On Road To Recovery, Ferguson Residents Have Different Ideas

Feb 4, 2016
Originally published on February 4, 2016 6:45 pm

More than a year ago, 18-year-old Michael Brown's death in a police shooting roiled the small town of Ferguson, Mo., and sparked nationwide protests. Recovery and negotiations have been going on since then, but residents have different ideas about how the city should move forward.

Next week, a negotiated settlement between the city and the Justice Department overhauling the department's practices will come up for a city council vote.

Ferguson residents such as Blake Ashby argued during a public hearing this week that the costs of the proposed agreement will put Ferguson at risk.

"If we sign this deal, we have to dis-incorporate Ferguson down the road because we will not financially be able to meet the terms of this agreement," Ashby says.

On the other hand, Michael McMillan, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, is focused on rebuilding the city after the riots. A Community Empowerment Center will be built by minority and female contractors in an empty lot that used to house a gas station and a convenient store. Both buildings were burned down in the protests.

The new center will house McMillan's Urban League and other nonprofits that focus on providing employment and financial literacy programs to people who need jobs, especially young African-American men.

"It will be a multimillion-dollar beacon of hope for the city of Ferguson, and we as the Urban League wanted to show the community that we are very serious about making sure that people have the opportunity to work," McMillan says.

The Prime Time Barbershop stands a few blocks away. The 25-year-old manager Thomas Bradley says as far as he's concerned, things are back to normal in Ferguson.

"My definition of normal is guys getting pulled over by the police for no reason," he says.

Even so, Bradley says he'd like to see more black officers and officers walking a beat.

However, another barber Brandon Turner says he thinks there has been less harassment by police.

"I think that's how it's supposed to be," Turner says. "They work for us. You're not supposed to be scared of somebody who works for us. We pay their bills."

He says the proposed agreement between Ferguson and the Department of Justice — like training for police on the use of force, and limits on court fees --are all good ideas.

Not far from the city's police department is a store named "I Love Ferguson." It was an idea started by the city's former mayor, Brian Fletcher, who came up with the idea to sell merchandise to help damaged businesses rebound. Fletcher died last month.

Sandy Sansevere is now the new chairperson of the all-volunteer group. One positive change she sees is that more people talk to each other.

"I know 10,000 more people in Ferguson than I ever did before because of this," she says. "People will come in and they kind of feel you out a little bit... Whether you agree or disagree you still let them talk ... that's the biggest thing. You've got to listen to everybody and see where they're coming from."

Sansevere says she never thought there was a big racial divide in Ferguson and she is cautiously hopeful about the city now. Ken Wheat, vice president of the I Love Ferguson committee is active in several neighborhood groups and also doesn't think Ferguson has a racial divide.

"In our town I don't really think it's an issue. I think it's a matter of being involved," he says. "Here in town, I made that an effort to go to the meetings whether or not I was the only black person there. It didn't matter to me. I didn't mind being uncomfortable. That's what we have to do to make a change."

Both Wheat and Sansevere are skeptical about some of the Department of Justice's findings about the city's police department. They feel like it has caused police to crack down less on crime.

Ferguson's Mayor James Knowles says since the shooting of Brown, the city has worked to bridge the divide between the police and residents, but change doesn't come overnight.

"Rebuilding trust, gaining trust is a process — and there are people in this community and communities across the country that have deep seated frustrations and anger with police officers," Knowles says. "And that's something that we are going to be working on and this country will be working on for a long time."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's been more than a year since the police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. His death in Ferguson, Mo., sparked nationwide protest. Next week, a negotiated settlement between the city and the Department of Justice comes up for a city council vote. It's about overhauling the Ferguson Police Department. NPR's Cheryl Corley traveled there to find out what people think about their town now and what changes they'd like to see.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Ferguson residents like Blake Ashby argue during a public hearing this week that the cost of the proposed consent decree puts Ferguson at risk.

BLAKE ASHBY: If we sign this deal, we have to disincorporate Ferguson down the road because we will not be able to financially meet the terms of the agreement.

CORLEY: Longtime resident Mildred Kleins (ph) had this to say.

MILDRED KLEINS: If violating people's constitutional rights is the only way this city is going to be able to sustain itself, then maybe we shouldn't have the city.

CORLEY: Earlier in the day, cars raced down West Florissant Avenue, and there was a light rain as I met up with Michael McMillan.

MICHAEL MCMILLAN: You know, I've got a big golf umbrella in my car.

CORLEY: McMillan, the president of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, walks over and stands outside a huge fenced-in, empty lot. The burnout Quiktrip gas station and convenience store that used to be here was the epicenter of protests after Michael Brown's death.

MCMILLAN: You can see where the tanks have been removed and remediation has been done on the site.

CORLEY: Soon, there will be whole new look, a Community Empowerment Center which will be built by minority and female contractors later this year. The Urban League and other nonprofits housed in the building will offer employment and financial literacy programs to people who need jobs, especially young African-American men.

MCMILLAN: It will be a multimillion-dollar beacon of hope for the city of Ferguson, and we, as the Urban League, wanted to show the community that we are very serious about making sure that people have the opportunity to work.

CORLEY: A few blocks away at the Prime Time Barbershop, the seats are full. There's a hockey game playing on TV. The manager, 25-year-old Thomas Bradley, says as far as he's concerned, things are back to normal in Ferguson.

THOMAS BRADLEY: My definition of normal is guys getting pulled over by the police for no reason.

CORLEY: Even so, Bradley says he'd like to see more black officers and officers walking a beat. A few chairs down, another barber, Brandon Turner, says he thinks there's been less harassment by police.

BRANDON TURNER: I think that's how it's supposed to be. You know, they work for us. We don't - we're not supposed to be scared of somebody that work for us, you know? We pay their bills.

CORLEY: And Turner says proposed changes that would come from an agreement between Ferguson and the Department of Justice, like training for police on the use of force and limits on court fees, are all good ideas.

On the other side of town on South Florissant not far from the Ferguson Police Department is the I Love Ferguson store. The city's former mayor, Bryan Fletcher, who came up with the idea to sell merchandise to help damaged businesses rebound died last month. Now Sandy Sansevere, chairperson of the all-volunteer group, says one positive change is that more people talk to each other.

SANDY SANSEVERE: I know 10,000 more people in Ferguson than I ever did before because of this. People will come in, and they'll - they kind of feel you out a little bit, you know? And then it's - whether you agree or disagree, you still let them talk.

CORLEY: Sansevere says she never thought there was a big racial divide in Ferguson, and she's cautiously hopeful about the city now. Ken Wheat, vice president of I Love Ferguson, is active in several neighborhood groups and also doesn't think Ferguson has a racial divide.

KEN WHEAT: It's a matter of being involved, and then here in town, I always made - I made that my effort to go to the meetings whether or not I was the only black person there. It didn't matter to me. I didn't mind being uncomfortable. That's what we have to do to make a change.

CORLEY: Both Wheat and Sansevere are also skeptical about some of the DOJ findings about the city's police department. They feel it's caused police to crack down less on crime. Ferguson's mayor, James Knowles, says since the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, the city has worked to bridge the divide between police and residents.

JAMES KNOWLES: Regaining trust, building trust is a process, and there are people who, in this community and communities all across this country - that have deep-seated frustrations and anger with police officers. And that's something that we're going to be working on and I think this country will be working on for a long time.

CORLEY: And for Ferguson, changes for the city may soon be overseen by a court-appointed monitor. A vote on the city's negotiated agreement with the Department of Justice is set for Tuesday. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Ferguson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.