferguson-Florissant School District to establish an Explorer program to create “a bullpen that we can hopefully recruit from, get people interested in law enforcement.”
“Those who don’t even decide to go into law enforcement will at least have a connection with law enforcement that they wouldn’t have had before,” says Knowles, who is white. “And so that’s really what we’re working on with our young people — trying to get them to bridge that gap between young people and law enforcement in our community.”
By the date of its first post-grand jury meeting, things had calmed to the point where the council felt comfortable holding it at home. The room was full, the crowd diverse and, for the most part, respectful.
George Taylor, 17, presented some recommendations to police from the Ferguson Youth Initiative Teen Summit. Among them: Get out of your cruisers and talk to us.
“Walk neighborhoods sometimes to get to know youths,” the black teen said in a low voice. “And there could be more social events with youth. Participate in intramural sports together. There could be a night of role-playing. Police and youth could have meals together to discuss relations.”
The youth group also acknowledged that teens needed to do better. Improve their behavior; make better first impressions.
“Youth need to respond to police respectfully,” he said. “Has to go both ways.”
When it came time for public comment, things got slightly less cordial.
Still dressed in her mail carrier’s uniform, Debra Kennedy told the council she was glad they could now feel what it felt like to be “economically profiled.”
“While the police and the military were protecting the ‘nice areas,'” she said, “they let Ferguson, West Florissant, go up in flames.”
Kennedy, who is black, announced that she was negotiating to buy a house across the street from one of the council members, and warned them to prepare for a “big protest party.”
“Everyone wants to know when the protests are going to stop,” she said with a grin. “It’s going to be a while before you all get peace.”
Bernard Ewing, Brown’s uncle, says protest without introspection is useless.
Speaking during a recent “tribunal” for Wilson, convened in a church by a Detroit group, Ewing acknowledged that the system was broken. But he said black people needed to stop killing and taking advantage of each other, too.
“Young black men,” he said, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Y’all got to change, you know? Y’all want to make a change with this? Well, you can’t change the world ’til you change yourself, man.”
It’s a refrain heard over and over around town: The worst of the rioting and damage was the work of outsiders.
True, only a dozen of the more than 200 people arrested in connection with the unrest live in Ferguson proper. But according to a list compiled by St. Louis County Justice Services, more than 80 percent were from nearby communities.
None of that makes a lick of difference to Juanita Morris.
Up until Nov. 24, Juanita’s Fashions R Boutique was a thriving business, the hot pink store on West Florissant promising “Upscale Designer Women’s Clothing, Sizes 6-32.” By dawn the next day, it was a burned-out shell.
Surveying the damage on a recent bitter-cold morning, the black woman pointed to the places where her office and alteration shop once stood. Aside from a sequined hair clip and a remnant of cerulean fabric, there was little recognizable.
“We just finished getting our fall stock in,” she said. “This is all that’s left of, actually, for 28 years of business.”
It’s doubtful they were aware, but the rioters who torched Morris’ shop had strayed a couple of blocks beyond the Ferguson city limits and into the even smaller town of Dellwood. Such is the indiscriminate nature of rage.
But amid the ashes of her life’s work, Morris has found reason to hope.
The day after the riots, she launched a crowd-funding website. More than $22,000 in donations have poured in from around the country.
Morris plans to rebuild on the same spot.
“This whole area has been damaged. So this whole area will become new — a greater area, and a better area.”
Wiping a tear from her cheek, she says the greatest crime of all would be to give up.
“When you’ve been beaten to the ground, you can’t do nothing but come up,” she says. “One brick at a time, one dress at a time … I will rise.”
So too, she says, will Ferguson.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AllenGBreed.