Jessica Hentoff has gone all the way to Israel to bring people of markedly different perspectives together. This summer, Hentoff, artistic and executive director of Circus Harmony, took members of her tumbling group, the St. Louis Arches, to the Middle East. There, the Arches joined with Arab and Israeli youth from the Galilee Circus, where they worked and learned together, setting aside religious, political and cultural differences.
Hentoff has a long history of building bridges. She formed the Arches and Circus Harmony as a way to inspire individuals and connect communities. Over the past 10 years, she has developed youth circus troupes that consist of Jewish, Christian, Caucasian, Hispanic, African-American and Asian children from throughout the St. Louis area.
Now she wants to take her message of harmony to Ferguson. That's how she intends to move forward after a grand jury's decision that Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson should not face any criminal charges for fatally shooting Michael Brown, after a encounter this past summer.
"We are now raising funding to bring Peace Through Pyramids to Ferguson," Hentoff said Tuesday.
Hentoff shared her reaction to the grand jury's decision, in response to questions raised through the Public Insight Network. In addition to their initial reaction, St. Louis Public Radio asked responders to share what they want to see from their leaders and whom those leaders might be.
Like several others who responded, Hentoff said she was not surprised by the decision.
Instead, she said, in her written response, that she was disappointed in political, law enforcement and community leaders who have been involved throughout this process.
“Those currently in charge have lost their credibility. New leaders are needed," she wrote.
As a step toward helping all citizens feel a sense of trust for police and the legal system, Hentoff called for "full, immediate disclosure. Clear, complete communication. All the time."
She would also like to know more about the grand jury proceedings and how news and information seemed to have been leaked.
“I'd very much like to know — if they kept saying that no one knew the verdict until it was read — how USA Today and other news agencies were able to post the verdict before it was read?”
Following are other responses St. Louis Public Radio received. They have been edited for clarity or length.
Cheryl Blake, semi-retired teacher, St. Louis
"I think 12 people performed a very tough task. I choose to trust that they were diligent and sincere and that the system works. That doesn't mean the justice system always gives me the answer I want, but amazingly, it works more often than not. As a parent, I am sorry for Michael Brown's mother and father. He should not be dead. It is a tragic loss; however, that does not mean that his death was criminal.
“I want to get back into education. I have worked with GED students and I want to do something similar. Education is a major key to a more just society.
“I think this is an opportunity for apolitical leaders to come forward: pastors, teachers and principals, social agency directors. Keep the politicians out of the mix.”
“Why can we only call the result 'justice' if there is an indictment? I do want to see the transcripts of the testimony for myself without media interpretation. I am not interested in the officer's description as much as I am in other witnesses, people who might not have any particular agenda, people who are just trying to do what is right.”
Dorothy Dempsey, retired sales manager, St. Louis
[I'm] “disappointed, but not surprised, because all signs pointed to Darren Wilson being proven not guilty. The special treatment afforded Wilson is completely over the top. When Bob the prosecutor stood before the microphone with that barely hidden smug look on his face, I felt sick. ... How he ever remained in his position as a prosecutor is a testament to how flawed the system really is and how drastically it needs fixing.
“I will continue to work with an organization I am presently involved with the Coalition to Abolish the Prison Industrial Complex. The organization is open to new membership.
“As for my family and anyone else who has black males in their family, the only thing that I can suggest is that mothers try to raise your sons to be the most outstanding men they can be, because it is the best legacy a man can leave for his family.”
“I personally do not have the knowledge of who all the 'power people' are, but I believe that a leader should be strong in his or her personal convictions; they should have honor and dignity and possess a willingness to follow though, no matter what the consequence, if it is the right and just thing to do.
“The best way to build a relationship with the people — on the grand jury decision — is to try to never let happen (again) what just happened, and to never, ever let an elected official like Bob the prosecutor stand before a microphone and prosecute a mother's dead child like he did Michael Brown when he told the world that Darren Wilson was innocent and would not stand trial.
Margaret Easches, student, St. Louis
“This means cops can shoot at-will when they are scared. And they are usually scared of black males. I fear for the black community.
“I plan to join protests to bring attention to the matter. Even if Darren Wilson can go on with his life, black males in the community will continue to face this prejudice. I need to do what I can to bring this to light.
“I want to see a higher threshold to justify firing at civilians. There has to be a better reason than fear.”
Christine Garhart, assistant teaching professor, Greendale
“I am not surprised, but very sad. I think a special prosecutor should have been appointed. I think Officer Wilson should be tried.
“The country is polarized. This whole episode shows how much racism there is in our country. The rest of the world sees it.
“We need civilian oversight of police, and a change in the policy for use of force. It is wrong for an officer to have the right to kill someone because he feels threatened.
