FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — With a scuffle and the crackle of gunfire, this once-anonymous suburb was permanently scarred a year ago.
Last August, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, sparked sometimes violent clashes between protesters and police, unfolding before the nation on live television. Difficult questions raised here about law enforcement attitudes toward minorities and the militarization of police now reverberate across the country.
For the people who’ve lived through the turmoil, now is a time to reflect back and look ahead. Here are a few of their stories:
The first time Ferguson exploded in rage, Juanita Morris was spared.
Three windows and the door were broken at her clothing store, Fashions R Boutique, but surprisingly, nothing was stolen. Morris, who was on a business trip to Las Vegas, thought the protesters had vented and calm would return.
In November, though, after a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, she wasn’t as lucky. Cars were vandalized, shots fired and businesses went up in flames — including her own.
First word came in a text from a pastor: “Sorry about your store and I’m praying for you.”
She wondered what he was talking about. Then, on TV, she saw giant fireballs reducing her life’s work to ashes.
“It’s like seeing 28 years of hard labor go up in smoke,” Morris says. “I was more devastated than angry.”
Still, a few weeks later, Morris began looking to reopen. She had regular customers, many of them seniors who shopped at the “church woman’s store” for their Sunday finest — brightly colored wide hats, scarves and tailored suits. And she had new friends and champions.
Days after the fire, a college student who’d seen Morris on TV, along with two buddies, established a crowdfunding campaign to help supplement her insurance.
About 700 donations poured in from across the U.S., Australia, Germany and elsewhere. “I’m thinking, ‘My God, these people don’t even know me,'” she says. “They just kept writing, letting me know that they’re praying for me.” Donations totaled more than $23,000, ranging from $5 to $500, including one from a pensioner who said Morris’ lack of rancor spurred him to contribute.
By March, Morris had a temporary shop in a strip mall. This fall, she’ll move to a new store in nearby Florissant. The rebuilding in Ferguson, she says, is moving too slowly and some elderly customers have told her they don’t feel safe returning to the area now.
Morris says she was comforted by a letter from a student at a junior high that had “adopted” her, hosting a dinner for her and giving her $100. “If there’s no rain, there’s no rainbow,” the girl wrote, a message Morris took to heart.
“If there’s no trouble in your life, how would you grow?” Morris asks. “This was a trying time for me and … I’ve learned that I’m not a quitter. I’ve learned that I’m a woman of courage, a woman of strength and a woman with determination that never gives up.”
The Rev. Willis Johnson sees something enduring about the protest movement that took hold here last summer.
“So many times before when similar things have happened across this country we have raged against the machine but then we have settled down,” he says. “There was a collection of energy as well as specific people that said, ‘No, no, not this time.’ That was surprising and yet, it was eerily refreshing.”
As the protests continued from summer into fall, Johnson says he was inspired and reminded of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
“I think many of us have been re-ignited, re-engaged … even challenged by this particular generation and this particular movement to fire back up,” he says.
As pastor of Wellspring Church, Johnson tried to be a soothing force, walking across the street to the police station where some protesters had massed last August after Brown was killed. Weaving through the crowds, he offered a comforting hand on a shoulder or calming words to agitated protesters.
Johnson’s church also opened its doors to local kids when schools were closed, hosted two NPR national town hall meetings and, during the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, welcomed 13 members of the Congressional Black Caucus who’d come in a show of solidarity.
Now that things are quieter, Johnson, 40, has time to ponder the future of Ferguson. He sees reasons for hope — and cause for concern.
“Just as there are those who have awakened, we will have the Rip Van Winkles of the community … (whose) behaviors are even more entrenched,” he says. “You see that at community meetings, in the language. There’s still some of that ‘them and us’ and ‘over there.'”
Johnson points out that numerous task forces have formed to address city problems. Although there’s no single plan with all the answers, there is, he says, an acknowledgment that the old ways don’t work.
“We need to do something different,” he says, “and we know we want to feel a hell of lot different than we’ve felt for the last year. … It’s going to require us to do everything and ignore the fact that we can’t any longer do nothing.”
THE POLICE OFFICER
It’s the ugly images — protesters throwing rocks and police lobbing tear gas — that many Americans think of when they hear the word Ferguson.
But for police Sgt. Dominica Fuller, something positive also emerged from the chaos: a new unity forged among the officers who faced name-calling, taunts and threats.
“I’m not going to lie to you … it was tough, it was rough for all of us,” she says. “You went through the pain of seeing the hatred that people had, not for you as an individual, but for the badge, for the uniform you wear. It was hard. I mean, we have feelings. We’re officers but, yet, still we’re human beings as well. … It did hurt me.”
