A Visit to Ferguson, MO

The Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, some friends and I decided to visit Ferguson, Missouri, which, unless you have been living in a cave recently, has seen more than its share of attention, mostly negative, since the Michael Brown shooting last August 9.  My friends and I wanted to support the community and its businesses by visiting and spending time and money there.

I was born in northern Illinois, but have lived most of my life in the St. Louis area (other than a few adult years in Chicago, Boston, and Dallas). My husband and I raised our five daughters here, and we believe that it is a great place to raise a family.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is made up of East St. Louis and 4 counties in Illinois as well as the city of St. Louis and 6 counties, including St. Louis County, in Missouri.

Those of us who live here identify three distinct areas in St. Louis County – North County, South County, and West County. The city of St. Louis is not considered part of St. Louis County and is usually referred to separately.

I grew up in West County, but currently live “across the river” in the city of St. Charles. Ferguson, Missouri, is a little less than 15 miles from my home and is located in North St. Louis County and is made up mostly of middle class working families.

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Ferguson Brewing Company in Ferguson, Missouri, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Lunch with some of my twin mom friends. Between us, we have 17 children ranging in age from 3 to 31 years.

I have a lot of friends who live in Ferguson or who have lived in Ferguson or the North County area. One of my twins, who is in college, has a sorority sister / roommate who is a life-long resident of Ferguson.

Our entire community is hurting as the images of the Michael Brown death and subsequent protests and riots have brought a lot of (mostly negative) attention to our region. Watching the news, you would think that the entire community has gone down in flames, and that the civil unrest is widespread and all-inclusive. I have other friends who won’t even consider driving to North County due to the media coverage and the fear it has generated. They fear for their lives even though not a single life has been lost as a result of the protests. As I posted on Facebook the day I visited. “Not scary. Not scared.”

The friends and people I know who have connections to Ferguson and North County are proud to live there and are understandably upset by the negative portrayal of their hometown. Many of us who live in the surrounding areas are also upset.

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Photo courtesy of Parisa Faramarzi. Painting colorful murals of hope on the boarded up buildings in Ferguson, Missouri, over Thanksgiving.

My daughter’s roommate currently lives in Ferguson with her sister and her mother. Her father, who passed away a few years ago, and mother were dedicated to the city of Ferguson and built a successful business there. She loves Ferguson. They never once considered leaving Ferguson or their home even during the height of the rioting which they could hear from their home close to one of the two areas of the city targeted by the rioting, looting, and peaceful protests.

At lunch, one of the women who owns a home in Ferguson and whose children go to school in the district talked about all of the businesses and people who are dedicated to the community. She named names and businesses. She knew my daughter’s roommate’s family. This is a tight-knit community.

Five of the other women have also either lived in Ferguson or in a community close by. They all have worked in Ferguson or nearby. They talked about the good things that happen in the community and area.

After lunch, I toured the city of Ferguson and parts of Dellwood with my friend, Kim. She works throughout the region and has had several jobs in Ferguson, one as recently as last September. She owned her first home in Ferguson. She grew up in North County.

Kim drove me through the two commercial areas that have been hit hard by the violent actions and which have dominated the news. There have been about a dozen buildings in Ferguson and the adjacent community of Dellwood that have burned down. A few more have suffered some incidental damage. Many buildings house businesses that remain open, but have their windows boarded up.

Trust me. They look bad. Very bad.

Those that took advantage of the volatile situation and looted and rioted did not help the community or the situation. Almost every business in Ferguson has taken a financial hit because of this situation.

That, however, is not the entire story.

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I  Ferguson signs dotted the community before Michael Brown’s death. Driving through the commercial and residential areas, these signs are in abundance.

Ferguson is and has been a racially and ethnically diverse community of mostly middle class families. It is a community full of pride. It has an award-winning Farmers Market. The city has been around since the 1850s and has a long history. The library, which is on the stretch of road that includes some burned out buildings, remained open during the unrest and served the community’s children when the schools were closed. The community is served by four school districts and includes three private schools, and a branch of the county community college. The University of Missouri – St. Louis is adjacent to Ferguson. One major business, Emerson Electric, is located in Ferguson and several other major business are also located nearby including Boeing and Express Scripts.

In other words, this is a strong community made up of real people who care about it and each other. People who live and work together.

