Ferguson feels the agony and toil of healing its broken soul | St. Louis Public Radio

Ferguson feels the agony and toil of healing its broken soul

Aug 6, 2015

On a cloudless July morning, there’s a tranquil aura around the Corner Coffee House as the clock ticks closer to the Aug. 9 anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. Daily protests have petered out and the hordes of reporters who camped out here have moved onto the next story – at least until this weekend.

But for Ferguson residents like John Powell, there is no new normal. There’s no Aug. 8. The Catholic school teacher who’s lived in Ferguson for nine years says the town he once knew will never be the same. 

Ferguson resident John Powell says his town will never be the same after Brown's death.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

“I think that, for many of us, we’ve had our consciousness changed,” Powell said. “I think there’s a lot of good people in Ferguson before the shooting, a lot of good people after who want to make us a model for the rest of the country in addressing the racism, the police abuse, the municipal court abuse and some of the other problems that we have.

“I don’t think that Ferguson will be the same,” he added. “But I believe it can be even better than it was before.”

The past year has seen some cautious optimism about change in Ferguson -- and the St. Louis region. But significant political and racial separations remain.

While a city government once derided for its lack of diversity has more African Americans, there’s still a latent disconnect between some members of the community. Many see changing laws and personnel as progress, but it’s not equal to changes of the heart.

“Many of us, if we’re honest -- no matter how frustrated, angry, fatigued, moved to do something we may be -- we really don’t have the answer,” said F. Willis Johnson, the senior pastor of Wellspring Church in Ferguson. “We know we can’t legislate love. We know we can’t adjudicate justice. We know that there is no consensus around what is the just and equitable resolve to most of the challenges, questions, contention that we are experiencing.”

A changing city

A man with an American flag stands in front of a Ferguson Police car earlier in July.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | file photo

Ferguson became an American symbol exposing this region and country’s painful racial and economic strains. 

But for more than 20,000 people, Ferguson isn’t just a symbol or a hashtag. It’s home -- and a place reeling from conflict and immense scrutiny.

And change has come since Brown’s death. A city government once pilloried for lacking diversity has, at least for now, a black city manager, police chief and municipal court judge. (The police chief and city manager are both temporary while Ferguson searches for full-timers. And the municipal judge will have to retire in a few months.) 

City officials also reconfigured how their much-maligned municipal court and police department operate. In April, voters turned out in unprecedented numbers to elect African Americans like Wesley Bell to the Ferguson City Council. 

Ferguson City Councilmembers Brian Fletcher, Ella Jones and Wesley Bell take their oaths of office earlier in April. Ferguson has more black city council members than at any point in its history.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

"You want your elected bodies, your governmental entities to reflect the community," Bell said. "And I think often times we’ve got to understand that the message is important. When we see a governmental body for example that doesn’t reflect the community, some people may not feel – they may be put off by that. They may not feel that they have a voice. And now we see a very diverse city council. We see a diverse city hall. And these things happen quickly. And we’re getting a lot of positive feedback from residents who feel like ‘Hey, they’re getting it.’" 

Even before state lawmakers passed a sweeping overhaul of a municipal courts system that critics say victimized minority motorists, Ferguson officials talked a lot about bridging the divide here. It’s a major focus for interim Police Chief Andre Anderson.

“We want to embrace professionalism; we want to embrace respect; we want to embrace community engagement and we want to make the community safe,” Anderson said at a recent city council meeting.

St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby says she’s seen some small sparks of progress. The University City Democrat said she “believes the people in Ferguson are looking to make some changes – some positive changes” even though they still have a long way to go.

"I think they’ve learned something about how people were being treated," Erby said. "They really weren’t aware. I don’t think they were aware. When you’re getting what you want and you’re doing what you need, sometimes you don’t think about what’s happening to other people. There’s an awareness now." 

Signs of strain

But these structural and philosophical alterations haven’t relieved all the tensions. On a particularly sweltering afternoon, several dozen people are gathered in front of City Hall to call for Ferguson Mayor James Knowles’ ouster. 

