It’s Thanksgiving morning and Ferguson is cold. A glittering skin of frost lines the mourners’ offerings on Canfield Drive: teddy bears, candles, Cardinals caps, flowers long dead and frozen. Cars drive slowly around the makeshift memorial in the place where Michael Brown was killed – a brown brick-and-vinyl-sided housing project on the black side of this St. Louis suburb that has become the epicentre of America’s most urgent and uncomfortable conversation.
“We’re tired,” says Marcellus Buckley, a local poet, activist and close friend of the Brown family. “This is a boiling point. This is not going to stop.”
In the nearly four months since a white police officer shot and killed Mr. Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Ferguson has become a bruised and living illustration of what happens when the three central maladies of the United States – racism, poverty and violence – intersect. This week, the protests that began in the wake of the shooting once again flared, and fanned out across the country, after a local grand jury decided not to indict the officer, Darren Wilson.
What began as a localized protest has morphed into a nationwide reckoning of the social and political systems that produce the sorts of imbalances optimized by Ferguson – a town where two-thirds of the population is black but virtually all the levers of political and police power are in white hands. A town where one portion of the population wants nothing more than a return to normalcy, and the other wants anything but.
But something else is also happening in Ferguson – a search for solutions. In the largest such movement since the civil rights era of the 1960s, a new generation of activists and thinkers are proposing a host of new and innovative ideas to tackle the fundamental inequality issues plaguing Ferguson and countless towns and cities across the country.
Mr. Brown’s death and its aftermath have become, amidst great anger and occasional violence, a moment to face head-on one of America’s defining challenges.
“You’re talking about a group of people who’ve been told ‘no’ for 500 years,” says Mr. Buckley. “This ain’t a Ferguson thing. It ain’t a St. Louis thing. It’s an America thing.”
A snapshot of inequality
The average household in Ferguson is the subject of three court warrants. In a place where, like so many municipalities across the country, politicians are under intense pressure to keep taxes low, fines and court fees make up the second-largest source of revenue in Ferguson, a suburb of 21,000 located a 20-minute drive northwest of St. Louis. The people on the receiving end of those fines are, overwhelmingly, black.
“Ferguson’s a very complex and diverse community with a lot of personality to it,” says Scott Bonner, the director of the Ferguson Municipal Public Library. In August and again this week, the library offered volunteer-run classes when the unrest forced the schools in the area to close.
“When things happened, it revealed that there’s deep fractures. So there’s been a lot of soul searching about, ‘How did we not see some of this? What can we do to fix some of this?’ We need to really wrestle with this problem.”
There are fissures in Ferguson both glaring and subtle. They can be seen in places such as New Florissant Road, on the western, more white-populated side of town. In an unassuming, plywood-boarded storefront, volunteers at the I [Heart] Ferguson store sell clothing branded with the namesake logo. They’re raising money for business owners affected by the ongoing protests – so far, they’ve raised $15,000.
“Even living here, there were problems I wasn’t even aware of,” says Tana Cofer, a volunteer at the store who has lived in Ferguson for more than a half-century. Like Mr. Bonner, she is white.
“When you have 53 police officers and three are black, that’s not right.” But, she adds, “we’re reaching out, we’re more than willing to do our part. We live here by choice.”
There’s no malice in her voice; nor is there much doubt as to who “we” are. Ferguson may be integrated in the legal sense, but it’s still also a place of “us” and “them.”
But perhaps the most insidious divide – the one few are willing to address openly – is one of empathy. In Ferguson, as in so many U.S. cities and towns where protests related to race and police brutality have occurred, the divide manifests itself as a natural tendency to condemn most loudly the wrongdoing that hits closest to home.
For many of Ferguson’s white residents, that’s the widespread destruction of property. For the city’s black population, it’s the prospect of being mistreated by a cop. “If you don’t feel that pit in your stomach when you see a police officer,” says Mr. Buckley, the poet, “you ain’t us.”
But just as the issues extend well beyond Ferguson, so do the solutions. The protest movement that originated here has, in the past four months, prompted some of the most innovative ideas to address everything from police violence to closing the wealth gaps.
“There is a fundamental problem in the American system of governance, a fundamental problem with the way communities such as Ferguson are policed, a fundamental problem in the way in which young people are excluded” says Rev. Alvin Herring, deputy director of PICO National Network, a community organizing group.
But a conversation, or at least an open organized plea, may be emerging. “I think that what you see happening here in Ferguson and around the country is the blossoming of a real movement, led by young people, primarily saying to this country, ‘We are your children, we are your sons and daughters, and we are in pain.
“We look down the long road of our lives and see very few opportunities and see so many systems organized against us.’”
