Voices from a city on edge: Ferguson in black and white

Veteran staff writer Ernie Suggs has been reporting from Ferguson, Mo., since Friday. Suggs, who has reported for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1997, often covers civil rights issues. He has witnessed first-hand the almost nightly violence breaking out in Ferguson and is writing about the community and some of the underlying causes of Michael Brown protests. AJC subscribers can watch his video and read updated reports at our premium website, MyAJC.com.

FERGUSON, Mo. — On several occasions this week, people have described Ferguson as two distinct communities.

A white one, that operates on its own in the downtown area and old, historic neighborhoods. The one that controls the government and the police department.

And a black one, which operates on its own on the other side of town. The one crammed with apartment complexes, where people say they are constantly harassed by the police.

Racial unrest has torn at this city in the 10 days since a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. On Monday, the day that the National Guard was called in to help quell the nightly disturbances – on the black side of town – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked to a wide array of community members to get their take on their town and its future.

On the police

Ferguson has a 55-member police department. Only three officers are black in a town that is more than 67 percent African-American.

Black resident: "The police are prejudiced," said Phyllis Daughtery, 50, who grew up in Ferguson. "You can't even drive your car in town at night because the police will pull you over. People don't even want to come to Ferguson to visit us because of the police. My kids are scared to go out because of the police. I am ashamed of Ferguson."

White resident: "The police department is just like any other police department," said Chris Shanahan, a white man who moved to Ferguson three years ago. "I have never had a run-in with them. The ones I have spoken to seem respectful. They seem to enjoy the community they work in." On Monday Shanahan was selling T-shirts at the downtown plaza reading, "I Love Ferg."

On the violence

On Sunday night, one part of town exploded with gunfire, Molotov cocktails and tear gas — the worst spasm of violence since the demonstrations began.

Black: "Walking out there Saturday, it reminded me of Iraq," said Diane Lewis, who lives on West Florissant Avenue, in the heart of all the turmoil. "And the police are treating us like terrorists. And this generation is not afraid. It is almost like they are willing to be martyrs."

White: "I don't like it," said J.R. Pickett, 69, a Vietnam veteran. "They got about four blocks from my house last night when they burned down the market. But I am not scared. I am locked and loaded. They don't want to come to my door."

On the looting

Coupled with the violence, demonstrators have caused millions of dollars worth of property damage by looting and vandalizing businesses – all in the black community.

Black: "The only reason we loot is because we don't know nothing else," said Nikola Kea, 43, a mother of four boys. "And this goes back 400 years. These kids are tired. I got four boys and that could have been any one of them. And the businesses have insurance. They gonna get it all back anyway."

White: "People should just let that mother grieve for her son," said Maureen Zeugin, who owns a financial advising company. "Anybody with respect for that family would not be out there looting."

On political power

Ferguson is more than 65 percent black, but the power rests with whites. The mayor is white. All but one city council member is white. The school board is all white.

Black: "We just have to get out there and vote. We don't vote and when we vote we don't know what we voting for," said Aletris Stephens, 59, a disabled Ferguson resident. "Not voting is our biggest problem. That is the only way we can stop this. We should have black officials here."

White: "Anybody willing to stand up and represent — whether they are black, white, Asian or Latino — and do the work, I am fine with," said Chris Shanahan, the man selling the "I Love Ferg" T-shirts on Monday. "The one African-American on the council now, I consider a friend. He works hard and is tireless. He is not disrespected and is a pillar of the community."

On the government’s response

Gov. Jay Nixon on Monday called out the Missouri National Guard to help keep the peace in Ferguson. He said later in the day that the Guard’s mission would be limited to protecting the police command center.

Black: "I don't know about bringing in the National Guard," said Aletris Stephens. "These kids they are gonna be going up against aren't afraid of anything. I hope no one dies."

White: "They need to do something to stop all this violence," said J.R. Pickett. "I was in the military, so I know the National Guard can help."

On the community

Ferguson is a city of about 21,000. Until the shooting death of Michael Brown, it was an obscure middle-class suburb of St. Louis — think East Point or College Park. Many described it, before the shooting, as a nice place to live.

Black: "The community is normally tight-knit," said Diane M. Lewis. "You have a lot of businesses here. A community college. Some nice things to do. But blacks have their own world."

White: "This community has evolved over the years from mostly white," said Dan Cosgrove, who has lived in Ferguson for 60 years and works at a print shop. "Now the black population has grown to make it predominantly black. We've had our scrapes in the past, but we have gotten along. All of this is giving us a bad rap. To say Ferguson is racist is unfair. This was just a terrible incident."

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