Ferguson has emerged as the top local (and national) story of the year.
The Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson has raised questions about policing, poverty, government policy and funding, and safety. But some of the biggest questions have been about race and equality.
“I think we’ve reached a level of awareness about this issue that we have not seen before,” said Patricia Bynes, Democratic committeewoman for Ferguson Township. “This has been an ongoing conversation within the black community, but in order to fix these issues it has to go beyond the black community. Everybody has to be at the table and understand what the issues are.”
“Since Aug. 9, to now, people feel empowered and people feel that they alone can take a stand and fight for what they believe in and what they think is right because that’s what we did for the first 21 days when we just refused to leave the streets because we knew what happened was not right,” said activist Johnetta Elzie, a field organizer for Amnesty International.
“We’ve been forced to look into the mirror, and we have seen, sadly at times, who we are truly, and yet what we are still to become,” said the Rev. F. Willis Johnson, pastor at Wellspring Church in Ferguson. “I think this has been a very, very, very trying time. We’ve come a long way. We still have a very long way to go.”
Few could have realistically speculated that people would still be actively talking about the August shooting nearly five months later, Johnson told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday as about 70 protesters gathered at the St. Louis Police Department headquarters at Olive and 20th streets in St. Louis.
“I didn’t go out on Aug. 9 and think that come Dec. 31st we’d still be wrestling with this,” he said. “But it’s good that, in many respects, that we are still having conversations and dialogue and working towards hopefully a better end.”
But Johnson also said he fears people are speaking in silos.
“I think a lot of people are talking,” he said. “I think a lot of people are expressing themselves, are trying to raise questions, but if we’re really respectful to each other’s integrity and intelligence, we have not had conversation yet. We have not had real discourse yet. We have not, across the board and across tables, really engaged each other in not only listening but then stating not just our own fears and frustrations and the facts that we want to make real, but the exercise of laboring through hearing and then really trying to map out some end.”
What that end is or even what’s next remains elusive.
“We don’t really know what the end is,” Johnson said. “We know what we would hope for, and there’s different aspects. We want justice. We want this and we want that, but these things are so broad and sometimes ambiguous for many of us that the conversation is not what we think it is actually.”
Some have raised questions about leadership. Leaders have emerged in Ferguson, many of them in their 20s and 30s, but there is no centralized leadership structure. Without that structure, can the movement continue to gain momentum?
“For people who have been asking ‘How are we going to keep the momentum going?’ and ‘How does the movement stay alive?,’ honestly the police are doing a great job at motivating people to keep going at it,” Elzie said, citing the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Garner and Rice, who were black, were killed by police officers.
Existing leadership structures have disappointed many involved in the protest movement, particularly Gov. Jay Nixon’s action in Ferguson.
“I was just extremely disappointed when he called for the state of emergency a week before the (grand jury decision) announcement was even made,” Elzie said. “I was extremely, extremely disappointed when (St. Louis County Prosecutor) Bob McCulloch announced the no indictment verdict and Gov. Nixon did not deploy the National Guard on the first night. Obviously that’s the night when the Guard should have been out there, and he did nothing.”
Several businesses were robbed, vandalized and burned that night.
I Love Ferguson, a nonprofit led by Brian Fletcher, has collected donations and sold merchandise to assist local businesses in rebuilding efforts.
“Not Walgreens or the QuikTrips, but the mom and pop beauty supplies and barbers and the meat stores and Ferguson Liquor and Market, those kind of businesses that are really going to need immediate help and are not getting enough in the end,” Fletcher said.
In December, I Love Ferguson presented a $50,000 check to the Reinvest North County Fund, which provides grants to Ferguson-area businesses affected by unrest. Fletcher said the group will donate another $35,000 in January.
“I think we all feel that the legacy of Michael Brown’s death shouldn’t be the fact that he died on Aug. 9, but how we, as a community, came together afterwards, learning from that and moving forward to make Ferguson a model example of other communities throughout the United States of how people can communicate and work together,” Fletcher said. “Personally, I felt that we did a good job for the most part on those issues.”
But in an environment where nothing is clear-cut, even those efforts have detractors that often boils down to language.
“‘We’ is not as inclusive as most folk would like to think,” Johnson said. “It is still us against them. The ‘we,’ particularly in Ferguson, is a very selectively identified ‘we.’ Yes, we are helping businesses and we need businesses in Ferguson. The problem is that the residents of Ferguson are people who are part of that larger kind of community of Ferguson (and) don’t see themselves in that ‘we’ that Brian Fletcher is talking about.”
Bynes agreed: “A lot of coding, a lot of assumptions are made when people are talking about ‘we’ and ‘they.’”
“This thing is like an onion and we’re all crying at this point, but we have to keep going because everybody’s not using the same words,” she said. “We’ve got some more layers to pull off that onion.”
“We” pops up in many conversations about protests.
“Are these protests or are these gatherings helpful? Well, there’s a group of folk that believe that we need to do this and these are helpful, just as much as there’s another side that says no, this is not the ‘we,’ ” Johnson said. “This is what is at the crucible of why we’re going to not move any further than we’ve already moved. We’re going to keep marking off days until we’ve gotten to a place where we are honest, to be able to sit down and say define to me who we is, on both sides of the fence.”
It comes back to true conversation, he said, which includes listening.
That’s what the members of the Ferguson Commission are trying to do, said Brittany Packnett, executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis and a Ferguson Commission member.
“I would say right now we are in the critical listening stage, and I would say that’s where we need to remain for quite some time,” she said. “There are lots of emotions tied to this.”
Packnett also is a member of a White House task force studying policing in the 21st century. The task force and the Ferguson Commission, which Nixon established, are expected to present recommendations to their respective authorities. It will then be up to others to act on those recommendations.
“That is why the continued voice of the community needs to be heard to hold elected officials and government officials accountable to not only those recommendations, but also to the will of the people,” Packnett said. She said the top issue for both groups is law enforcement and community relations.
“I think we have to continue peaceful disruptive action and we have to continue systemic action. It’s the only way we can actually make progress. Is there a risk? Absolutely. But there can be a great reward if we really keep the pressure on.”
Several of the pre-filed bills awaiting the Missouri legislature deal with Ferguson-related issues, and many more are expected in the new year. “You can expect a flood of bills that will address various topics related to police department procedures, weapons use, tear gas use, (and), of course, body cameras,” St. Louis Public Radio’s Missouri statehouse reporter Marshall Griffin said Monday on “St. Louis on the Air.” “There’s even one that’s been proposed by the (chairman) of the legislative black caucus that would bar grand juries, calling the entire grand jury process outdated and flawed.”
But Griffin also said he would be surprised if any of those bills made it through the legislative process. On Wednesday, Bynes said she’d be surprised, too.
“But before we even jump to the state level we need to look at local,” she said. “Police issues are local, and this is where people need to be engaged. This is where people need to make sure their voices are heard. We have municipal elections coming up in St. Louis County in April.”
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.