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Ferguson decision leaves city anguished, uneasy

Protesters damaged this building in Dellwood, Mo., near Ferguson, after Monday’s grand jury decision was announced.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/Getty

FERGUSON, Mo. — A jumble of emotions raced through Queen Barnes’s mind as she stood in front of her charred salon and barbershop Tuesday. The front window was shattered, the acrid smell of smoke hung heavy in the air, black soot covered the walls.

She was tired. She was frustrated. She was uncertain. As she stood worrying about her immediate concerns — her employees and the prospect of rebuilding — she also considered what the events of the past 24 hours said about justice and race in America.

“People are fed up,” Barnes said. “I thought change was definitely going to come this time. They definitely let us down.”


The day after a grand jury decided not to indict police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, sparking national discussion and protests, the concerns of the people of Ferguson were more immediate. Schools have been closed, businesses destroyed. Residents were talking about how to survive the days and weeks ahead.

After a night when emotions boiled over and protests gave way to lawlessness — stores looted, police cars and buildings burned, gunshots fired — the family of slain teen Michael Brown vowed to push for federal charges to be levied against Wilson, saying the state’s grand jury proceedings were rigged to clear Wilson.

The family also renewed their calls for calm and pledged to fight for legislation requiring every police officer to wear a body camera.

“The legacy of Michael Brown Jr. should be, instead of just striving to make a lot of noise, we strive to make a difference,” said Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Brown’s family, as Michael Brown Sr. stood stoically to the side.

About 200 protesters gathered Tuesday evening in front of the Ferguson Police Department, where demonstrations were mostly peaceful despite confrontations that led to arrests. But shortly before 10 p.m., the group began to march down South Florissant Avenue toward City Hall, where they burned a police car.


Earlier, Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri ramped up the presence of the National Guard, which was activated weeks ago as anxiety over the coming grand jury announcement grew.

“Lives and property must be protected,” he said, according to prepared remarks.

But many residents, gathering amid the ruins of their city’s business districts, expressed skepticism. After all, they noted, Nixon had made the same vow before the grand jury decision was announced.

“He failed us,” Barnes said. “And they wondered why we don’t trust the government, why we don’t trust police protection.”

Tracey Gibson stood Tuesday morning on a sloping street, surveying the damage on Chambers Road in the St. Louis suburb. Damage from a fire the night before had caused a beauty supply store to cave in, and the owner of a Chinese restaurant fought back emotion as he cleaned up the damage. It was the first time in at least a day that Gibson, a mother of three, had left her home. She sent her two youngest children to stay with family last week because she feared the worst.

“How uncomfortable do you think we are as residents?” she asked. “We are in a war zone. This here is traumatic. We hear gunshots. We hear helicopters. I’m afraid to leave my house.”

Still, she said, something must be done to close the wounds ripped anew when protesters learned that Wilson would not face state charges for killing Brown, whose death exposed racial tensions between black Americans and police.


“This is past talking. We have talked for many decades. Talking gets us nowhere,” she said. “The people who are out here doing all this looting and acting crazy — young, black men — they are affected directly. They are doing this to be heard.”

Ferguson resident Lisa Smith said the area’s demonstrators can be split into four groups: protesters, agitators, spectators, and the media. It is only the agitators that police need to be worried about, rather than painting the crowds with one broad brush, she said. That’s something officers would know if they did more outreach in the community, treating the areas they patrol as their own communities and the residents as their neighbors, she said.

“You’ve got to be out with the community,” Smith said.

Residents say the protests since Brown’s death on Aug. 9 have opened some ears.

Brian Fletcher, chairman of the civic group “I Love Ferguson” and the city’s former mayor, described his city as “very progressive.”

“To now be told that we had these racial tensions for decades, I don’t know why none of our African-American residents told us that,” Fletcher said.

Reconciliation will come, he said, when people focus on their common bonds and “reach out and talk to people out of your comfort zone.”

Between 20 and 25 Ferguson businesses were damaged, many completely destroyed, Fletcher said. On Tuesday morning, up to 200 volunteers swept glass from the sidewalk and boarded up shattered windows. On South Florissant Street, buildings were dotted with “I heart Ferguson” signs. And Fletcher’s organization began a raising $100,000 to help destroyed businesses rebuild.


As for Nixon, Fletcher said, he should resign.

“If I was Nixon, I would not step foot in Ferguson,” he said. “They say last night no one was hurt. What do you mean no one was hurt? People lost their livelihoods.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at