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After spotlight, Ferguson faces a challenging road forward

With spotlight past, Ferguson now seeks to move on, heal, rebuild 'one brick at a time'

After spotlight, Ferguson faces a challenging road forward

FERGUSON, Missouri (AP) -- Brightly colored ribbons flutter from a wrought-iron fence along the main thoroughfare of the downtown business district in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, snapping in the harsh winter breeze like dozens of tiny Buddhist prayer flags, each inscribed with words of inspiration: "Be Kind," ''Hope and Love," ''Change the World."

Up and down South Florissant Road, paint has transformed the sheets of plywood covering windows broken during last month's rioting into works of art. Red hearts, white doves and peace signs in all the colors of the rainbow mingle with quotations from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, even the Beatles.

Messages of healing are everywhere, but the wounds in this city torn by anger are still raw and, for some, very deep.

Before this summer, few outside St. Louis County knew that Ferguson existed. That changed on Aug. 9, when white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Today, angry protesters from New York City to Berkeley, California, carry signs declaring, "Ferguson is Everywhere."

To many, the name has become a byword for racial injustice, for what's wrong with America.

"I mean, here's my little town, and now we're the focus of the world almost," says Kenneth Wheat. "It's almost like we're set up as a model now, (of) how a community can get through something like this."

It's a heavy burden to place on a town of 21,000 residents. Former Mayor Brian Fletcher chooses to view it as an opportunity to determine what "our legacy truly becomes from this point forward."

But as city officials debate reforms and business owners decide whether to rebuild torched shops, a governor's commission is studying "the underlying social and economic conditions underscored by the unrest" following Brown's death and a grand jury's subsequent decision not to indict Wilson. Meanwhile, many are waiting to see if federal officials will pursue civil rights charges in the case.

"No justice, no peace," the protesters shout. But "justice" means different things to different groups, and only time will tell whose definition will prevail.

For the people of Ferguson, controlling their own narrative may prove one of the most difficult tasks of all.


The saying goes that the first step toward recovery is acknowledging there's a problem. But for many of the volunteers at the I Love Ferguson store across from police headquarters, the violence following Brown's shooting and the Nov. 24 announcement that Wilson would not be charged seemed to come out of nowhere.

During his two terms as mayor, Fletcher -- who helped launch the I Love Ferguson Committee this summer -- says he received plenty of complaints about potholes and barking dogs. But nothing of a racial nature.

"So the part about how some people said this has been brewing for decades was surprising a little bit," says Fletcher, who is white.

"It has truly been ironic that Ferguson became the forum to fight the large battle of diversity when, in fact, Ferguson is a very diverse city," Ruffina Farrokh Anklesaria, an ethnic Indian from Trinidad and Tobago, said as she folded T-shirts for shipment.

But across town at the Canfield Green Apartments, the disaffection and anger are palpable.

Rotting flowers and Teddy bears in St. Louis Cardinals caps line the center line of Canfield Drive, where Michael Brown's body lay for four hours in the August sun. Along the curb, someone has spray painted the words "Hands Up Don't Shoot" -- the chant echoing at protests across the U.S.

The population of Ferguson is nearly 70 percent black. But at the time of Brown's death, only three of the city's 53 police officers were African-American.

Like many in the black community, Anthony Cage is convinced that police and firefighters allowed "the hood" parts of Ferguson to burn during the Nov. 24 unrest when fires destroyed a dozen businesses so they could justify bringing in the National Guard, "occupying us."

The 48-year-old house painter says some whites may be in denial, but police oppression of blacks "does happen. We're not just out here saying this because we ain't got nothing better to do."


In mid-November, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon appointed a 16-member commission to study the "underlying social and economic conditions" that led to the unrest, and to "help chart a new path toward healing and positive change."

But if the first meetings of his Ferguson Commission are any indication, that path forward is a bumpy one.

At a meeting in St. Louis' Shaw neighborhood, the commission had invited St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson to speak about efforts to curb bias, excessive force and racial profiling within the ranks. Dotson declared that most police officers believe in the "noble cause," and that it is a few bad actors who "taint the pool for all of us."

"What happened in Ferguson in August is writing a narrative," he said. "We want that narrative to be a positive one that moves our region forward."

Several minutes into his address, the meeting dissolved into chaos.

Some complained about the panel's makeup. The only commission member with a direct Ferguson connection is a white man who owns a business in town, but no longer lives there.

Ferguson veterinarian Dan Wentz says that's no excuse.

Wentz, who is white, has attended every commission meeting and spent hours in smaller breakout discussions. But of the hundreds of people in attendance, he recognized only a few Ferguson faces. He says residents need to take ownership of the process.

"The only way change is going to happen," he says, "is for people to be involved."


Since Brown's death, Ferguson police have begun using body and dashboard cameras. The city council has started the process of establishing a citizen review board and is increasing monetary incentives to encourage officers to live in the city.

Chief Tom Jackson says there are now four black officers on the force. Councilors have established a scholarship to help minority recruits pay for police academy training, something the city had abandoned in the past.

The department is also working with the Ferguson-Florissant School District to establish an Explorer program to create, as Mayor James W. Knowles III puts it, "a bullpen that we can hopefully recruit from, get people interested in law enforcement."

While saying "it's disheartening to see Ferguson being raised to a symbol," Knowles says the city is working especially hard to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the city's youth. During a recent council meeting, there were signs of hope.

George Taylor, 17, presented recommendations to police from the Ferguson Youth Initiative Teen Summit. Among them: Get out of your cruisers and talk to us.

"And there could be more social events with youth," the black teen said in a low voice. "Participate in intramural sports together..., have meals together to discuss relations."

The youth group also acknowledged that teens needed to do better. Improve their behavior; make better first impressions.

"Youth need to respond to police respectfully," he said. "Has to go both ways."

Updated : 2021-09-23 15:23 GMT+08:00