Ferguson Phil Gassoway speaks at a recent Ferguson City Council meeting. Gassoway is one of the leaders of an effort to recall Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

“The people who are opposing the current regime in Ferguson are resilient and determined,” said Nick Kasoff, who ran against Knowles for a city council seat in the 2000s. “And I think that ultimately things will change here in Ferguson – and more specifically – things will change in the leadership of our city government.”

One of the leaders of the recall effort, Phil Gassoway, doesn’t feel an infusion of racial diversity into City Hall means very much to black residents. That’s especially the case, he said, when white residents don’t trust black residents.

“I think that the city is totally divided,” Gassoway said. “I talked to a lot of people in the neighborhood and the community. And a lot of the Caucasian people think it’s alright for police to shake down African-Americans because they figure African Americans commit most of the crimes.”

But there’s also been a palpable backlash by some white residents like Peggy Faul. She expressed anger at recent city council meeting about the looting and violence that was widespread in Ferguson. “I’m here as a citizen to ask for an apology from everyone who burned the buildings in our town,” she said.

Johnson has lived in Ferguson for about four years and says there’s still visible divides by race and class. He contends the city has “played musical chairs in relations to the system and leadership.

Wellspring Church senior pastor Willis Johnson says people in Ferguson are searching for quick, easy answers. But he says the problems at hand require much more than public policy initiatives.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

“It is a step to diversify notably around race. But, there’s a limitation even to how we have diversified,” Johnson said. “There’s a limitation to how we have begun to address some of the concerns. Everything cannot simply be rolling out balls and jump ropes and programs and themes and festivals and singing Kumbaya.”

While not discounting some of the policy change in his city, Powell wonders how they’re affecting residents. He’s part of a group called One Ferguson that’s held a number of meetings and discussions over the past year. They’ve had “good turnouts with people of different places wanting to talk about the hard issues of race and economics and education in our area.”

But the vexing issues, Powell said, is that his group is “obviously we’re only hitting probably a minuscule amount of people so far.

“Although we’ve had some town halls that have been sponsored by the DOJ and the city, there’s still I think a sense that a great amount of Ferguson residents are either just talking with people who think like them or are just wanting it to all go away,” Powell said. “I think there’s still a big push that we need to make to really continue the conversation and get people to make a long-term commitment to talking about the issues.”

The big picture

Few Ferguson residents say reconciliation will be easy – or believe it can be confined within the city’s borders.

Michael Brown Sr. holds a plaque commemorating his son.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

In fact, Ferguson resident Marc DeSantis says things won’t change unless residents throughout the St. Louis region have an attitude adjustment.

“When people ask me how they can help, what I always say is you should seek to live in a more diverse place than you live right now,” DeSantis said. “If you have more people living with people who aren’t so much like them, that’s really going to be what solves this problem.”

Bell said that past year taught everybody in and around Ferguson that rebuilding a city like Ferguson requires more than just changing attitudes about law enforcement – but also about poverty and education.

“I think we need to stop conceding our poorer community, our disenfranchised communities, our minority communities. We have to make sure that we’re reaching out and providing the services, making sure we have schools that are equal. We want to make sure our students are getting the same education wherever they live.

What’s really difficult about rebuilding Ferguson’s soul, Johnson said, is that people want snap solutions that will make everything better. And quashing decades-long racial, social and economic divides simply isn’t automatic.

“The reality of race, the injustice around ethnic and cultural hatred in this country cannot be denied,” Johnson said. “And the victimization and violation of particular groups of people by means of harming, hurting, scarring their body or killing them cannot be discounted.”

The road ahead for Ferguson is hard and long. But for people like Johnson, the toil is worth it.

“Ferguson is significant,” Johnson said. “I believe that Ferguson could serve as a place of modeling ... . It’s established a precedent for how people need not be remiss or stay silent. And likewise, we have to hear the cries and the calls and act.

“And I think Ferguson has that opportunity.”

Click here to hear Rosenbaum's story for NPR Morning Edition.