Consider a proposal by Justin Hansford, an assistant professor at the St. Louis University School of Law. Since Mr. Brown’s shooting, Prof. Hansford has pushed for a new way to make police officers across the country accountable for their actions – insurance. Just as drivers need to purchase car insurance, Prof. Hansford proposes mandatory personal liability insurance for all police officers. And just as drivers’ insurance premiums go up when they drive recklessly, so does an officer’s rate rise when he or she behaves badly.
“The U.S. loves market-based solutions,” says Prof. Hansford. “This is a way to make officers feel it in their pocket when they do something bad.”
Another set of proposed solutions focuses primarily on the very nature of racially segregated places; Ferguson is just one of many of the 90 or so municipalities that make up St. Louis County that are. Clarissa Hayward, a political theorist at Washington University in St. Louis, has pushed vocally for tax-base sharing among municipalities – so that tax-poor areas such as Ferguson don’t have to rely so heavily on fines and court fees – and more inclusive zoning practices so richer municipalities can’t effectively keep poorer demographics out by essentially outlawing high-density housing.
Prof. Hayward also calls for a central transit planning committee, rather than each individual municipality, to decide where and how the buses and trains run as a means to bridge the inequality gap. “In the St. Louis metro area there are entire portions of the suburbs that are not well-serviced by public transit, because individual suburbs can say we don’t want the metro to go through here,” she says.
“But people who don’t have cars need to get from where they live to where their jobs are, and the jobs are not in Ferguson.”
This week, the focus of the Ferguson protests began to shift. Resigned to the likelihood that Mr. Wilson will not be brought to trial in a criminal court, Mr. Brown’s family and their supporters have instead started calling for more broad reform measures, such as mandatory body cameras for all police officers nationwide. Various arms of the movement, and there are hundreds of groups involved, have turned their attention to economic boycotts, media training and police monitoring.
On Thanksgiving Day, an example of those efforts is readily visible along Canfield Drive. David Whitt, a resident of the housing complex that surrounds the street where Mr. Brown was shot, patrols the area, a video camera strapped to his chest. He is a member of a group called Copwatch. In the past three months, working out of an otherwise vacant apartment here, he and other Copwatch members have handed out some 210 cameras to local residents. The purpose, as Mr. Whitt sees it, is to correct a series of power imbalances – imbalances of race, wealth and control.
“You can’t be racist and broke, because racism is about power,” he says. “You can be prejudiced, but racism is about controlling people’s lives.”
A sombre holiday
There’s a feast on the way – turkey and dressing and rolls and sweet potato pie. Mr. Whitt waits for his wife and children to arrive with the makings of Thanksgiving dinner. Other relatives are there, many of them wearing shirts with the Copwatch logo of a stick-figure policeman, a person lying on the ground and a third filming; another shirt simply says “Unarmed Civilian.” Finally, Mr. Whitt’s family arrives, his toddler son waddling in, dressed in boots and a winter coat, a hand-made sign around his neck. One side says, “Hands up, don’t shop,” a reference to a fledgling plan to turn the Ferguson protests into an economic boycott. The other side says “Black Power.”
They eat dinner in a small, sparely decorated unit, the same one Mr. Whitt uses to train people to use body cameras, whose living room window overlooks the place where Mr. Brown was killed. Also visible nearby is the charred husk of a sedan, torched earlier in the week.
Down the road a small phalanx of National Guardsmen stands sandwiched between a “road closed” sign and an armoured vehicle. Behind them is the intersection with West Florissant, a street that is still marked off as a crime scene. It was here where rioters torched and looted several businesses on Monday night, after the grand jury’s decision not to indict Mr. Wilson was made public. Unless they absolutely have to (for example, when residents called about the torched sedan), the police don’t come near the memorial site.All through the night, visitors come by – friends, neighbours, a couple of members of something called the U.S. Revolutionary Communist Party down from Chicago. They take pictures of a makeshift memorial to Mr. Brown and the torched sedan. They talk of the grand jury decision and of First Amendment rights but also of food and mutual friends. Life will go on, just as it does on the other side of town, where a few residents spend the day painting murals on the plywood-boarded windows of riot-damaged stores.
But within and beyond Ferguson, there is a sense what happened here in August and again this week marks a turning point, a chance to have a difficult but necessary conversation about what it means to be black in America. “You cannot allow this to go unaddressed. The African-American community itself would be negligent to allow this to continue,” says Jerroll Sanders, president of the St. Louis-based activist group Change Is On Us.
“This problem has been a longstanding problem. From when we first set foot on this soil, we’ve been disposable.”Report Typo/Error
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