Ferguson residents pause on Thanksgiving to reflect on Michael Brown legacy

On Thanksgiving weekend in Ferguson, protests eased and residents reflected on a highly charged week that saw the worst rioting since the killing of an unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

As protests in Ferguson, Mo., ease residents look back on a violent week and demand change

Church members and volunteers serve up Thanksgiving dinner in Ferguson, Mo., after one of the worst weeks of violence. (Keith Whelan)

Next to the Ferguson Market and Liquor store, where Michael Brown allegedly pilfered a box of cigars on Aug. 9 before being gunned down, a church sign expresses the fervent hope: "May Your Thanksgiving Be Filled With Peace, Love and Harmony."

That’s been in short supply in Ferguson, torn apart by protests which culminated in riots Monday night after a grand jury ruled not to indict the white police officer who killed Brown.

On this American holiday weekend residents began to reflect on a highly charged past three months.

In the kitchen at the Zion Lutheran Church, Tim Williams, a smiling, warmhearted chef, carves up a turkey to serve at the church supper – open to anyone in Ferguson.
In charge of turkey at Thanksgiving dinner in Ferguson, chef Tim Williams is grateful Ferguson is still standing strong. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

He’s black, his best friend Tony Lenaro, also helping out, is white. When Tony lost his banquet business this fall because of the troubles, Tim supported him.

I’m thankful here we are in Ferguson still standing strong, that’s what I’m thankful for.- Tim Williams, Ferguson resident

"I’m thankful here we are in Ferguson still standing strong –that’s what I’m thankful for," he yells across the room.

"He put his hand on my shoulder and he said, 'Hey, we’re going to get through this, it's going to pass,'" Tony said affectionately.

"He told me, 'Things are going to be better for the whole community then its going to be better for all of us'."

That hasn’t happened yet. Some stores and businesses are still boarded up in the suburb of St. Louis, Mo. There’s plenty of anger mixed in with Thanksgiving but a desire for healing, too.

Pastor Rick Brenton pushes aside his pumpkin pie and summarizes the scene in town. He played professional football, then drove a school bus before turning to the ministry four years ago.
Pastor Brenton at Zion Lutheran Church invests in faith and fellowship to heal the wounds of Ferguson's riots and protests. His church hosts Thanksgiving dinner. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

"The last three months the good people of Ferguson have been in a fishbowl. Folks have been coming in here and they feel like their lives have been picked apart," he said, a touch defensively.

"People point to the flaws here and it’s like, yeah, we’re aware of them; we didn’t think they’d be so bad."

The fires in Ferguson were in part sparked by changing demographics and institutions resistant to change.

In the church basement three women sit together enjoying their turkey dinner, the works: white breast meat, mashed potatoes and gravy, dressing and sweet potatoes covered in marshmallow, as sweet as candy.

Erma Miller, a church member, explains.
Dora Chambers lives a half-mile from where Michael Brown was shot. She hopes something good will come of the protests, which have been so stressful. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

"This used to be mostly white out here in Ferguson and then, they had an all-white police force," she said.

Only 15 years ago, that was mostly the case. But as whites moved to other parts of St. Louis County, more black families moved in. Now, Ferguson is two-thirds black.

"The people changed, but the people in office and all that, they just didn’t change," she said.

On the local police force, of 53 officers, only four are black. Only one of the councillors is black.

"I don’t know how you change that," Erma said. "You can’t just take their jobs away from them, but you just should have brought more people in."

Next to her, Dora Chambers is nodding in agreement. She lives a half-mile from where Brown was shot.

"I actually heard the gunshots when he was killed," she said, gesturing around her ears. "I still hear that sometimes."

'People have had years of hurt'

"I just hope that all the protests they’ve been doing, that the powers that be are listening and something good will come of it," she added. 
Erma Miller says the people changed in Ferguson but the power structures didn't. Ferguson used to be majority white, now two-thirds black. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

In Dora’s mind, the biggest change needs to come with police behaviour, racial profiling, she asserts.

"Pulling you over just because you’re black … it’s happened to me. I mean it's just bad, that’s why a lot of people don’t trust them because you don’t know what they are going to do when they pull you over for no reason."

It's the deeply held assumptions, on both sides, which have provoked a lot of resentment.

Erma adds: "It's not that only blacks can police black communities, but there needs to be more diversity".

In policing, politics and the judicial system, they believe.

You use the word fear. I'm in the faith business. I don't know that it's over right now. There are a lot of raw emotions, people have had years of hurt.- Rick Brenton, Ferguson pastor

"We are hoping they are listening and eventually let us know what they are going to do to help change," Dora said. "Well, we’ve all got to change."

Food and fellowship is powerful, but it can’t smooth over the divisive dynamics quickly. Underneath the harmonious gestures this Thanksgiving there is fear that the violent ripples from Michael Brown’s death have not subsided.

"You use the word fear, I’m in the faith business," Pastor Brenton laughs, before drawing more serious.

"I don’t know that it's over right now. There are a lot of raw emotions, people have had years of hurt."

Then the ex-athlete lifts his six-foot-six-inch frame out of his chair, wishes us a blessed Thanksgiving weekend and thanks us for coming to his turkey dinner in Ferguson.

About the Author

Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.

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