The focus Monday night was on clearing up misconceptions about Ferguson at the first of a series of residents-only town hall meetings.
Afterwards, some participants said they appreciated the chance to talk freely with neighbors and public officials. Others thought little progress was made.
Only those with proof of Ferguson residence were allowed to attend one of the simultaneous meetings at Wellspring and Our Lady of Guadalupe churches. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, which is overseeing the town halls, imposed the restriction, Ferguson spokesman Devin James said Monday.
Local and federal officials were in attendance at both town halls, including representatives from the Justice Department, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, city manager John Shaw and city council members.
At the churches, Ferguson police officers required citizens to present either an I.D. with a Ferguson address or an I.D. along with a piece of mail proving residency. Reporters were excluded.
These requirements left Pastor Daryl Meese stuck outside Wellspring Church. Meese, is the pastor of North Hills United Methodist Church, which is located in Ferguson, but Meese does not live in the city.
“I understand the need to limit it to stakeholders, to residents, to business owners, to people here that have a function here in the city,” Meese said. “There are a lot of harmful things going on from people that don’t belong here. But, I believe that you need every one of these stakeholders' help. I think it (denying me entry) was an oversight and I’ll try and help them correct that tomorrow.”
Ferguson resident Cindy Pierce says she was glad that attendance was limited.
“It allowed the community to speak more freely,” she said. “We need to have this conversation. We need to have it as a community and we need to be able to, when our feelings are hurt, express it to each other and find a way to heal.”
Pierce said attendees were given three minutes to speak and had the chance to ask questions of the community leaders in attendance. Pierce says she felt like the meeting was a positive experience and a step toward healing.
“I choose to live in this community and I want it to be a safe and happy place to be,” she said. “And I want everyone to feel that way, and tonight I felt that my neighbors care. I felt like we can come to together because we want to help each other.”
Not everyone felt like the town hall was a step forward. Pastor Phillip Harris, who attended the meeting at Wellspring Church, said he didn’t feel like anything was accomplished with the town hall.
“Some people are not ready to heal,” he said. “There are some people I believe are wanting to heal and move forward, but I still see that there are some people who don’t understand what’s going on and they don’t want to understand what’s going on because they are comfortable in their groups.”
Harris said he was also saddened by some of the comments made during the meeting. “One lady kept referring to the protestors as those people, as them. And that kind of hurt me because these are human beings. It’s not those people. It’s not them. It’s not those people from another community. These are human beings.”
One way Ferguson officials tried to communicate with residents was through a handout addressing misconceptions about the city. The document included information about the powers of the mayor and the city council, Ferguson's revenue from fees and fines and who controls the police department.
Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes said the meeting not only allowed city officials a chance to speak with the community, but it also offered Ferguson residents a chance to hear each other.
“The issues right now that Ferguson is dealing with can only be fixed by the residents, and it’s important to hear their voice,” Bynes said. “As somebody who represents them, I know they feel like they’ve been put on TV and they’ve seen people talking about their community who don’t represent them and don’t live here, and they don’t like that."
Bynes said although she thought the meeting was productive, this is just the first step.
“Part of healing is making sure that you’ve addressed all the issues,” she said. “So we can’t rush to heal until we make sure that all of the issues are being heard, and that’s what’s happening right now.”
Another Justice Department Meeting
Issues will continue to be heard by the Department of Justice this week. Bynes said that the Justice Department will hold a meeting at St. Louis Community at Florissant Valley on Wednesday as part of its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. Investigators are asking for people to tell their stories about their interactions with Ferguson police, Bynes said.
In information circulated earlier, a Justice Department investigator said the meeting would be at 7 p.m. in the student center on the campus, at 3400 Pershall Road. The purpose is to explain the Justice Department's investigation of the Ferguson Police Department and to meet with citizens.
The investigation is focused on whether Ferguson police have engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct. Investigators are looking at whether police conducted unlawful stops, searches, and arrests, used excessive force or engaged in discriminatory policing. Investigators also will focus on treatment at the Ferguson jail and on Ferguson’s municipal court system.
Investigators said citizens can contact them by email at Community.Ferguson@usdoj.gov or phone this toll-free number: 1-855-856-2132.