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Editor's Weekly: Protests Move Beyond Ferguson

USE THIS Powell Symphony Hall
Alise O'Brien | St. Louis Symphony

Some Ferguson protesters caused a stir this week with demonstrations that confronted people outside Ferguson — first at Powell Hall, where the St. Louis Symphony was performing the Brahms Requiem, and later at Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals were winning the division championship.

In other words, while Ferguson remains Ground Zero for the issues raised by Michael Brown’s death there, the focus of protest is expanding beyond that north county suburb.Wednesday and Thursday nights, Shaw neighborhood residents found themselves in the midst of protest after an off-duty St. Louis officer shot and killed a young African-American man. This weekend, protesters from around the nation will converge here. Again, most events will happen outside Ferguson, including marches Friday in Clayton and Saturday downtown, where the baseball playoff crowd will be gathering.

That appears to be a deliberate strategy by some to reach people who would not otherwise get involved. But no leadership council or formal organization is setting strategy. Like so much else about Ferguson, this phase of the protest is decentralized – prompted by events, driven by self-selected leaders and fueled by social media.

In a world of instant, public communication, central strategic planning and organization may be anachronisms. Protesters can command attention without them. Leaders — official or anti-establishment — are judged mostly by their instant reactions. But will digital-age spontaneity, without deliberate long-term strategy and strong organization, really solve problems?

The problems related to Ferguson are devilishly complex. Protesters have made specific demands, including the indictment of Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, removal of prosecutor Bob McCulloch and reform of certain municipal procedures and police practices. But even if all those demands were met, that would barely begin to address the overarching issues of race, opportunity and power. Solving those problems would require not only change in official policies but also in hearts, minds and entrenched patterns.

Meanwhile, as this stage of the protest continues to unfold, it poses a paradox. The very people who the protesters champion are also at greatest risk for suffering from the immediate unintended consequences of what’s going on.

This week, for example, Durrie Bouscaren reported that Ferguson’s new notoriety has meant nothing but trouble for the housing market there. Typically, neighborhoods that suffer major civic unrest face a tough road to economic recovery. The residents suffer the consequences for years.

Ferguson’s battered reputation will likely affect the reputation of the region as a whole as well. That negative image got reinforcement this week from a widely shared video of an ugly encounter between protesters and some Cardinal fans.

A few hopeful developments got less attention. They included a progress report from a group of community leaders, who have been meeting under the auspices of the Justice Department. Also, Monsanto announced a $1 million commitment to various initiatives in north county— the latest of several businesses to do so.

Perhaps some of the problems raised by Ferguson can best be addressed through the kind of spontaneous response that has characterized the protest so far. More likely, solutions will need to spring also from long-range strategy and organizational commitment. Though the protest moved beyond Ferguson this week, there was not much evidence that the approach to solving problems expanded as well.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.