FERGUSON, MO. — At 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the traffic in Ferguson, Missouri was almost nonexistent and the sidewalks near the Hunan Chop Suey on West Florissant Avenue were clear. The only indication that life in this small Midwest town was out of the ordinary were the windows: boarded as if preparing for a hurricane. “Open” was spray-painted on the plywood in big yellow letters on the planks covering the Chinese restaurant.
Ten days ago, less than a mile from this scene, 18-year old Michael Brown was walking down the middle of Canfield Drive when Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed him. Brown was an unarmed black teenager, Wilson a white 6-year veteran officer.
On Tuesday morning, volunteers lined the sidewalks, trash bags in hand picking up the mess left behind the night before. They headed toward Ferguson Avenue where just twelve hours earlier the intersection was being broadcasted like a war: Police clad in Pentagon hand-me-downs patrolled West Florissant Avenue Monday night spraying protesters with tear gas. Thirty one people were arrested and two were shot in the chaos.
This scene has replayed itself night after night in Ferguson, but come morning, the same volunteers can be seen walking up and down West Florissant cleaning their streets of the violence which plagued them the night before. If night is the time when Ferguson looks like a town divided, then the day is its opposite, when the people of Ferguson come together.
On Canfield Drive near where Brown was killed, there is a makeshift memorial in the middle of the road. Cars swerved around it as they drive through the residential neighborhood.
Propped up by two orange traffic cones is a sign that reads “Hands Up Don’t Shoot Aug 9, 2014 R.I.P. Michael Brown.” A few yards away draped on another traffic cone is an Albert Pujols jersey. Scattered between are rose petals, candles and stuffed animals left by people who have visited the site over the past ten days.
On Tuesday, there is a small crowd on the sidewalk near the memorial including Rev. Karen Anderson of Ward Chapel A M E Church in neighboring Florissant, Missouri. She is part of a group of local clergy and counselors camped out at the site from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. to pray with visitors and offer guidance to those affected by the shooting.
“We’ve had people on the ground every day,” Anderson said. “Some on the front lines, some in the neighborhood, some meeting to try and strategize. People in the community have been involved from day one.”
Faith leaders have had a significant impact on the narrative coming out of Ferguson. Hundreds of local clergy have joined peaceful protests to help defuse the hostile environment on the streets of West Florissant. Another reverend, Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ, used her church to host a public forum inviting more than 400 faith leaders and people from the community to discuss the shooting of Michael Brown and the fallout. The Old South Church in Boston, home to 1,000 origami cranes passed between congregations around the country affected by tragedy, will be passing on the tradition to Blackmon and the Christ the King church following their efforts in Ferguson. Countless other religious leaders in the community have been highlighted during the coverage of the Brown shooting as they work to strike a balance in a town deeply divided by the ongoing tension.
“The circumstances for it [the coverage] are really sad, and I wish we had not gotten the attention that way,” Rev. Anderson said. “What I do hope is that a young man’s life won’t be in vain, that it changes the social context of St. Louis, that it tears down some barriers and divides, and I do believe the national and international attention is what’s going to cause the city to change. I think without that, no change will happen.”
Here we aren’t thinking about the protests and we aren’t really talking about it
Tucked in a back room of the Ferguson Public Library Tuesday afternoon was Carri Pace, the art teacher at Walnut Grove Elementary School.
Pace was surrounded by kids, parents and teachers all bidding for her attention as she scrambled around the event she organized to give students a place to go while school remains cancelled in Ferguson. She paused in the middle of her interview to ask another teacher headed back to Walnut Grove to pick up more dry erase markers and white boards. “Those would be good to give kids to do spelling, math that kind of thing,” Pace said.
Unrest in Ferguson caused class cancellations for three area school districts Monday and Tuesday. Students remain out of the classroom in the Ferguson-Florissant School District where Pace teaches until Aug. 25 at the earliest.
“I showed up to school on Monday, I knew it was closed but I just kind of came out with hopes of finding a way to help, and people really couldn’t direct to me to anything besides cleanup efforts,” Pace said. “So I just came to the library and asked if I could get in touch with teachers and families from our school to bring them here, and they said absolutely.”
Pace and a handful of volunteers stood outside the library Monday with signs that read “School Closed, Bring Your Students Here” which attracted about a dozen students to the library. By word of mouth from parents and others in the community, more than five times as many kids showed up the next day. “We are hoping to have twice as many tomorrow,” Pace added.
Around the area, local teachers and school faculty have had to refocus their August plans following the impact of the Michael Brown shooting on their community. The Riverview Gardens School District handed out free pre-packed breakfast and lunch to students and parents who rely on the meals at three local elementary schools Tuesday. The school plans to do the same for the rest of the week. Around 200 teachers, principals and faculty from the Jennings School District joined the cleanup efforts Tuesday as class cancellations kept them out of the classroom for the third day in a row.
“Here we aren’t thinking about the protests and we aren’t really talking about it,” Pace said. “I think it’s nice to just have a break from it, especially for the kids. It’s a conversation that needs to be had, but here it’s a little bit of a break from it and a little bit of normalcy.”
As the sun began to set in Ferguson, Former Mayor Brian Fletcher sat inside the Corner Coffee House on S. Florissant Avenue. Behind him, close to 3,000 ‘I Heart Ferguson’ yard signs were stacked neatly against the wall.
“I sent an email to about 75 people I know asking them to help donate money to create the signs,” Fletcher told ThinkProgress. “I said we have a battle on our hands, and we need to fight it, because if we don’t, no one will.”
Fletcher and the friends of Ferguson campaign raised more than their $5,000 goal to print the 2,000 yard signs he initially intended. Though they are giving them away for free, donations are being accepted to help fill the requests from people all around the country. Any leftover proceeds will be given to local businesses damaged from the ongoing violence in the community, including the Corner Coffee House where a few days earlier looters broke through the front door and stole the cash register.
“I think in a matter of two to three days the story will be about us loving Ferguson instead of about the violence and the protests,” Fletcher said.
While Fletcher collected donations in the Corner Coffee Shop, West Florissant Avenue was quarantined by police preparing as another night began to fall over Ferguson. Protesters remained peaceful as they paced the sidewalks volunteers cleaned up earlier in the day. Down the road, the Ferguson Market and Liquor Store had written “Thank You For Your Love And Support — Ferguson” on the plywood covering its windows.