Long-time residents of Ferguson, Mo., where violent protests have broken out nightly since the police shooting of an unarmed teenager, are stunned and dismayed by the national disaster going down in their own backyard.
“We just can’t believe it.... This is not us” are common refrains away from West Florissant Street, the explosive stretch of businesses where violence, looting and tear gas exploded once again early Saturday morning. One woman couldn’t hold back tears as she lamented what had happened to her town, and the perception the world was building that it’s defined by deadly racial acrimony and violence.
But it’s a fact: The same place where urban farmers, bike activists and coffee aficionados gather has exploded in a rage fueled by a sense of racial injustice after a young man named Michael Brown was killed last Saturday by a police officer.
Social media, CNN, Fox, The New York Times – Ferguson has become a sensation, a “Fallujah in the Midwest,” fueled by nightly news and scenes in the heartland that remind Americans uncomfortably about race relations and disparities in their own, often segregated towns and cities.
“Like Jesse Jackson said, ‘There’s a Ferguson near you,’” says Gerry Noll, the owner of a Ferguson bike shop. “Yes, #Ferguson has become the byword for police brutality and all these national problems. But my hope is that #Ferguson becomes about how a community overcomes this and grows from it, and even becomes a model for the nation on how to deal” with racial problems.
Long a working class suburb of this critical western gateway at the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, Ferguson has, like many parts of urban America, changed demographically with the tides of economy and housing patterns. Once numbering a few hundred, black residents now outnumber whites, and their community is largely centered along West Florissant Avenue, a general black area that spills over into several other towns.
The lines of housing segregation are hard, and as disparities have widened – the rise of black Ferguson wasn’t followed by greater representation in St. Louis’ complicated political structure – tensions have at times flared, sometimes driven by perceived and real disparities in how police treat residents of different races.
This spring, the resignation of a young, up-and-coming black school superintendent who ran afoul of the white school board was widely seen as having a racial component. There’s deep mistrust in the black community of county prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who is investigating Brown’s death and whose father was killed in the line of duty by a black man. (McCulloch is widely respected, and has in the past prosecuted errant police officers.)
“St. Louis can be a racist place,” says Stephen Ryals, a white civil rights lawyer whose family in Ferguson goes back four generations. “But I also felt that I grew up in a racially harmonious place.”
Indeed, that’s how many residents still perceive the town of 21,200.
“This is not a warzone,” said one white resident, disagreeing with Gov. Jay Nixon, who said a militarized response to violent protests in Ferguson made the town look like a “warzone.”
At the same time, Ferguson residents and business owners have banded together to both support protesters by providing food, water, even umbrellas, while taking charge of the response. After riots, residents have spread out to pick up trash. As police have pulled back to allow angry protesters to air their grievances as the Constitution guarantees, some business owners have defended their businesses brandishing firearms.
In that way, the protests are accomplishing one mission: It has forced everybody, black and white, to look at their relationship with the local police force and political structure, and ask whether it’s really serving everybody equally. Arrest numbers certainly don’t bear that out, and some here concede that local police likely would not have exhibited so much force against Brown and those who have protested his death if they had been white.
“We’ve been sitting down for a long time as a community, and now we’re standing up together,” says Ferguson freelance photographer Erica Brooks.
[CNN reports: Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Saturday he had signed an order declaring a state of emergency and implementing a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. in Ferguson ... Nixon said that a "very few" decided Friday night to act in a way that had the "intent of committing crimes and endangering citizens. That is unacceptable." He also praised "the courage and resolve of peaceful protesters who stood up against violent instigators."]