About ten years ago I volunteered to serve as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and was assigned to St. Louis, Missouri. The most important thing missionaries are taught is to love the people they are sent to teach and to serve. I wasn’t always a very good missionary, but I think I was really good at that part. I loved the people of St. Louis. I love St. Louis. I think it’s one of America’s best kept urban secrets. It’s a city with a rich history, stunning architecture, and a people who understand community and what it takes to be “a village.”
I only lived in St. Louis for a short time, but tonight in Ferguson I felt all those feelings of love and community all over again. The local police department has been relieved of duty, and the state highway patrol has taken over, to much acclaim. Today there are no tanks, no tear gas, no riot gear. Captain Ron Johnson, the man assigned to take charge by Governor Nixon, instead marched with protesters, shared stories about his experiences with police as a black youth, and mingled among the crowds.
I saw two St. Louis city police chiefs among the crowd. One of them, Major Sam Dotson, was confronted by an angry protester who was once arrested down the street for jaywalking. The officer listened, smiled, and within a few moments the crowd that gathered erupted in laughter. The other, Major Ronnie Robinson, loudly announced that the protests could continue all through the night. He then grabbed a neon pink protest sign, and held it up to cheers. This is what leadership looks like.
The news of Mike Brown’s murder has been hard to process this week. For my wife Sara, it was a rage inducing injustice. Following the news of continued police aggression and hearing racist comments at her job didn’t help. We decided that we needed to join the protests in Ferguson today to relieve some of the anger. When we arrived, first at a small gathering across from the Ferguson police department, Sara began to cry. A young black man walked up and asked her if she was okay. She told him she was so angry about what happened, about the murder, and she just needed to be there to join the community in their grief. He cheered her up, told her everything was okay now because we were standing together as brothers and sisters.
That sentiment followed as we drove to the QuickTrip on West Florissant, where the crowd was five times larger and a cacophony of car horns drowned out most conversations. We walked around, assessed the damage of the riots. “There’ was so much anger here,” Sara said, referring to the torched facade of the QuickTrip. But that was not the scene now. The crowds were backed away from the building, but occasionally people would wander over to it. It’s standing, now, as a monument to the pain and terror that the town has experienced this week. But the terror has subsided. In front, there was a little girl drawing on the pavement with chalk. There were chalk drawings everywhere, some of them hateful messages directed at the police, most of them messages of peace and mourning. But the image was profound.
And that’s what’s happening now that the police have lifted their steel boots off of the rights of the people in Ferguson. Now that they’ve shown real leadership, and now that the police are listening to the anger and frustrations of the people, the attitudes have calmed. Now that they are able to protest peacefully without threats from police, the mood is lifted, almost celebratory, but still somber. Tonight, Ferguson feels like a different place. It’s a beautiful community, and not at all what you’d expect after seeing the green-tinted warzone images of Wednesday night.
There’s still a lot of justified anger. There will not be justice until Mike Brown’s murderer is put on trial. But tonight, Ferguson is no longer a city under siege. Tonight feels like a victory because the people have reclaimed their community, and with their liberty restored they can begin to heal.