‘The civil rights movement skipped St. Louis’

Ferguson, Mo. — T.K. Benson moved to Ferguson in 2011 from Decatur, and he noticed the difference immediately: the local power structure was upside down.

In a city dominated by African-Americans, white people were calling all the shots.

“When you have an all-black community like Ferguson, with an all-white police department and political structure, they don’t care about the community at all,” said Benson, who attended Georgia Perimeter College. “This is so different from Atlanta.”

The shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by a white police officer nine days ago and the rage that rapidly boiled over in Ferguson now seem almost inevitable to some local residents, given that imbalance of power. The city is two-thirds African-American. The mayor, the police chief, all but one member of the City Council and 50 of 53 city police officers are white. Black people in Atlanta know first-hand of these kinds of problems, but in many communities they also have found the solutions.

East Point, for example, is larger than Ferguson, with 35,500 residents to Ferguson’s 22,000, and its black population also is greater: 74.6 percent to 67 percent. But in East Point, the mayor, the police chief and seven of eight members of the City Council are African-Americans. The people of East Point still have myriad problems, but they also have black leaders with the power to address them.

“I think it is extremely important that the [government] accurately reflects the community within which you live. Especially local governments,” said East Point Mayor Jannquell Peters. “But it takes a concerted effort to make sure that that happens. That could have made a difference in Ferguson. At least the results might have been a little different.”

That things are different elsewhere is not lost on people in Ferguson.

“This should be a wake up call,” said Eric Rayford, who moved from rough-and-tumble East St. Louis to Ferguson nine years ago. “We need to be more politically active. We can’t forget about this.”

‘Civil rights movement skipped St. Louis’

When Goldie Taylor was growing up in Ferguson and its surrounding communities, her family and friends lived by a certain set of rules.

“We knew, when we went into smaller communities, to drive slowly. To keep your hands on the wheel,” Taylor remembers. “Don’t do anything to draw attention to your car. Do your best to be unassuming.”

Taylor, a national opinion writer and filmmaker, left Ferguson for Atlanta nearly 30 years ago.

She said that unlike Atlanta, “the civil rights movement skipped St. Louis,” so there has never been a class of African-Americans trained in organizational leadership or nonviolence.

In 2002, Atlanta had a similar incident, when 18-year-old Corey Ward was shot and killed in Buckhead by a member of the Atlanta Police Department. Ward’s death sparked protests and marches, but there were never any riots. The same can be said of the 2006 shooting death of Kathryn Johnson by Atlanta police – protests, but restraint.

“St. Louis didn’t have the same kind of social maturity that Atlanta had,” Taylor said. “Atlanta had generations of generations who have been trained in protest and nonviolence. We can be ready for a peaceful protest overnight. And we have the ability to hold our elected officials accountable when they have not served us well. You don’t want Andy Young to knock on your door.”

At times last week, particularly late Friday and early Saturday – and Sunday morning at the beginning of the midnight curfew imposed by the governor — the lack of leadership was evident as peaceful protests turned violent. No single voice emerged, although several national figures like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have visited to make speeches and lead marches.

‘We are still not being heard’

As he spoke to an AJC reporter, Eric Rayford stood in front of a QuikTrip convenience store on West Florissant Avenue. He used to buy gas there, but now the store is a burned-out, graffiti-marked shell that serves as ground zero for thousands of daily protesters. The QT is down the street from where Brown was killed.

Two Saturdays ago, Officer Darren Wilson tried to order Brown out of the middle of Canfield Drive, a quiet side street within a tiny, mostly black and poor neighborhood, scuffled briefly with Brown and then shot him several times, even after Brown put his hands up and tried to surrender, witnesses said. A makeshift memorial now rests on the spot. It is spray painted “RIP Mike” on one side and “I am legend” on the other.

Nightly protests there for the past week have sometimes turned violent. Business owners, fearful of further looting that has led to a curfew being imposed, have taken to carrying weapons to protect their property.

Outside the burned-out QuikTrip, Reginald Harris, who has lived in Ferguson for more than 20 years, watched as protesters waved signs at passing cars, which honked their support back at them.

Harris carried a sign reading “Until,” meaning he will fight until justice is served. People have missed opportunities to fight in the past, he said, and they can’t miss this one.

“Michael Brown would still be alive if we had protested when they killed Oscar Grant. When they killed Trayvon Martin. When they killed Eric Garner,” Harris said. “Whenever you find a large majority of blacks, they are usually controlled by a white government and they want to keep it white. I’m voting and the people I know vote. But we are still not being heard.”

‘It was a nice, safe community’

It is clear when driving around parts of Ferguson that the economic struggles that struck the nation have also touched this town. At $37,000, the median household income in Ferguson lags behind statewide numbers, while its 22 percent poverty rate is seven points higher than the state average.

Many of the city’s black residents live in a small isolated corner of Ferguson along West Florissant Avenue full of apartment complexes like the one Brown died in, with names like Canfield Green Apartments, Oakmont and Northwinds.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, this small corner accounted for 18 percent of all serious crimes reported in Ferguson between 2010 and August 2012. It area also accounted for 28 percent of burglaries, 28 percent of aggravated assaults, 30 percent of motor vehicle thefts and 40 percent of robberies reported in the city, the Post-Dispatch reported.

It is far from the more affluent communities and the walk-able, quaint downtown, with its farmer’s market, trendy restaurants and parks.

“When I first moved here in 1999, I lived over in the apartments behind the Quick Trip, Oakmont,” said Vickie Rainey, who brought her two youngest children to Saturday’s rallies. “I moved here from East St. Louis, because I thought it was a nice, safe community.”

Three years after moving to Ferguson, Rainey relocated into a house in the neighboring town of Florissant, although she still works in Ferguson.

“A lot of people say it is different now,” Rainey said.

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