The restaurant, where we ate, was full. Full of families and friends. Full of people of various ages, colors, and ethnic groups. It was closed for one day, but has done a booming business since then feeding both law enforcement personnel, protesters, residents, and visitors.

There are businesses boarded up next to businesses that are not boarded up. There are businesses that have been damaged next to businesses that have been untouched. Some of the damage seems totally random.

Next, we drove through many residential areas. We drove by Kim’s first home, and, as we drove I was struck by a few things. First of all, not a single home in any neighborhood that we drove through had any damage from any rioting or looting. Many of these residential areas and homes are directly behind the commercial buildings that were damaged. People in the neighborhoods were out raking leaves and putting up holiday decorations. They were going about business as usualI  Ferguson signs were everywhere. If you drive through a residential area in Ferguson, you would not know what has been happening there.

There are many businesses, adjacent to damaged ones, that were untouched. The Target parking lot, which continued to house media vans on Thanksgiving weekend, was untouched and not boarded up. If you were in that parking lot, you wouldn’t realize that one of the damaged businesses was less than a block away.

We drove down the street and by the spot where Michael Brown was shot and lay for over four hours on that August afternoon. It is a narrow residential street. There are homes along the street up to the front of the apartment complex where he was shot. None of these homes or apartment buildings were damaged in any way. The buildings are about 40 feet from where he lay. That is not far. Look out the front window of your home to the middle of your street and imagine seeing a person laying there for four hours bleeding onto the pavement.

This struck me because the aerial video led me to believe that Michael Brown was walking down a major thoroughfare and was blocking traffic. The aerial video also blurs the image of the body of Michael Brown which the residents, including children, saw as he lay most of the time uncovered and unblocked from view. No wonder people were upset.

In fairness, this residential street is a major street into several neighborhoods. It is not a thoroughfare to any businesses unless you are leaving the neighborhood. Should Michael Brown have been walking down the middle of the street? No. But how many times have I driven into a neighborhood and had to wait for kids to move out of the way because they are playing street hockey or ball or just taking up space? How many times do I drive down a driving lane in a shopping center and have to wait for people, who are walking down the center of the aisle like it is a sidewalk, to move to the side so I can pass?

In my humble opinion, the aerial footage and reporting just have not depicted this scene accurately.

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Photo courtesy of Michelle Evans Photography, November 30, 2014. The holiday sign in the old town area of Ferguson, Missouri.

My first marriage was to a police officer. In 1977 he was directing traffic at the Hussmann Refrigeration plant during a worker strike. In an act of anger, one of the union workers struck him with his car. He was not badly hurt, and I worried about the police officers every day, many of whom I knew personally. I also sympathized with the union workers who had gone without a contract for many months.

I believe that there is enough room for empathy, sympathy, and understanding for all sides. Law enforcement has a tough job. Law enforcement is not all bad. Rioters and looters are not the same as peaceful protesters. Most of the actions in the community and around the country in light of other, similar cases, have been peaceful. But even peaceful protests have been criticized by people who do not want to try and understand the cause or even hear about it.

There is a huge middle ground here, and we, as a community and a country, need to try to find that middle ground to make a better place for everyone to live. I am disappointed in so many people who are choosing to take a polarized position on the situation in Ferguson (and other similar situations that have come to light since) which, ultimately is a reflection on the issue of race in America. That seems to be the way of the world these days. Pick a side. Have polarized opinions. Make hateful comments about those whose opinions differ from yours.

I had a conversation this past weekend with a young man who is in the military. He said that while he doesn’t necessarily understand or support the cause of the people who are protesting, he absolutely supports their right to peacefully protest.

My sister had a conversation with a friend of hers who lives in Wisconsin. Apparently, the pastor of her church had a sermon about Ferguson which alluded to the community being destroyed and how wrong it all was. I was glad that I was able to share my experiences with my sister who could then share them with her friend to let her know that what they are seeing and believing is not the entire story.

I’m glad that I made the effort to visit Ferguson to learn more about what is happening there. What I learned is that there’s almost always more to the story, and the truth almost always lies in the middle. I, for one, am going to make more of an effort to seek additional information and truth before passing rash judgments especially on the volatile issues of the day. My hope is that others will do the same.

Note: I have disabled the Comments section for this post. I am not interested in opening up yet another discussion resulting in polarizing comments and accusations. I believe that there is a middle ground. I believe we can support our police and law enforcement, and at the same time try to understand how we can improve race relations not just in our area, but in our entire country.

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