After more than a week and a half of questions, destruction and anger, Ferguson, Mo., remains in the crossfire … all while the rest of the world is consistently tuned in, waiting for a powder keg explosion.
The Greater Alton area is no exception, and many local residents say they are heartsick to see the turmoil and violence going on practically in their back yards.
“For as long as I’ve been alive, there has been a deep racial divide in the St. Louis area, and I think the situation in Ferguson is that ugly side of St. Louis finally coming to a head,” says Toni, who grew up in the area before moving away for work.
In what quickly turned into a bizarre chain of events, the killing of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 triggered a backlash by the community toward the police department, which then mushroomed into the larger question of race in America as the incident gained worldwide coverage and attention.
Some are saying the shooting has brought the subject of racism to the surface in a way not seen since the riots in Los Angeles in 1992.
While LaTrisha of Alton agrees with Toni’s assessment of a racial divide, she takes it one step further, saying it reaches far beyond the current battle lines in the St. Louis-Metro East region.
“The continuation of underlying racism and classism in this country is appalling,” LaTrisha says. “It breaks my heart, as the mother of a young black male, to see how the media and the country continue to vilify black men (and) low-income individuals. I pray for Michael Brown’s family, because in addition to grieving, they are further stressed by the civil unrest that’s going on all around them.”
Can a similar situation happen on this side of the river? Godfrey Mayor Mike McCormick says it’s not likely.
“From what I have witnessed here, I don’t see that level of racial tension in the River Bend area,” McCormick said. “I just don’t see or feel that around here, thankfully. From what I understand, the young man’s parents are insulted by some of the conduct going on.
“(Rioting and looting) is not acceptable conduct in any society.”
To ensure the same level of communication breakdown in Ferguson is not happening here, municipalities such as Alton are being proactive. On Monday, Alton Police Chief Jason “Jake” Simmons and members of his force met with Alton’s Coalition of Concerned Citizens, made up of leaders within the black community. The meeting was organized by Fourth Ward Alderman Alice Martin and addressed topics such as minority recruitment plans (many Ferguson protesters have expressed outrage that their predominately black community has a mostly white police force).
“I feel very strongly that open lines of communication are going to be instrumental in moving Alton safely into the future,” Simmons said. “We want our citizens to know that the Alton Police Department is here to protect them no matter their race, sex, national origin or religion. This meeting was just the beginning of that.”
Alton Mayor Brant Walker says Alton was prepared to help if needed, although he was relieved it did not come to that.
"Transparency and communication is always paramount as much as possible," Walker said. "Our police department is working diligently to ensure we have the proper protection involved should anything happen here."
Beyond just the precautions, Walker also feels closing gaps is essential, whether it be matters of race, class, or anything else which could create barriers.
"I think this whole thing is a tragedy," Walker said. "We have reached out to everyone in the community to open up dialogue and make sure we have good communication with all parties involved. We have a good working relationship with most everyone in the community."
Walker and Simmons also attended a meeting in Florissant, Mo., with other area mayors and city leaders to discuss the Ferguson situation and brainstorm on ways to improve relations between police and the community.
"Minority recruiting is one of the issues that came up last night, and that is a big challenge," Walker said. "It is very hard for smaller municipalities with smaller budgets to acquire and maintain good minority candidates, as they are in demand in bigger cities, the DEA, the FBI, and other organizations.
"We are doing everything possible that we can, including job fairs and advertising, to recruit."
Just like the feelings of shock and anger less than two weeks ago, a feeling of hope is spreading throughout the Greater Alton area and beyond.
“Aside from the obvious things to do, such as rebuilding and repairing looted stores, I think recovery will begin with hard work from both sides,” Toni said. “They have to want it, and I think most people in the Ferguson and Florissant area do.”
“As depressing as this situation is, I have also been inspired by the countless acts of compassion for human life by all races of people,” LaTrisha says. “Watching on television doesn’t compare to standing on the front lines and feeling the effects of positive energy that is emitting from all around.
“I have hope for the human race.”
Another meeting will be held in Alton for community and church leaders at noon Monday, Sept. 8, at Monroe Memorial Church, 1823 Belle St. For more information, call Fourth Ward Alderwoman Alice Martin at (618) 462-5665.
Timeline of events in Ferguson crisis:
- Saturday, Aug. 9 – Michael Brown, 18, allegedly steals a box of cigars from a convenience store. He is confronted by police officers and police officer Darren Wilson shoots Brown multiple times following an undetermined degree of confrontation. Protesters begin to gather.
- Sunday, Aug. 10 – A peaceful candlelight vigil for Brown turns into rioting and looting in the streets of Ferguson, initiating injuries and arrests.
- Monday, Aug. 11 – The FBI gets involved. The police begin using tear gas to dispense the growing crowds who gather once again Monday night.
- Tuesday, Aug. 12 and Wednesday, Aug. 13 – Chaos ensues as protests grow more angered and police don riot gear.
- Thursday, Aug. 14 – President Obama calls for peace and justice. Security is turned over to Missouri Highway Patrol, drastically changing the police response to protesters.
- Friday, Aug. 15 – Police name the shooter and release video surveillance of the alleged robbery. Protests again turn violent and looting returns.
- Saturday, Aug. 16 – Gov. Jay Nixon declares a state of emergency and a curfew is implemented in Ferguson.
- Sunday, Aug. 17 – A lack of trust between sides initiates a call for multiple autopsies to be performed on Michael Brown, creating more questions as to what exactly occurred.
- Monday, Aug. 18 – The National Guard is called to Ferguson; 31 people are arrested.
- Tuesday, Aug. 19 – A 23-year-old man is fatally shot by police after allegedly threatening officers with a knife; 47 people are arrested.
- Wednesday, Aug. 20 – U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arrives in Ferguson. Prosecutors begin presenting evidence to a grand jury to see if further action needs to be taken in the death of Michael Brown.
- Thursday, Aug. 21 – Gov. Jay Nixon says National Guard troops will withdraw after two calmer nights of protests. Michael Brown's funeral is scheduled for Monday.
- Friday, Aug. 22 – Missouri State Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson says the streets are continuing the trend of peace. Demonstrations continue without incident.