Three years later, entrepreneurs help Ferguson slowly move from the spotlight while under watchful eye of the feds.
BY DOUG MOORE
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH / TNS
FERGUSON, Mo. – The mayor would like for the questions to go away. But three years later, they persist.
James Knowles III typically gives an answer befitting a good ambassador to a city thrust into the international spotlight after a White police officer fatally shot a Black teen, Michael Brown, and set off months of protests and violence.
He talks about a city moving forward.
Gone are the White police chief and the White city manager, replaced by African-American men, moves that reflect the makeup of a city where more than two-thirds of its residents are Black.
The seven-member council, including the mayor, now has three African-American members, compared to one on Aug. 9, 2014, when Brown was killed.
Many changes, focused on improving police department hiring and training and court reform, came as a result of a Justice Department investigation and led to the city signing a consent decree with the federal government to adjust or face legal action.
Still too slow
Joshura Davis, a Ferguson business owner, says the city is not progressing quickly enough.
His insurance office sits on West Florissant Avenue, and he and his wife, Lisa, attended the opening last month of a new job training center across the street, on the site where a QuikTrip once stood – one of at least two dozen buildings burned to the ground during the unrest following Brown’s killing.
Small business owners in that part of town formed the Ferguson-Dellwood West Florissant Business Association, which Davis heads. He has 45 businesses on his email list.
Not going anywhere
Davis wanted to create a united front “to let St. Louis know we are here for the long haul and all-in to develop this side of Ferguson that was really devastated.”
Today, businesses in the corridor continue to struggle. Davis, who runs Best Insurance Agency and Always Love and Care, an in-home health care service, said business is down 50 percent since before Aug. 2014 – something he hears from others in his association.
During a panel discussion at the National Urban League conference in downtown St. Louis last month, Davis made an emotional plea to corporate and elected leaders on the stage and in the audience.
‘We broke it’
“We do not have five, 10, 15, 20 years to rebuild West Florissant Avenue. We don’t have that kind of time,” Davis told the crowd at a session titled “Ferguson: From Anger to Action.”
It was moderated by Michael Neidorff, CEO of Centene Corp., which opened a $25 million service center in Ferguson last year, and Michael McMillan, head of the local Urban League chapter.
“We have enough resources in St. Louis to fix it,” Davis said. “We broke it. We can fix it.”
Davis knew he would have a captive audience and wanted to tell them that challenges are real and the clock is ticking. He is heartened by the new Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, a partnership of the Urban League and Salvation Army.
“It is really huge,” Davis said. “Before the empowerment center, every day 34,000 cars would pass by and see the ground zero site and all those vacant lots. Those were visions of the past. The empowerment site is a solid vision of the future that lets people see that someone is interested, someone is committed and the community is coming together.”
As the city continues to work with the federal government, a nonprofit has taken up the task of addressing the findings of the 16-member Ferguson Commission. It was appointed in November 2014 by then-Gov. Jay Nixon to offer specific recommendations for “making the St. Louis region a stronger, fairer place for everyone to live.”
The nonprofit, Forward Through Ferguson, has before it the 189 “calls to action” recommended by the Ferguson Commission, which officially completed its work in December 2015. The commission labeled 47 of its recommendations as “signature priority” items.
They include creating civilian review boards at the municipal and county levels; consolidating law enforcement agencies, municipal courts and police training centers; and eliminating incarceration for minor offenses.
Forward Through Ferguson, in partnership with the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, created a report that was made public at the Urban League’s national conference. It serves as a history lesson, of sorts, for what happened in Ferguson.
“While the Ferguson Commission and many of the efforts connected to it arose in response to a specific situation, what happened in Ferguson didn’t create that situation,” reads the report.
“It revealed difficult truths that had been the reality for many people for many decades. Deep truths that were present and manifested almost 100 years ago in the East St. Louis race riots that sparked the creation of the Urban League affiliate in St. Louis. The underlying issues that led to these situations exist today, to varying degrees, in every metropolitan area in America.”
The Rev. Traci Blackmon, a member of the Ferguson Commission, was on the Urban League panel where Davis made his plea. She told the crowd that when she speaks around the country, the message is clear:
“There is a Ferguson somewhere near you.”