Editor's Weekly: Three snapshots of change in St. Louis

Sep 24, 2015

Now that the Ferguson Commission has made its report, what are St. Louisans thinking? Monday at Wellspring Church in Ferguson, many expressed frustration — with officials, obstacles and each other. But another note sounded clearly through the discontent: determination to press forward.

This was St. Louis Public Radio’s third visit to Wellspring. Each has produced a snapshot of a crucial moment in the journey that began with Michael Brown’s death.

Sept. 21, 2015: Speakers share their frustration and determination at Wellspring Church in Ferguson.
Credit Kelly Moffitt, St. Louis Public Radio

Aug. 28 2014: An audience member shows Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III a rubber bullet wound.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

The first forum, hosted by NPR’s Michel Martin in August 2014, captured a moment of despair and disruption. Some speakers expressed outrage — about Brown’s death, about police/protester confrontations and about longstanding racial issues. Others there were fed up with unrest and disorder. St. Louis was in the national spotlight, and a new conversation about racial injustice was beginning.

We returned to Wellspring last March after the U.S. Justice Department issued two pivotal reports. One excoriated Ferguson’s police and court for unconstitutional and discriminatory practices. The other challenged myths about what happened when Officer Darren Wilson shot Brown and explained why Wilson would not be indicted.

March 23, 2015: Activist DeRay Mckesson and moderator Michel Martin address the crowd.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum / St. Louis Public Radio

That snapshot caught the region at a turning point. The intense focus on Brown’s death was about to fade. Would attention to the underlying issues fade as well? The Rev. Willis Johnson, pastor at Wellspring, was worried. “I struggle with wondering if in Ferguson, in North County, in St. Louis, if we really want to change,” he said then.

Last Monday’s forum, hosted by St. Louis Public Radio’s Don Marsh, focused squarely on change as outlined in recommendations from the Ferguson Commission’s recent report. Johnson remains concerned. “Are we really ready to do the heavy lifting …?" he asked.

Wellspring Church senior pastor Willis Johnson says positive change has happened, but for some, biases have been reinforced.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

“We have made some strides, “ he said. “… but we have in many cases become even further entrenched in our biases.” Johnson was angry about the lack of acceptance and respect that he has personally encountered in Ferguson. His frustration resonated in the sanctuary, drawing a standing ovation from many.

Panelists and audience members who spoke had obviously thought long and hard about St. Louis’ racial divide. They were under no illusions about the difficulty of bridging it. The commission’s report notes that the Missouri General Assembly holds the power to enact many of the recommendations. But the audience chuckled at the notion that state officials would take the lead.

Several speakers thanked the Ferguson Commission for laying the groundwork for change, but acknowledged that achieving it will take public pressure on many fronts for many years. In fact, one veteran political operative observed, transformative change may have to wait for the emergence of new political leadership grounded in the extraordinary events of the past year.

Of course, odds always run against achieving historic change. And yet, when circumstances and will coincide, it happens. Determination was the underlying note at Wellspring Church last Monday, and those who sounded it seemed unlikely to turn back.