Fuller, 44, rejects what she calls a media perception that the Ferguson police “were racist, that we’re mean, that we targeted black people. Well, I’m black, so you mean to tell me because we have a disagreement I’m a racist? That’s not true.” She’s one of five black members on the 50-person force.
In March, the Justice Department released a blistering report that found the city’s police had engaged in sweeping patterns of bias against black residents in recent years. It concluded that blacks — about two-thirds of Ferguson’s population — accounted for the overwhelming number of arrests, tickets and cases of excessive use of police force.
Fuller, who was promoted in May, won’t discuss the findings, but says officers were affected by what they saw and heard on the streets.
“It made us take a look at ourselves,” says Fuller, a 17-year veteran. “It made us want to become more active (in the community). You’ve got to remember these people were yelling stuff. … It allowed us to finally open up our ears to listen to some of them … the ones that really had a purpose to being out there.”
One difference: When police pull over motorists now, she says, they’re “not so quick to write a ticket” and have learned to listen and show “a little bit more compassion.”
The department is making “positive changes,” Fuller adds, but “nothing happens overnight. It’s going to take some time. … This is our opportunity to show another state, another department that’s having the same problem (they) can learn from us.”
Emily Davis had never been a political activist in the decade she’s lived in Ferguson.
But the presence of police in riot gear and armored vehicles filling the streets “terrorized the citizens,” she says, and spurred her to get involved.
She attended city council meetings regularly, speaking often. She helped push for the recall of the mayor, joined ONE Ferguson, a community group dedicated to addressing racial and other disparities, and protested for several months.
“I thought if I’m out here … eventually my city has to listen,” says the 38-year-old mother of three. “It’s my job to say, ‘I don’t like this as a white person, either. It’s not OK you’re treating other citizens in my community that way.'”
A year later, she says, tensions in Ferguson persist— only now there are new fault lines.
“There’s a lot of resentment that wasn’t there before,” Davis says. “The divisions are deeper.”
While much of the spotlight last year was on black residents’ mistrust of the predominantly white police force, Davis says there are new fractures among white residents, some of whom feel maligned by the Justice Department’s findings.
“You have people who feel that the protests destroyed their town and they feel unfairly attacked as racists,” she says. “There are a lot of people who don’t like each other.”
There are rifts, too, between black and white residents, she adds. “I’ve had many people come up to me and say, ‘I used to talk to my neighbors all the time. We’d say ‘hi’ on the street. We barbecued. We were best friends and we can’t even look at each other anymore. We can’t have a conversation.”
Davis maintains Ferguson officials are running the city just as they did before last summer.
“Our city government has not become any more communicative,” she says. “While some of the faces have changed, the actual fundamental way that people are treated and the way the community works has not really changed in the last year.”
Yet some good has come from this turbulent year as more people have become politically involved, Davis adds.
“A lot of us,” she says, “have found each other and gained strength from each other.”
From that first night after Brown’s shooting when Wesley Bell stood between protesters and police, hoping to keep the peace, he knew the world would be watching Ferguson in the months ahead.
“I wanted to be part of turning things around,” he says. And with many urging him to seek office, he did. “You’ve kind of got to put up or shut up,” he says.
In April, Bell, a lawyer, professor and head of the criminal justice department at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley, was elected to the Ferguson City Council. He was one of two new black members chosen for the six-person board.
The 40-year-old Bell sees reason for optimism, ticking off recent developments: a fresh focus on community policing, town hall meetings, court reforms and new appointments to key posts, including a municipal judge, interim police chief and interim city manager. All three are black.
“You have a city whose institutions are beginning to reflect the population,” Bell says. “I think so far, so good. Having said that, you’re not going to see me pat myself on the back.”
Bell, whose ward includes the area where Brown was killed, says he knows frustrations remain, especially among young black residents who feel alienated from the police — a problem he says isn’t unique to Ferguson.
“Trust isn’t something that you can just snap your fingers and now everyone’s on board,” he says. “There are citizens who are confident and feel good about what we’re doing and there are still citizens who aren’t. … When you’re talking about a city with policies and some things that may not have been as fair to all citizens, that’s going to take some time.”
He disputes those who say Ferguson has stood still.
“Now, have we gone far enough? Are we done?” he asks. “Are we ready to just say, hey, great job, move on? No. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but this city is moving in the right direction, and I think anyone who’s being objective and fair can see that.”
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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