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The Protests May Be Winding Down, But Ferguson's Fight Is Not Over

As the town prepares for the funeral for Michael Brown, many residents are more than a bit skeptical about the change in tone.

by Alice Speri
Aug 23 2014, 4:05pm

Photo by Claire Ward/VICE News

An out-of-towner driving through Ferguson, Missouri on West Florissant Avenue on Friday morning might easily have missed the signs of the protests and clashes that have dominated this stretch of suburbs for the past two weeks.

In fact, the signs are there: most stores are boarded up, with "open" signs sprayed over the wooden panels that used to be glass windows. The burnt down shell of the Quiktrip gas station — which is at once Ferguson's "Ground Zero" and its "Maidan" — is still there, surrounded by a metal fence that was not there a few days ago.

The area got brand new "I heart Ferguson" signs, planted in every courtyard and hanging from every pole, and messages of hope and love are all over town — on colored signs drawn by children, or on the boards covering up the Ferguson Market and Liquor store, the site of looting last week.

More visibly, police cars are parked at every intersection — though the SWAT teams in riot gear, shields, and camos of the last two weeks are mostly gone. Officers are now talking to people, and not just yelling at them through loudspeakers, and some are even playing basketball with local kids — though after days of tear gas, stun grenades, and detentions, many residents are more than a bit skeptical about the change in tone.

No tear gas has been fired in Ferguson for the last three nights, and Missouri's Governor Jay Nixon announced on Thursday that he would pull out the National Guard — yet another sign of the "occupation" of Ferguson, in locals' eyes, though the troops remained stationed in a local strip mall's parking lot for much of their deployment.

The media circus, too, has mostly moved its tents elsewhere.

Sure, schools are still closed, and both daily protests and arrests are yet to stop, but Ferguson is very slowly going back, at least on the surface, to its normal appearance: a predominantly black suburb, like thousands of others across the country.

But as his family prepares to bury Michael Brown on Monday, one thing is clear: there's no going "back to normal" for the neighborhood that in two weeks has become the flashpoint for the country's most deeply rooted tensions. And what was normal in Ferguson needs to change.

"We are still gonna be out, because we want justice," Desmond Harry, from Saint Louis, told VICE News on Wednesday night, while trying to light a candle in the middle of a huge storm that kept many, but not all, protesters off the streets for a couple hours. "Once they see you buckle, that's when they're gonna feel like they won. But ain't nobody buckling right now."

"Once people have seen St. Louis coming together taking a stand, everyone around the country will take a stand," he added. "They're tired of it going on too. It's not just what's going on in Ferguson, it's what's going on everywhere."

Photo by Alice Speri/VICE News

"No Justice, No Peace"
Ferguson's protesters have said it over and over again — in interviews, in slogans, and in presence, as they took to the streets day after day and night after night, tirelessly, for two weeks.

What it could take for this to stop, residents of Ferguson feel, is simple enough: justice. For the 18-year-old boy shot and killed by police on August 9, but also for the countless victims of police racism and brutality — and nearly everyone VICE News spoke to in Ferguson has a personal story to share in regards to this topic.

"St. Lousians are very resilient," Miranda Jones, a social worker with the group Better Family Life told VICE News, while standing by Brown's memorial in the residential street where he was killed, which is now an improvised community center with food, water, chess boards, and mental health services. "Until there's an indictment or something happens to that police officer, people are gonna be doing what they feel they need to do."

Many protesters have promised "a war" should Darren Wilson — the officer involved in the shooting — get off.

"It's gonna be interesting," Jones added more diplomatically. "And that's what so many people have been afraid of, because we have been here so many times before. That's our biggest fear: that justice will not be served."

There will be no healing without justice.

Ferguson also needs to deal with trauma, Jones added, and the shock of seeing its mourning and anger criminalized, and its community turned into a militarized zone.

"We're here during the day trying to keep people's spirits up and lift them up, but at night they still can't sleep," she said. "We have reports of some children who are peeing in their bed because they are so scared, sleeping with their mothers. The real work is not what you see with us here, giving out food. It's us going into homes and sitting down and talking with parents and doing therapy with kids to try keep them stable."

But there will be no healing without justice, virtually everyone in Ferguson seems to agree.

The wheels of justice have started to move, authorities promised. A grand jury was tasked with deciding whether to charge Wilson with Brown's death, and the Department of Justice has started its own investigation into the killing, sending the FBI to canvas the neighborhood for witnesses.

"My hope also is that through the trip that I'm making out here today and by expressing the importance of the way in which this investigation is going, that hopefully will have a calming influence on the area, if people know that a federal, thorough investigation is being done — is being manned by these very capable people," Attorney General Eric Holder said while in town earlier this week. "My hope is that that will give people some degree of confidence that the appropriate things are being done by their federal government."

As the protests grew smaller on Thursday and Friday, people seemed to have taken a step back to see whether to trust the system to work — but they kept watching it closely.

