The killing of Michael Brown shattered an already tenuous trust between citizens and the establishment in Ferguson, Missouri, and it will take much longer to fix than the broken shop windows on West Florissant Avenue.
All over St. Louis County, not just in Ferguson, demonstrators march and chant for changes. For equality in police departments. For justice regarding Michael Brown’s killing. For an end to the militarization of police.
They don’t trust the police anymore, and, judging by the police reaction to the early demonstrations the police don’t trust them either.
“They will change the rules, they will make up rules, they will use any excuse to arrest you if they want to,” a street legal adviser says during a protestor orientation meeting at a nearby church. “But there are rules you can follow to protect yourself.”
He advises everyone to stay out of the streets, to always try to comply with officer instructions, stick with a buddy, and always be moving. He then passes out sharpies for everyone to write a phone number on their arm. It’s a number for a legal center set up to help people arrested while demonstrating.
At the same orientation, another woman, who asked not to be identified by name, puts some cloak and dagger parameters on the discussions in the room.
“This is a safe place, but we all need to be a little mindful of our conversations,” she said. “We’ve been raided by police more than once here,” she said. “We are pretty sure we know what they took, but we don’t know what they may have left behind.”
As the meeting continues there are several mentions of the media distorting the truth, not telling the real story, and just printing what this group is calling false accusations from police.
Minutes later, this reporter was asked to leave that building.
“We want to build a safe place here,” she explained. “You may be cool, but the media has been very aggressive. People don’t need to be worried about everything they say being printed, and I don’t know you.”
Even on a peaceful night the broken trust owns the streets.
It’s not just on West Florissant either. At an artists’ collective meeting mid-day Saturday, it becomes clear that the reasons for this breakdown extend far beyond the recent deployment of tear gas, flash bangs, and MRAP military vehicles.
“I won’t get the same treatment someone else will!” said local poet Shea Brown. “I have neighbors that won’t talk to me, police that are always staring at me, and it’s not just not that I have to fear for my life every time I walk out the door.”
“When this is over and everyone goes home, who is going to protect us? Who is going to police the police?”
The point resonates. It gathers a wave of nodding heads, and more speakers repeat the sentiment.
The police have failed us. The police are not protecting us. They are putting us in danger. They are killing us.
As the conversations and demonstrations continue, the narrative of they versus us is probably the most prevalent. It is one against the other, separated with clear lines, and it appears that trust is the only thing that will dissolve them - a reinstitution of trust.
And people are trying.
On West Florissant, Charles Davis takes orders and passes out smiles at Ferguson Burgers & More. The four-booth burger and shake shop is one of the few businesses on the block with intact glass, and stays full throughout the night and the day.
Itt is visited by police, by journalists, by photographers and demonstrators, and, in the late afternoon, but a particularly put-together white family.
It’s Missouri state Attorney General Chris Koster. He has stopped in with his wife and daughter. He orders some food and steps outside with Mr. Davis to chat and take pictures.
Koster doesn’t have to be there. But he’s trying to be a part of the entire state, a part of the neighborhood affected by tragedy. The same can’t be said for local prosecutor Bob McColloch, who is handling the case. But Koster is there. He’s there with his family to be seen, to listen, and to try to build that trust again.
He’s not the only authority figure making the effort.
Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the man who took over policing West Florissant and nearby Canfield after the disastrous attempts by local police, is walking up and down the street among a few other officers and some reporters.
He and his escorts are in standard blue uniforms, with no extra armor or weapons. They circle the block on foot, stopping to chat with demonstrators and business owners. A few times angry citizens confront them, but, on this day, the situation doesn’t escalate, the police just walk away.
In the face of what has come before, the efforts are small. But they are something, and they are being noticed.
Even at protestor orientation, among the people who have seen and experienced the worst of one of this week, there is a hope, and even a slight expectation of calm.
“We did ok last night,” one organizer said, “We really hope that can continue. Things have calmed down a lot.”
And at the artists’ meeting on Cherokee Street, a white photographer asks that white people at the meetings try not to dominate the conversation.
“We need to make sure the voices of color are heard,” he said more than once.
On the second, time, a black man replied, “We are.”
An uncommon reply to an uncommon request. But maybe a start towards trust.
To be continued.