Tony Rice was waiting very patiently yesterday outside Ferguson City Hall.
With a cell phone in hand, Rice was awaiting the official announcement of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson’s departure, which sparked protests later that evening, which ended with two police shot.
Rice, part of a protest movement that emerged after Michael Brown’s shooting death, has gained a following of sorts on social media. For him, the recent wave of resignations -- the police chief, two police officers, city manager, the Ferguson municipal court judge and the clerk of the court -- amounts to vindication for protestors and hope for residents.
“I believe most city officials were the barrier,” Rice said. “We had this barrier between city hall and the residents. And there was something in between that we could just not connect. So with them gone, that is definitely step No. 1. And we’ll be able to connect better with residents and city hall with a new government in place.”
But this week also showcased in earnest that it would take more than just shuffling personnel for Ferguson to move forward. There’s a lot of uncertainty over a Justice Department that sharply criticized the city’s government – and a palpable racial divide among residents. Tensions are especially high after an early morning shooting that injured two police officers.
Where do we go from here? It could very well depend on who steps up to fill the vacant positions.
“I think there’s a promising future,” said Derrick Robinson, who’s with Kingdom Destiny Fellowship International. “But the leadership has to be corrected. And as the chant said, the ‘whole damn system is guilty as hell.’ So because that whole damn system is guilty, we’ve got to replace the system – and put a new system in place.”
A week of tumult
This turbulent week marks just the latest jolt for a town rocked by months of discord over Michael Brown’s shooting death. The Justice Department report accused the city’s government of fostering a racially-biased police culture fueled by raising revenue.
Nearly every day this week, another shoe dropped. On Monday, it was Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Ron Brockmeyer. Then on Tuesday, it was City Manager John Shaw. And on Wednesday, it was announced that Jackson would be leaving later this month.
“No one is not expendable,” said Brian Fletcher, a former Ferguson mayor and a candidate for city council. “The city itself is larger than any one or two or three individuals. What’s important is the city itself moves forward and serves its people and the community – that we have the trust and respect of the entire community.”
Few people here see changes in personnel as ending the town’s troubles. A number of outstanding questions remain for city leaders – including how to comply with the Justice Department report’s recommendations.
Fletcher said he’s hoping that the spate of resignations will find favor with the Department of Justice.
“I hope that the Department of Justice takes the resignations of both the city manager and the police chief as something positive,” Fletcher said. “That the city is working toward moving forward. I hope that will reflected in [a consent decree] that will be agreed upon.”
Lingering questions remain over whether Ferguson will keep its police department. Some – including Attorney General Eric Holder – have openly talked about “disbanding” Ferguson’s police force, which would likely result in a contract with St. Louis County Police Department. That would most likely require a citywide vote, since Ferguson's police department is built into the city's charter.
But opposition to a county police takeover appears to be a rare source of agreement among disparate sides in Ferguson.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III has repeatedly opposed such an arrangement – contending that a municipal force gives citizens a better chance for input.
“We’ll always make the decision that’s best for the city – both financially and for the future of this city,” Knowles said on Wednesday. “But right now where we’re sitting, absolutely [we’re planning] to keep the police department.”
And some city council candidates who are trying to cultivate support from protesters – such as Third Ward contender Lee Smith – also oppose contracting with St. Louis County or any other nearby municipality for police protection.
“I’ve got an issue with completely dissolving the police department and then contracting out to other areas,” Smith said. “Because all of these areas out here are basically operating the same way. So what will be accomplished by contracting to different municipalities when people are complaining in different areas about the same things?”
“I think it should start with the top down,” he added.
Mike Arman brought up another concern: Even though the leaders of some Ferguson departments are gone, some employees remain with the city. And that reality, he said, may make it difficult to overhaul the police department completely.
“It’s not the police chief that’s out there arresting people, and it’s not the police chief who’s abusing people. It’s actually the officers in blue shirts and their commanding officers,” said Arman, a Ferguson resident who gained notoriety last year when a video he made of former Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson went viral. “Let’s say the sergeants and things like that – they’re the ones allowing these things to happen. And it’s the officers that feel comfortable enough to do these things.”
Then there’s the city’s racial divide, on full display earlier this week during the Ferguson City Council’s public forum section. There, speakers clashed over both blame and responsibility.
“It’s a shame we had to wait for the Department of Justice to tell us how to clean our own house,” said Isadore Ray, a black Ferguson resident, at Tuesday’s meeting. “I’m not here to ridicule anyone, but we all knew that these things were occurring. Not only the city council, not only the police department – but everybody in Ferguson knew these things were happening. And we failed to do anything.
“We have a chance now to clean our own house,” he added. “The time is over for us to be arguing.”
Marvin Davis told Knowles at the meeting that he and the council needed “to clean house.”
“You represent these people,” Davis said. “It’s like you’re part of the problem. You don’t care. But since they have found all of that, we’re standing for this to be fixed.”
But some white residents expressed anger at the protesters, including Peggy Faul.
“Over the last seven months, people have screamed, people have talked, people have prayed and wanted apologies. Apologies for things that have happened – terrible things that have happened,” Faul said. “But I’m here as a citizen to ask for an apology for everyone who burned the buildings in our town. And everyone who talked derogatorily about other people also. And I want an apology from those who burned my city.”
Florissant resident Bill Pieper was in the Ferguson City Hall parking lot after Jackson’s resignation was announced. Wearing a hat that read “I Am Darren Wilson,” he told a crush of reporters that Jackson’s departure was a mistake.
“Jackson has done nothing wrong,” Pieper said. “He’s a 35-year veteran of the police force. He has protected the city and protected the citizens. It’s sad. It’s a sad day in Ferguson right now.”
This past week showcases the difficulty of Ferguson’s healing process. But not everybody is pessimistic, including Rice.
He said the past few months’ events would force city policymakers to be more selective when finding a new police chief or city manager.
“When you’re going through a divorce, you don’t worry about the new person you’re going to marry. You worry about getting out of the bad situation,” Rice said.
“When that type of situation happens, you learn how to judge character a little bit better. You become a more concerned and knowledgeable voter. So the change will happen and we will probably not get the same outlook and outcome that we got over the last 10 or 15 years.”
But Rice said he’s hoping that the resignations aren’t over. He wants Knowles to be the next one to step aside. “If he’s going to hang around and he’s really low-hanging fruit, we want him removed too,” he said. “He’s part of the system.”
Knowles, who seems to be asked about whether he’s going to resign every time he appears before the press, said on Wednesday he doesn’t plan to follow Jackson's or Shaw’s lead.
“Somebody is going to have to be here to run the ship,” Knowles said. “I’ve been committed, the city council has been committed to making those reforms. I realize that there are some people that still want a head or my head or other heads. I can understand that they’re going to say that. But again, we’re focused on how we can move this community forward.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.