"I don't think the need for change and the protest for change is dying down just because people are not out here," Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, the face of the effort to reconcile police and protesters, told VICE News on Wednesday. "Whenever you walk in any store or restaurant, it's the conversation. But I think people are realizing, 'Our voice is getting heard.' Holder came in today and the case is being given to the grand jury today. So I think people are saying, 'You know what? That's what we were asking for, we were asking for our voices to be heard, we were asking for transparence.' We'll still have protesters out, we'll still have signs. We may have signs for weeks to come and months to come, but I do think that we're moving towards peace."

"When this is over I'm sure there will be a lot of conversations here and across this nation," Johnson added. "After this, we need to sit law enforcement down with people that are out here and let them tell us their stories and their experiences so we can learn from it, know how to address it, make it better."

"We Are Mike Brown"
One of the favorite slogans among Ferguson protesters has been "I am Mike Brown; We are Mike Brown."

Burying Brown, everyone here realizes, won't put to rest the pain and anger that has allowed so many to identify with the slain teenager.

"This is deep within, this is deeper than Mike Brown's killing, there have been many a killing of black young men in this vicinity," Netti Easley, who lost both a son and a grandson to police violence, told VICE News. "They harass these young black males for no reason and it's just been going on a long, long time, we're just tired of it. We want something done, we want them to leave them alone. We want our kids to live too, freely. It's supposed to be a free country, but I don't know about that. And I'm 67."

"It's very hard to raise African American males in this community," Easley added. "Because it makes them feel like they are nothing, that's the way they want them to feel, so we have to build their self-esteem that you're as good as the next person, so that's what we try to teach them."

The tragedy of Brown's death, many Ferguson residents told VICE News, should result not only in justice for him, but in important conversations about policing, diversity, and racism in Ferguson. Much has been said of Ferguson's nearly all-white police force — now, they say, is the time to change that.

"Diversity is the greatest thing in our country: it makes us all wiser, it makes us all humble, it makes us all more tolerant," Johnson said. "I think it is important to have law enforcement that's reflective of the community we serve and that's why I'm saddened that the local schools haven't been able to open, because if we're gonna have growth within the profession of law enforcement, it's going to be because of kids who go to school. And with that education become policemen and firemen and attorneys and judges."

Johnson, who is black, was put in charge of policing Ferguson — at the helm of an overwhelmingly white multi-department force. "Change is always a challenge," he said, when asked by a reporter how that was received by his officers.

'Ferguson is just a metaphor for urban America.'

"I have a problem with the police chief saying that this department is not racist. If you have to declare you're not racist…" Ferguson resident Pamela Merri-Weather told VICE News, referring to the Ferguson police department.

"I watch it every day, I see it all the time," she added. "They do more traffic stops than they do walking the beat. They can pull you up for a traffic stop, but you need to be in the neighborhood with people, walking about. People are more afraid to drive down the street than to walk down the street."

But changing Ferguson will take more than injecting some diversity in its police force, said Merri-Weather, who had taken her 6-year-old grandson George to a recent rally so he could look back at this historic moment, "twenty-five years from now, and say, 'I was there with my grandmother,'" she said.

The protests over Brown's death, she said, will serve Brown's community if they translate the anger into action — and as voter registration booths have started popping up at rallies, that push for change seems to be gradually underway.

"A lot of young people just don't think their vote matters," Merri-Weather said. "They just don't understand because they're so busy dealing with day-to-day issues, they think their vote is so far off they don't bother to do it. They live in the here and now, they're suffering now they want jobs now. They're not gonna vote because in their minds that's just not gonna change anything right now."

During the last election, Ferguson's voter turnout was around 12 percent, she said. "That is ridiculous. Use this event to catapult a huge voter turnout. Take this momentum and push it down the road, it needs to go further than that," she said.

A Thousand Fergusons
Then of course there are all the other Fergusons across the country — towns, and suburbs, and city neighborhoods that have watched this Missouri uprising and wondered whether it could have taken place at home, too. There are the communities that with Ferguson share the experiences of segregation and brutality, but also economic isolation, institutional failure, and abandoned schools.

"Ferguson is just a metaphor for urban America," Rev. Jesse Jackson told VICE News earlier this week. "The infant mortality rate is high, life expectancy is short, unemployment three or four times the national average, kids dropping out of school — they've lost their sense of hope and vitality."

"There's a lot of anger, but it must be directed," he added. "The sense of disgust, the sense of disappointment, is very prevalent."

And so is the collective awakening of a community that has had enough.

There was a lot more to the Ferguson protests than their anger and the forcefulness with which authorities attempted — and failed — to shut them down. The spirit they harnessed inspired people across the country and will stay with the defiant residents of this suburb long after the last protesters have left West Florissant.

For Ferguson, as so many protesters and residents told VICE News in the last days, there's no going back.

State of Emergency - Ferguson, Missouri. Watch the VICE News dispatches.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi