FERGUSON, Mo. — On a street corner at the epicenter of the protests, Tommie Dale and her daughters readied voter registration signs as her husband implored passing drivers to “Come get registered to vote.”
Dale, 35, and her family lived in Ferguson for 15 years but left, pushed out by crime and “constant stops by police.” But the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer, compelled her to return.
“It’s the only way we can make a change,” she said standing in front of a boarded-up Chinese restaurant, damaged during a night of violent unrest. “People don’t understand. Looting and rioting aren’t going to get it.”
More than a week after this city erupted in protest over the shooting, the people who live here and those who have traveled here from across the country are looking forward as much as they are remembering the past. They are searching for ways to bring about the change that has often eluded the nation after similar crises such as Los Angeles in 1992, when police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King were acquitted in court.
For the hundreds of men and women who have turned several blocks of West Florissant Avenue into a protest zone, this is the release of generations of pent-up frustration. Brown’s death had echoes of their own treatment at the hands of a police department they say does not respect black residents, who make up about 70 percent of the population in this small city in northern St. Louis County. Brown’s death resonated with them, tearing open the scars of old injustices and serving as a moment of awakening.
But his death also hit home far from the borders of this city. People have traveled to Ferguson from hundreds of miles away, ready to add their presence to the cause.
How does the community capitalize on its nascent political momentum?
Some demonstrators say they must work within the system to bring about change by voting ineffective elected officials out of office. Others, however, say the system must be torn down and rebuilt.
The path forward starts with justice for Brown, many say, and should wind its way through schools, where police officers should spend more time getting to know students on neutral ground, to eventually to the voting booth on Election Day.
“They are in the process of learning their power,” state Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal said Saturday, motioning to the crowds of young people gathered on West Florissant Avenue. “The young people recognize that at any time, they can be Michael Brown.”
Residents say this has long been a place of simmering racial tensions and disparities. In predominately black Ferguson, the mayor, police chief, and five of its six city councilors are white. Just three of the 53 members of the police force are black.
Those who live here point to traffic stops as the biggest indicators of police intimidation and harassment. According to the state attorney general’s office, in the past 14 years, blacks have been drastically more likely to have been pulled over than whites. Of the 5,384 stops conducted in 2013 for example, blacks made up 4,632, or 86 percent.
On Saturday, a group of eight young men who grew up in the northern part of St. Louis County stood at the Quick Trip gas station and convenience store that was destroyed in a night of unrest, only to reemerge as a communal gathering place where children write messages in sidewalk chalk and people grill free hot dogs for protesters.
Each had a story to tell of being pulled over for alleged taillight violations, not putting on turn signals, or the ubiquitous “fits the description” reason.
‘Sometimes you have to stand and fight. . . . You can’t run away from things.’Ferguson, Mo., resident Sharis Gray
Davion Christen, 15, said he and some friends were walking during the school year when a police officer pulled up along side of them and said, “What you got in your book bag?”
Davion told him “nothing. It had school books, notebooks, pens, and pencils in it. The officer, he said, searched it anyway.
“And he’s 15!” Darius Jones, 22, said before adding, “I have never talked to a Ferguson police officer a without it being a question, an interrogation.”
Dale, the mother of three, can relate. She said she was six months pregnant and had her 12-year-old daughter in the car when she was pulled over. “We had guns drawn on us, and I said, ‘Is there a reason why we were pulled over?’ They said, ‘You look suspicious.’ ”
That was five years ago. She and her family moved, something Sharis Gray considered but decided against.
“Sometimes you have to stand and fight. This is my home,” said Gray, 29. She hopes her decision to stay in the area shows her 9-year-old daughter that “you can’t run away from things.”
Gray has returned to West Florissant Avenue every evening after work since Wednesday, saying Brown’s death helped shake her from a malaise.
“I had become numb,” she said. “I think it’s getting to the point where it’s not just petty instances of abuse.”
Brown’s death came on the heels of what many described as a trail of injustice.
“In three weeks we saw a woman pummeled on the freeway in Los Angeles. We saw a man choked to death on video while he said ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times,’’ the Rev. Al Sharpton said during a Sunday afternoon rally at Greater Grace Church, which was packed beyond capacity. “Then we come to Ferguson.”
Anger and sorrow over Brown’s death have been compounded by the official response that followed. It took officials nearly a week to release the name of Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot and killed Brown, and that release came with video of Brown as the suspect in a convenience store robbery, a robbery that police said Wilson was unaware of when he confronted Brown.
“Enough is enough,” said Ebony West, 38, a member of a motorcycle club that helped to keep the peace over the weekend.
Still, Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who was appointed by the governor to handle security in Ferguson, told the crowd of protesters Sunday that something positive could nonetheless emerge from the strife.
“Michael is going to make it better for our sons, so they can be better black men so they can be better to our daughters so they can be better black women,” Johnson said. “Better for me so I can be a better black father, and we can make mamas even better than they are now.”