By Koran Addo, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — Brian Fletcher loves Ferguson. He brags about it, he rattles off historical facts about it and, as the former mayor, he feels the urge to stick up for the city and its people.
And right now, he says people are tired of the constant protesting, tired of the noise, and tired of feeling intimidated.
That’s the exact reaction many protest leaders said they are hoping for.
It’s been more than two months since Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Since then, protests have sprung up around the region, spreading most recently to downtown St. Louis, St. Louis University, Webster Groves and also the Shaw neighborhood, where crowds have gathered to protest the fatal shooting of teenager Vonderitt Myers Jr. by St. Louis police.
In one incident, video cameras captured a heated back-and-forth between protesters and Cardinals fans outside Busch Stadium.
But the epicenter of the unrest is in Ferguson, and Fletcher, like many others, says it’s hard to remember what it felt like to live in Ferguson before the city became infamous.
On a typical day in Ferguson, there’s a persistent group of picketers along South Florissant Road, in front of the police station, holding signs with slogans like: “Justice for All,” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Ferguson resident Jill Hatcher said she used to drive by and honk her car horn in support.
“Now I speed by with my windows up and my doors locked,” she said.
Hatcher’s fear stems from the events at night, when protesters sometimes march in the street drumming and chanting into the early hours.
Aside from the noise, there have been shots fired, attempted arson, and some instances of looting.
Those are some of the reasons Fletcher started the “I Love Ferguson” group that is putting up yard signs, selling T-shirts, and raising money.
So far, the group has raised more than $50,000 that Fletcher said will be donated to businesses affected by looting.
“People around here were sympathetic at first. People wanted to know why was he shot. And why so many times,” Fletcher said. “There wasn’t a problem until people started feeling scared to go to the brew house and scared to go to the farmers market.”
Fletcher, who is white, also acknowledges that persistent racial tension underlies Ferguson’s new reality.
“I think quite frankly, Caucasians are intimidated by protesters who think that if they can make Caucasians feel uncomfortable, they can change the rules. And it’s working,” Fletcher said.
A number of black people also feel uncomfortable. Pam Peters has lived in Ferguson for 37 years.
“I don’t like the way people are talking about Ferguson now,” she said. “We are good people. We are tired of the protests.”
Peters said she doesn’t think Ferguson will ever go back to how it was before Michael Brown’s shooting.
“We just have way too many young people who are trying to stir the pot,” she said. “If police stop them for no reason, that’s not right. But, not to beat a dead horse, some of them bring it on themselves.”
Marie Ellison, who is white, said she supports the protests.
“When we’re talking about injustice, this should be everyone’s cause,” she said.
But Ellison acknowledged that she’s worn out.
“It’s hard to sleep. It’s hard to eat because of all of this going on around us,” she said. “No matter who you are, if you’re from Ferguson, you’re now looked at as the bad guy.”
Among people on both sides of the issue, many agree that a turning point came on the night of Sept. 23, when the Ferguson Fire Department responded to a small fire outside the Whistle Stop custard shop.
The century-old Whistle Stop building, a former train depot, is one of Ferguson’s historic landmarks. Law enforcement reported that someone had doused the outside of the building with gasoline.
Nearby, at Ferguson Optical, manager Tim Marrah said he’s surprised about the racial tone the protests have taken. He said one of Ferguson’s charms is that it’s always been a place where different races mixed.
Of the protesters, Marrah said he doesn’t see a need for them to leave, but rather, weed out the troublemakers.
“The protests don’t need to go anywhere. This thing needs to be resolved. The violence and the property damage is the problem, not the protests,” he said.
Down the street, at Natalie’s Cakes & More, owner Natalie Dubose said she supports people’s right to protest, while acknowledging the same unrest has essentially dried up the foot traffic that she relies on along South Florissant.
Business really took a dive when the farmers market down the street shut for the season earlier than usual because of the protests.
At one point, Dubose said she went two weeks without a single customer.
“I think it’s the perception that Ferguson now has,” she said. “People who would normally come through here now think it’s unsafe. It’s going to be very difficult to get out from under that.”
Ruffina Farrokh Anklesaria, a 12-year Ferguson resident, originally from Trinidad, said she chose Ferguson specifically because of its diversity.
“I didn’t want to stand out in an all-white community,” she said.
Her love of Ferguson, she said, compelled her to write a letter recently urging protesters to be respectful of the community.
“We understand why you are upset. But Ferguson is not the reason. Any problems of racism are wider than Ferguson. They are national,” she wrote. “Please end this in our city. If you must continue protesting this is not the place for Molotov cocktails, abuse of our residents and so on. We are a peace-loving people. Let us work this out please.”
Anklesaria has recently helped organize some community meetings with protesters. She said she thinks there has been progress in alleviating some of the discomfort.
But for some, discomfort is exactly the point. Alexis Templeton, 20, a Ferguson resident for 13 years, has emerged as one of the protest leaders.
“My response to the people who are tired of us is that you’ll be uncomfortable until we stop being uncomfortable,” she said. “We’ve been uncomfortable for years. You’ve been uncomfortable for a matter of days and now you feel it should end. That’s not fair.”
Templeton acknowledged that troublemakers throwing objects, looting stores, and causing other havoc are hurting the cause.
“But you can’t blame all of us because of a few bad apples,” she said. “Just like we can’t call everyone from Ferguson a racist, because they’re not.
“I encourage all Ferguson residents to come out and stand on the side of one of the marches and see that it is peaceful,” she said. “There is absolutely nothing to be afraid of.”
AFP Photo/Joshua Lott
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