“I am deeply disappointed in Gov. Jay Nixon. I am disappointed in our city's mayor (Greendale Mayor Monica Huddleston). Although she is black, she supports police unconditionally."
Phil Kauffman, nurse, St. Louis
“Relief ... I wanted to hear the facts ... I hope to join others to address racial profiling ... and to promote community growth in better understanding each other.”
“Stop look and listen ... reach out ... pray to God for guidance.”
Bob Kenney, retired accountant, St. Louis
“The grand jury decision was predictable based on the reports in the news.
“I will try not to get too angry at the wanton destruction of the protesters.
“I have no idea what can be done [to instill trust by all people in the police and judicial system].
“I think Eric Holder is an awful attorney general, but I believe he is the leader that can build a relationship with those disappointed by the grand jury decision.
“The prosecuting attorney told me all I need to know.”
Rene Kreisel, employment trainer, St. Louis
“Sadness and frustration; I was hoping for a court trial so that the public would be able to witness the testimony. Also, I felt that McCulloch's presentation of the decision was insensitive and accusing.
“I will continue to work with my church to support peaceful protesters and to bring different people together to talk about the racial divisions in my city.
“We all have to talk to each other, and law enforcement officials need to learn to treat everyone respectfully and need to learn empathy.”
For leadership, Kreisel said she looks to “the pastor of my church (South City Church). Mike Higgins, is an African American who is able to communicate effectively with both black and white St. Louisans.
“I want to know why the initial reports said that Darren Wilson didn't know about the robbery in which Brown had participated, but then in his testimony said he did.”
Bob Pieper, freelance journalist, Richmond Heights
He wants to see someone “working to provide real, as opposed to symbolic, empowerment for disadvantaged populations."
“Had the citizens of Ferguson been provided a better understanding of how to meaningfully participate in local government, their city would have likely implemented community-based policing long ago, and budgeted more prudently so that black police officers could be retained.
“The key is for average citizens to take a greater role in leading their communities. Over the coming weeks, the area's business roundtable, Civic Progress — through the Ferguson Commission and the lobbying firm Pelopidas LLC (doing business as Better Together) — will attempt to use unrest in Ferguson to advance its plans to establish a massive regional government structure and dissolve local government entities. This obviously would serve to further disenfranchise disadvantaged populations."
To whom does he look for leadership? “Virtually none of the established business and political figures who are now attempting to position themselves as regional leaders in the post-Ferguson era," he wrote. "Most are mere opportunists seeking to advance pre-existing and self-serving agendas. I specifically do not trust former Civic Progress Chairman Rich McClure and his Ferguson Commission....
“However, the Rev. Larry Rice (head of the New Life Evangelistic Center) is uniquely qualified to play a central role in developing understanding and forging new relationships. Rev. Rice has great credibility and a sizable following among both disenfranchised African Americans and whites. His media outlets should be used more to provide candid discussions on the justice system, race relations, and practical political empowerment.”
LeAnne Smith, teacher, St. Louis
"Justice has not been served.
"The police force in this country needs to face their institutionalized racism. They just do not see it. We may have to bring in experts from other countries.
“I want police to undergo massive racial sensitivity training. Does the American police force even realize that police officers in other countries don't carry arms?
“I feel that everyone is a leader in different areas of life. I really feel like this racial insensitivity issue in the police force should be calmly and systematically addressed. I don't feel like we should hold grudges about it. We should move to disassemble it.
“I really just want to review the grand jury evidence. I also feel that the general public should be made more aware of how many black men have lost their lives at the hands of police.”
James Stroup, retired machinist, Sappington
“I spent a whole year on a federal grand jury. I know exactly what a grand jury is and does. This grand jury is to be commended for doing a great job under extremely difficult circumstances. Their lives have been changed forever.” ...
“This whole fiasco was created by Michael Brown breaking a law that he should have been taught to obey by his parents. If he had been walking on the sidewalk none of this would have happened.
“The problem isn't with the police. The problem is with young black males. They are the ones that have to initiate changes in their lifestyles and conduct if they want things to be different for them.”
For leadership, Stroup suggested Bill McClellan, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, and journalist Alvin Reid.
Belinda Voigtmann, office assistant, Ballwin
[I] “was pleased with [the decision] — thought it was thorough, fair and clearly stated.
“Pray, pray and pray some more. I really want to understand the other side's viewpoint but right now am struggling. I hope they can somehow help me to understand. Does the black community as a whole completely distrust whites? How can we show we really care about each other?
“The personal body cameras [for police] are a good idea, I think. That way there would be no doubt."
Inform our coverage
This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. Click here to see the complete responses from these sources, plus those from others, received after this report was prepared. To learn more about the network and how you can become a source, please click here.