By Jim Salter
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
FERGUSON, Mo. _ Hundreds of people converged on Ferguson on Saturday to march for Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a white police officer three weeks ago to the day. His death stoked a national discourse about police tactics and race, which the rally’s organizers pledged to continue.
At the same time unmistakable signs of healing are beginning to dot Ferguson, even the small area of the St. Louis-area suburb that was the centre of international attention after protests erupted over the shooting of Brown.
Businesses along a stretch of West Florissant Avenue that were victimized by looting are replacing boarded up windows, with signs out front reading, “Open For Business,” although merchants say business hasn’t come close to recovering from the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Brown. People who have been too scared to take their kids out of the home are milling about once again. A barbecue joint nearly torn apart hasn’t been fully repaired, but an outdoor grill fills the air with a tantalizing smoky aroma.
“Look at those signs over there,” Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson said as his SUV drove past a row of tidy ranch-style homes, all with “I Love Ferguson” signs in their front yards. “A few days ago those signs would have been ripped up or thrown in a trash can or painted on. And they stand today.
“That is definitely symbolic of marching down the road toward solutions and a better tomorrow.”
On Saturday, Brown’s parents and other relatives, led a peaceful march down Canfield Drive to a makeshift memorial that marked the spot where Brown was shot Aug. 9 by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.
“We know that his life is not going to be in vain,” the Rev. Spencer Booker of St. Louis’ St. Paul A.M.E. Church said into a megaphone, standing in the middle of the street amid candles, placards, stuffed animals and now-wilted flowers. “We know you’re going to even the score, God. We know you’re going to make the wrong right.”
Brown’s parents _ mother Lesley McSpadden and father Michael Brown Sr. _ encircled the memorial with other family members during prayers, including one by a Muslim clergy member.
Hours later, hundreds of protesters again gathered in front of the suburban police department and fire station, blocking the road. Fiery speeches by way of speakers mounted to a car gave way to another march, with chants of, “If we can’t have it, we’re shutting it down.”
Some lobbed angry insults at a line of Ferguson officers and state police who stood guard at a taped-off section of the city parking lot, but the numbers of protesters dwindled to double digits by late afternoon.
Wilson, a six-year police veteran, has not been charged. A St. Louis County grand jury is considering evidence in the case, and federal investigators are sorting out whether Brown’s civil rights were violated.
There was a muted police presence Saturday during the march, which began on a West Florissant Avenue stretch that became the nexus of nightly protests _ some contentious and violent _ and looting in the days after Brown’s death. Johnson, whom Missouri’s governor put in charge of security in Ferguson, was there, at times posing with rally attendees for selfies.
Saturday morning’s gathering included tailgaters and people hawking T-shirts memorializing Brown or featuring the slogan, “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” _ a phrase that reflects what witnesses have said Brown did in surrender before being shot. Police have said the shooting happened after a struggle between Brown and Wilson in Wilson’s patrol vehicle, though authorities have said little else, citing the investigations.
“We’re just three weeks into this, and this is only the beginning of this movement,” said Jerryl Christmas, a St. Louis attorney who helped lead Saturday’s march and others in the past. He’s intent on keeping Brown and the resulting turmoil and questions “in the forefront of America.”
“We want the president to come here. He remarked that he didn’t have a strategy for ISIS and Syria, but we need a strategy for urban America,” Christmas said. “The tragedy is this could have happened anywhere.”
Ferguson, once a hardly noticed suburban St. Louis community of 21,000, has raised new concerns and questions across the U.S. about how police interact with the black community, as the immediate aftermath of the shooting was looting and rioting met with a police response of tear gas, military-style vehicles and police dogs. The police action in those initial days drew so much criticism that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon stepped in and appointed Johnson and the highway patrol to take over security on Aug. 14.
Johnson, 51, who is black, has more at stake in Ferguson’s rebound than a typical police officer _ he’s lived just outside of the town most of his life.
Many of his friends and acquaintances have been brutally honest: One man told him he has been broken by 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death and the events that followed. Another man who has run a business on West Florissant for two decades said he didn’t know if it was worth it to reopen.
“But I went by the store the other day and I saw him fixing it up,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing greater than the will to withstand.”
Along West Florissant Avenue, Sam’s Meat Market & More had two signs in the front of the market. One read, “Our Prayers Go Out To The Michael Brown Family.” The other, “Now Open,” was tacked to plywood where a window used to be.
Its owner Mohamad Yaacoub, is not certain he’ll ever get all of his customers back.
“Many of my customers are not from Ferguson and they’re afraid to come back because of the violence,” said Yaacoub, who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in 1999. “We’re not selling anything.”
The good news for Yaacoub is the support from the neighbourhood _ people dropping by with best wishes. One small boy offered to donate a dollar. Yaacoub took the money, and gave the boy candy in return.
AP reporter Jesse Holland in Ferguson, Missouri, contributed to this report.