(Editor’s Note: NPR’s Michel Martin was invited by St. Louis Public Radio to moderate a community conversation on Thursday around race, police tactics and leadership following the shooting death of Michael Brown. The following story is based on what happened at the event.)
Ferguson, Mo., is a study in contrasts. It boasts spacious Victorians in its historic section, with lush green lawns, many featuring “I Heart Ferguson” signs. Just blocks away, there’s a burnt-out QuikTrip. The signs here read “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” In some cases, there are boarded-up windows advertising plans to reopen, or decorated with the town’s thanks for the love and support.
Not far from either: A mound of teddy bears and dried flowers marks the spot where 18-year-old Michael Brown fell after being shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Brown’s death not only put a spotlight on these contrasts, but has also encouraged people to try to address them.
That was the Rev. Willis Johnson’s hope. He’s the pastor of Wellspring Church, which hosted a community conversation Thursday night that drew about 200 people. In welcoming the audience, Johnson acknowledged he’s “gone from feeling hurt to wanting to hurt,” but he said he hoped the event would be a step to healing a “community in trauma.”
Over the course of two hours, many members of the audience — black, white, young and old — shared similar reactions.
Ferguson resident Jeff Schultz said the problems that came up in the course of the weeks of disturbances were “invisible to white people like me.” He urged the group to find ways to begin to talk about these issues in a way that would keep other whites from getting defensive. But a number of the African-American attendees repeatedly described feelings of being disrespected by institutions and individuals that were supposed to serve them.
“My people are not respected. … Look at the schools: Which schools are in trouble?” said former Missouri state Sen. Rita Days. “Those are schools with predominantly people that look like me.”
She urged the group to acknowledge those divisions.
A panel of community leaders — which included Days; top law enforcement officer Daniel Isom, a retired St. Louis police chief and the incoming director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety; and Kimberly McKinney, a Habitat for Humanity executive — wrestled over questions about the police tactics used during the demonstrations, but also about those used on a regular basis, which some observers have suggested is tied to raising money for fines and fees.
Many people expressed particular disgust at the treatment of Brown’s body, which remained on the scene and uncovered for more than four hours after the shooting. Much of the anger was directed at Ferguson Mayor James Knowles and others, who attended the event.
David Jackson, a member of the St. Louis Board of Education, was blunt.
“I am so disappointed in you as a leader,” he said. “The buck stops with you. It starts with you.”
Among the more remarkable developments of the evening was the emergence of an increasingly vocal group of young people who, prompted by social media and word of mouth, arrived at the event to share their experiences and demand accountability. They spoke of being tear-gassed, spoken to roughly by authorities and shot by rubber bullets.
One of the more dramatic moments came as a young man who introduced himself as Frankie Edwards pulled up his shirt to show the mayor a freshly scabbed scar from a bullet wound he received while protesting in Ferguson. He asked Knowles to apologize on behalf of the police, and asked the mayor whether he would step down.
Knowles pointedly said he would not.
“I’m not stepping down,” he said. “The voters have an opportunity to relieve me when the time comes.”
But African-Americans were not the only people to express disappointment with Knowles’ leadership through the crisis. Emily Davis, a white mother of three who lives in Ferguson, said her first emotion after Brown’s death was deep sorrow, “but now I am angry,” she said.
She had been out protesting or volunteering daily with her children, but “I still don’t see any engagement [from the police]. And my kids are confused. My son said, ‘I thought police were the good guys.’ ”
Another attendee, Geoffrey Higginbotham, said this was his third riot: the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, the riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and now Ferguson.
“I came here to the city of Ferguson about 2 1/2 years ago to speak about economic development and how we address these issues,” he said. “They were not ready for it.”
Both Johnson, the pastor, and Isom, the former police chief, concluded the evening on pensive notes.
Isom asked for the community’s ongoing engagement in addressing the issues raised over the course of the evening.
“I just feel sorrow. I feel sorry that as a leader in St. Louis, we haven’t done a really good job,” he said. “I’m redoubling my effort to hold myself accountable, and see what I can do to make it better. But I can’t do it by myself.”
Johnson added: “I am hurt. Sometimes I feel a little helpless. But I am hopeful, because I know there’s a better day.”