Four Voices from Ferguson, Mo., Where the Stress Is Unbearable

Demonstrators facing police officers on Thursday outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Mo. Photograph by Michael B. Thomas/AFP via Getty Images

The people of Ferguson, Mo., are under stress as they wait for a grand jury to announce whether it’s indicting the white police officer who shot an unarmed black teenager in August, unleashing days of violent protests. The passage of time hasn’t eased the tension. If anything, it has given people more time to build anger and frustration. I spoke this week with four people—three black, one white—who have been watching the case closely. Here’s what they had to say.

Patricia Bynes, Democratic committeewoman of Ferguson Township
“Just knowing that a decision on the indictment is coming: Mike Brown’s body laid out for 4 1/2 hours. This feels like this is the 4 1/2 hours for the rest of us, the time period for the indictment [decision],” Bynes says. “To know if there will be charges or not against this officer, it will be a sigh of relief, at least just to know, yes or no.” Bynes says she has asked peaceful people to stay home on the day of the indictment. “At some point you’ve got to say, ‘We’re not going to let violent people take over our movement.’ These are the bad actors.” Empty streets would send a message to the world that Governor Jay Nixon overreacted by declaring a state of emergency, Bynes says.

Michael McMillan, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis
McMillan specifies four steps involving police officers that would ease racial tension. First, he says, police “need to cease” racial profiling, both in traffic stops and stop-and-frisk operations. Second, majority-white police departments in majority-black towns should add black officers. Third, all officers should be equipped with cameras that record interactions with the public, and the images should be stored by a company or organization not connected with the police department. Fourth, Missouri should have a law requiring the appointment of an independent prosecutor in every shooting by a police officer.

It’s also important to help young men find jobs, McMillan says. The Urban League runs a Save Our Sons program—supported by local employers Emerson Electric, Monsanto, and Wells Fargo—that trains area residents for employment. “There are very few problems in life that a good job can’t fix,” he tells me.

Jeffrey Smith, assistant professor of politics and advocacy at New School University’s Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Studies
Smith, who is white, served in the Missouri Senate from 2006 to 2009, representing inner-city St. Louis. There he co-founded a group of charter schools called the Confluence Academies. He recently completed a Kindle book called Ferguson: In Black and White. “It’s incredibly tense, and the governor didn’t do anything to ease it over the past week [by declaring a state of emergency]. There’s just a complete dearth of empathy for the people and what they’re going through,” he says. Smith notes that the nearby city of St. Louis eased tensions by eliminating 220,000 warrants for non-violent municipal offenses, but says Ferguson has done little, aside from “some minor changes to its traffic court.” He says there have been stepped-up efforts to recruit black officers in various towns in northern St. Louis County, along with philanthropic efforts to ease tensions. But those things take time. “People on the ground haven’t seen any difference.”

John Gaskin III, community activist. Gaskin is a spokesman for the St. Louis County NAACP, but is speaking only for himself on Ferguson issues
“You’ve got a lot of business owners that are concerned about the safety of their businesses and I can understand that. Some are boarded-up. Some are planning to stay overnight in their business.” He says he supports the request of Michael Brown’s parents for people to “act in a dignified manner.” If violence breaks out, he says, “it’ll be blown up all over the national and international media.” Already, he says, “you’d think it’s the inauguration, with television trucks rolling in.”

As for an indictment, Gaskin says, “there is enough evidence right now on the table to indict Darren Wilson and arrest him.” The grand jury’s job is to determine if there’s enough evidence to warrant a trial, not to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but the grand jury process “has turned into a criminal trial,” Gaskin says. “The governor should have appointed a special prosecutor from the start,” he says, adding that the legal process has “allowed everyone in leadership to look ludicrous on a national stage.”

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