Fer­gu­son sto­ries re­flect hopes, ten­sion

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY SHARON CO­HEN

With a scuf­fle and the crackle of gun­fire, this once- anony­mous St. Louis sub­urb was per­ma­nently scarred a year ago.

The fa­tal shoot­ing of Michael Brown, an un­armed black 18- year- old, by a white po­lice of­fi­cer, Dar­ren Wil­son, last Au­gust 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 have since re­ver­ber­ated across the U. S.

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 Shop­keeper

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 thought the protesters had vented and calm would re­turn.

In Novem­ber, though, af­ter a Mis­souri grand jury de­cided not to in­dict Wil­son, cars were vandalized, shots fired and busi­nesses burned — in­clud­ing her own.

“It’s like see­ing 28 years of hard la­bor go up in smoke,” Mor­ris says. “I was more dev­as­tated than an­gry.”

But 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. And she had new friends and cham­pi­ons.

Soon af­ter the fire, a col­lege stu­dent who’d seen Mor­ris on TV, along with two bud­dies, es­tab­lished a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign to sup­ple­ment her in­sur­ance.

About 700 do­na­tions, to­tal­ing more than US$ 23,000, poured in from across the U. S., Aus­tralia, Ger­many and else­where. “I’m think­ing, ‘ My God, these peo­ple don’t even know me,”’ Mor­ris says.

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 writ­ten by a stu­dent at a ju­nior high that had “adopted” her. “If there’s no rain, there’s no rain­bow,” the girl wrote. She took that mes­sage 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 Pas­tor

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.’”

As the protests con­tin­ued into the fall, John­son says he was re­minded of the long 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.

Now that things are qui­eter, John­son, pas­tor of Well­spring Church, 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.’”

Nu­mer­ous task forces have formed to ad­dress city prob­lems. Although there’s no sin­gle so­lu­tion, 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 a 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 think of when they hear the word Fer­gu­son.

But for po­lice Sgt. Do­minica Fuller, some­thing pos­i­tive also emerged from the chaos: a new unity among the of­fi­cers who faced taunts and threats.

“I’m not go­ing to lie to you ... 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 uni- form you wear. ... We have feel­ings. We’re of­fi­cers, but yet, still we’re hu­man be­ings as well.”

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?” 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.

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. “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.”

The Fer­gu­son po­lice, she says, are mak­ing “pos­i­tive changes” but “noth­ing hap­pens overnight. ... This is our op­por­tu­nity to show another state, another depart­ment that’s hav­ing the same prob­lem ( they) can learn from us.”

The Ac­tivist

Emily Davis had never been a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, 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, 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.

“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.”

Although Davis main­tains Fer­gu­son of­fi­cials are run­ning the city just as they did be­fore last sum­mer, she feels some good also has come as more peo­ple have be­come po­lit­i­cally ac­tive.

“A lot of us,” she says, “have found each other and gained strength from each other.”

The Coun­cil­man

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. 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, one of two new black mem­bers cho­sen per­son board.

The 40- year- old Bell is op­ti­mistic, point­ing to 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.

Bell 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.”

But he dis­putes those who say Fer­gu­son has stood still.

“Now, have we gone f ar 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.”

for

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AP

1. Juanita Mor­ris stands in her cloth­ing store, Fash­ions R Bou­tique, in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, July 23. 2. Rev. Wil­lis John­son poses for a photo in­side Well­spring Church in Fer­gu­son, July 23. 3. Fer­gu­son Po­lice Sergeant Do­minica Fuller pauses dur­ing an in­ter­view in Fer­gu­son, July 23. 4. Ac­tivist Emily Davis speaks dur­ing an in­ter­view in Fer­gu­son, July 22. 5. Newly elected Fer­gu­son city coun­cil­man Wes­ley Bell lis­tens to a pre­sen­ta­tion dur­ing a city coun­cil meet­ing in Fer­gu­son, July 28.

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