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Six Months Later: Ferguson As A Community And A Symbol

Monday marked six months since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Since then, there have been many conversations about race, municipalities and use of force. Protests have been organized throughout the St. Louis region. And several commissions and organizations have been created.

“People have changed in a way,” said Emanuele Berry, St. Louis Public Radio’s race and culture reporter who has been covering Ferguson since August. “Not everyone, but I think that there is this new sense of awareness in that community. At least people are talking about it now, and at least people are aware of it now.

“But I think it’s also a change that’s only, in some ways, taking place in a part of the community — in that community that was unaware. I think if you go to the people who are living through these experiences of disparity every day, life hasn’t changed that much,” Berry told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Monday.

When Berry visited the neighborhood where Brown was shot and killed last week, she said she had trouble finding people who were willing to be interviewed. Eventually Willis Brown agreed to talk, but said in the past six months “nothing happened.”  

While the protests of six, or even two, months ago have died down, the protest movement still is active, Berry said.

“In talking to some of the activists, some of them said, ‘Well, we’re not necessarily in the streets because we want to be at a table. We want to be at a table having those conversations and those discussions,’” she said. “I think in some ways the momentum is in different spaces. Ferguson was this starting epicenter, but we’re seeing protests in other places across the country now, and we’re also seeing activists who were here in difference spaces across the country.”

Johnetta Elzie, a field organizer for Amnesty International, said that activists are identifying specific issues that they want to address.

“Instead of being out and getting tear gassed every day, everyone has regrouped and people are seeing what lanes that they want to be in,” she said.

“There are different kinds of sectors in this activism,” Berry said. “People find where they fit and what feels right to them.”

One thing has made this protest movement different, said Gregory Carr Sr., a speech and theater instructor at Harris-Stowe State University. “I think this is a little bit different now because we have the advent of social media now. I don’t think it’s going to be business as usual this time.”

That’s been good and bad, Berry and Carr said. While it has helped draw national attention to Ferguson, it has also created #Ferguson as a hashtag and symbol. “It’s no longer a suburb of St. Louis in a way,” Berry said.

Online and in Ferguson, the Aug. 9 shooting was a wake-up call for many, said Patricia Bynes, Democratic committeewoman of Ferguson Township.

“We’ve gone from wake-up call to right now I see us moving into action to work on the issues,” Bynes said. “To so many people, it wasn’t just Officer Darren Wilson that shot Mike Brown. People see a system, an institution that killed Mike Brown and that is what people are now focusing on.”

While Ferguson’s population is mostly black, its leadership is nearly all white. In the upcoming April election, there are several black candidates for city council. But that diversity alone isn’t enough, Bynes said.

“The conversation has to just change from being black and running for office, because there are great people of all colors who can fight for equality,” she said. “These are not just black issues; these are issues about equality.”

In addition to the political front, Bynes also is helping organize Ferguson Alternative Spring Break, an initiative that will bring college students to Ferguson to perform community service during their spring break.

In addition to spring break opportunities, Berry said many young Ferguson activists are attending conferences and learning new skills. “It’s their lifestyle now, in a way,” Berry said.

The amount of money that municipalities collect from court fines and traffic fees gained attention after Brown’s death. On Sunday, a group of civil rights lawyers sued the cities of Ferguson and Jennings on behalf of 11 plaintiffs who say they were too poor to pay fines and were jailed, sometimes for more than two weeks. The lawsuit says officials “have built a municipal scheme designed to brutalize, to push, and to profit.”

Ferguson collected about $2.6 million in court fines and fees in 2013, or about 21 percent of its total budget. The state of Missouri has a 30 percent budget threshold, but a highly debated state Senate bill could drop that to 10 percent. That bill is expected to be debated in the Senate this week. Marshall Griffin, St. Louis Public Radio’s Missouri statehouse reporter, said he expects the bill will make it out of the Senate. The Missouri House has a similar bill.

“Of all the bills that would fit the quote-unquote Ferguson agenda, this one has the best chance of actually making it to Governor Nixon’s desk,” Griffin said. House Speaker John Diehl previously said the legislature would not have a “Ferguson agenda.”

Those for and against the bill already are actively lobbying. Last week, the mayors of Cool Valley and Normandy said the bill was drastic, and would be a “great problem” their cities.

Back in Ferguson, one of the biggest changes that business owner John Zisser has noticed is the lack of customers. Zisser Tire & Auto in Dellwood, just outside of the Ferguson city limits, was looted in August. Business is down 30 percent to 50 percent on any day, he said.

“I think they’re just afraid of the area,” Zisser said. “The neighborhood, it’s really just no different than it was five, seven, 10 years ago. There’s really nothing going on there except for normal life. Ferguson is a safe place.”

Zisser is critical of how Gov. Jay Nixon has handled Ferguson, including the deployment of National Guard troops in November when the grand jury decision was announced. Although the National Guard was deployed, troops were not available to stop looting and arson after that announcement.

“I’d like to see Jay Nixon get his head out of the sand and actually do something,” Zisser said. “It’s just aggravating to have someone make all of these promises to the people of north county … and then just go the other direction. It’s just sad that we have a governor like that.”

In the next six month, the Rev. F. Willis Johnson said he expects change.

“We have an opportunity for everyone who is despondent and disappointed in the leadership of not only our specific community, but the larger area. We have an opportunity in this next voting cycle,” he said. “We’re going to have to do conventional and nonconventional things. We’re going to have to use established practices and organizations, just as much as we need to be innovative and expansive in our work. There’s less that divides us that we perceive.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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