SHAFAQNA – The unmistakable signs of healing are beginning to dot Ferguson, even the small area of this St. Louis-area suburb that was the center of international attention for three weeks. But those in the community know they’ve got a long way to go.
Some merchants say business hasn’t come close to recovering from the aftermath of the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white Ferguson police officer.
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.” 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 LoveFerguson” 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.”
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.”
On Saturday morning, there was a muted police presence as hundreds of people gathered in the area that for days after Brown’s death was the epicenter of nightly protests. Johnson posed for selfies with people attending a rally to remember Brown and draw attention to what they say is just the beginning of a movement.
The rally started at West Florissant Avenue where it meets Canfield Drive, the street on which Brown was shot and killed Aug. 9 by white Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. A grand jury is considering evidence in the case, and a federal investigation is also underway.
Rally attendees, including children, wore shirts bearing the ubiquitous slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot,” while others carried signs or banners.
St. Louis attorney Jerryl Christmas said the rally is meant to keep Brown’s death and the resulting turmoil and racial questions “in the forefront of America.”
“We’re just three weeks into this, and this is only the beginning of this movement,” Christmas told The Associated Press. “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. The tragedy is this could have happened anywhere.”
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, led the crowd in a march. She and other family members, including Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., encircled the makeshift memorial in the middle of the street where Michael Brown died and bowed their heads during two different prayers — one by a Muslim clergy member, the other by the Rev. Spencer Booker.
“We know that his life is not going to be in vain,” Booker, with St. Paul AME Church in St. Louis, said through a megaphone. He then suggested to applause that Brown’s death would produce new police policies.
“We know you’re going to even the score, God. We know you’re going to make the wrong right,” he said.
Minutes after the gathering at the memorial, a downpour drenched the marchers.
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 in 1999. “We’re not selling anything.”
The good news for Yaacoub is the support from the neighborhood — 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.
Former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher has started the group “Friends of the City of Ferguson,” which has raised more than $13,000 so far to help businesses repair the damage.
Down the street from Yaacoub’s market, Ferguson Burger Bar & More owner Charles Davis took over the restaurant Aug. 8 — the day before Brown was killed. He kept his doors open throughout the unrest, and he’s still waiting to see what a normal week will look like.
“Ferguson is strong,” the 47-year-old said. “It will go back to normal. We’re still going to be here after America’s moved on to something else. We’re strong and we’re going to only get stronger.”
AP reporter Jesse Holland in Ferguson, Missouri, contributed to this report.