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After Tense Day In Ferguson, Protests Flare On West Florissant; Council Acts On Fines

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

Police forcibly dispersed dozens of protesters in Ferguson early Wednesday morning after hours of  confrontation and the smashing of a window at the Beauty Town shop. Tensions had been running high sinceTuesday morning when a memorial for Michael Brown burned down close to where he was killed.

Tuesday evening, Ferguson's city council made changes to its municipal court system in response to criticism that minor offenses were trapping too many poor people, especially African Americans, in a cycle of compounding fines, fees, arrest warrants and jail time. The council postponed action on a proposal to create a civilian police review board to allow more time to discuss alternatives with more teeth.

The changes had been proposed as a way to ease tensions between authorities and African-American residents. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said he hoped Ferguson's actions would prompt other communities to take similar steps.

The protest on West Florissant Tuesday night was reminiscent of turbulent August nights when scores of protesters clashed with police after a white Ferguson police officer shot and killed Brown, an 18-year-old African American.

Juan Santos works at Beauty Town on West Florissant Avenue where most of the protests occurred last month.

“We got a call from the alarm company, and they said that the alarm was on,” Santos said. “And we come in and see the window broke.”  

Santos told St. Louis Public Radio that he didn’t think any merchandise had been taken – adding that the extent of the damage was to the window. This was the third time his window has been smashed since the protests began, he said. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
A broken window in Beauty Town

Dozens of people lined up in and around the parking lot of the beauty shop Tuesday night. Police officers from multiple jurisdictions – including Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson – stood in front of the protesters. And for the next couple of hours, the protesters engaged in often hostile verbal exchanges with the officers.

After midnight, police shut down the road and dispersed the crowd. They made arrests, but the exact number was unknown as of early Wednesday morning. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that a number of shots were fired, although police didn’t pursue the shooter.

Few were surprised that a confrontation developed after the memorial burned down.

“After the fire this morning, I kind of expected something,” said Heather De Mian, who’s been active in the protest movement. “I don’t know if that’s what spurred this or there were other events that I missed or what.”

Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes rushed to West Florissant Avenue shortly after the city council meeting. She also said she wasn’t surprised that a confrontation had erupted between police and protesters. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
A protester Tuesday night. Night protests had generally faded since August. But tensions were running high on Tuesday after a memorial to Brown burned on Canfield.

“I know that tensions were already high when the indictment date was pushed back,” Bynes said. She was referring to the extension of the term of the grand jury considering whether to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown. “I know that people were very angry, but at least they had started venting that anger by showing up at [county and city] council meetings and opening themselves up to being educated. But that fire this morning really pushed too many people over the edge.

“So now, we’re back at this physical confrontation stage,” she added.

Umar Lee is a cab driver active in the protests over Brown’s death. He said people who expected nighttime protests to disappear completely were sorely mistaken.

“Everybody wants things to get back to normal. But as somebody said the other week, normal got Mike Brown killed,” Lee said. “This is the new normality in St. Louis. Until you get some institutional and substantive change, this is the new normal in St. Louis.”

Council makes sweeping changes

The renewed nighttime protests came shortly after the Ferguson City Council gave final approval to an array of changes to its embattled municipal court system. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles shakes hands with Erica Mazzotti, a senior legal intern with the St. Louis University Legal Clinic. St. Louis University law professor John Ammann — who has pushed Knowles to wipe out fines for people facing minor ordinance violations — is in the center.

The council approved reducing or eliminating penalties for violating the city’s ordinances. That includes abolishing the offense of failing to appear in municipal court and removing various court-related fees for towing cars or recalling warrants.

Council members also backed a measure to require court fine revenues to remain at or below 15 percent of the city’s revenue. An excess revenue "is earmarked for special community projects instead of general revenue purposes,” the measure says. Ferguson collected more than $2.5 million in fines and forfeitures during the last fiscal year, which accounted for about 20 percent of the city’s total revenue.

The changes came as several local and state leaders are considering curbing the power of municipal courts — and, potentially, the ability of cities to keep fines and court cost revenue.Critics say some St. Louis County municipalities saddle low-income African-Americans with hefty fines for minor offenses. That can trap them in a legal quagmire and lead to jail time.

Ferguson Mayor Knowles said he hopes the changes passed on Tuesday will prompt surrounding municipalities to follow suit.

“It will make a difference to other cities,” Knowles said. “Once we’ve done what we’ve done and we’ve shown that this is the right thing to do, I think other people are going to expect that out of other communities. I think the residents here and the residents around the region will expect that.”

Some attorneys asked Ferguson’s city leaders to wipe out fines for minor ordinance violations. Some of those attorneys — including Thomas Harvey of the Arch City Defenders and St. Louis University law professor John Ammann — said the council’s proposals didn’t go that far, but they added that the measures were steps in the right direction.

The council tabled an effort to establish a civilian review board. Knowles said he wants to work with groups like the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and talk with residents before proceeding with a final proposal.

“We didn’t want to rush it. We wanted to let people know that we’re being responsive, which is why we’re not acting fast,” Knowles said. “We put it on the agenda to get the conversation time.”

Some contended the proposed civilian review board lacked teeth, especially since it lacked the power to initiate investigations or subpoena police officers. Knowles said pursuing that route would require changing the city’s charter, which would require a citywide vote. 

Passionate comments

Tuesday’s meeting at the First Baptist Church in Ferguson included another lengthy public comment section with many people critical of the city and its police department. Also, some Ferguson residents expressed frustration with the protesters. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Mya Aaten-White addresses members of the Ferguson City Council while Dorothy Kaser waits behind her. Aaten-White was shot in the head during the protests.

Ferguson resident Nick Kasoff told council members that the city sends the police out to get $2.5 million of the city’s budget “at gunpoint from poor people like you here in the building.”

“I know a lot of you are afraid. Listen, there’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ve been out in the street with the people who are protesting,” said Kasoff, who ran against Knowles for a city council seat several years ago. “Yes, there’s a few bad apples. But mostly, they’re good people who love this community just like you. Don’t cancel the Streetfest. Don’t be afraid or angry. Maybe even come down and stand in front of Andy Wurm and meet a few of these nice people. It might change your attitude and it might change your lives.”

Mya Aaten-White was shot in the head at the start of the August protests. She said she was “very, very disappointed in the lack of youth in this room” considering the fact that the youth “were the ones teargassed, chased with dogs, called out of their names, and had middle fingers put up at them.”

“And yet, we come here and we’re disrespected by the community members of Ferguson – people who don’t even look us in the eye when we walk down the street,” said Aaten-White. “And they have the nerve to sit in a house of the Lord like you all are so pure. Like your children are so pure and so clean and so wonderful and so untainted that this couldn’t have been them. But I guess you know that it couldn’t because they don’t look like me.”

Some residents spoke out against protests at the Ferguson Farmers’ Market and a confrontation that occurred there on Saturday. Ferguson resident Dorothy Kaser went as far to say that “we are being held hostage in this community.”

“Are we being fair in not being patient? We all have a right to speak. We all have a right to hear both sides,” Kaser said. “But we as Americans want to have the right to live here in peace. And we’re not having peace.”

In a tearful speech, Linda Lipka told council members that people within the community had to listen and disagree with each other.

“What I’m saying is protesting is an American right. And doing it the way to get your message across — go for it and do it,” Lipka said. “But please remember — disagreement is an American right. And we do it with respect for one another. I will listen to everything my fellow citizens want to say to me. But please listen to me.

“I have things I want to say to you — and the first thing I want to say to you is you matter and so do I,” she said to a round of applause. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.