FERGUSON, Missouri – Ferguson School Board President Rob Chabot announced Thursday at a community meeting that school will “absolutely” be open Monday after more than a week of violence and unrest that rocked this suburban community outside St. Louis.
“We are prepared for school on Monday and we’re really excited about that,” Chabot said to applause.To the mostly white audience of 300 or 400 packed in the First Baptist Church here, it was a welcome sign of a return to normalcy at an event meant to reclaim the image of a town that has become the center of a national debate over racism and police brutality.
“We cannot let the media define who Ferguson is,” said Brian Fletcher, the city’s former mayor of 28 years who organized the event under the new “I love Ferguson” banner. “We must take back the tone and tell the world what Ferguson has been, is, and will be,” he added.Organizers equipped with a one-page fact-sheet touting positive aspects of the community, from the popular farmers market and the monthly community newspaper to the EarthDance Farm, the oldest organic farm in the state.
The city of just over 20,000 has been invaded this week by satellite trucks and Humvees, but the image on their TV screens is not the one many people here say see when they go about their lives in a city whose highway exit signs and official website call “historic.”
“It seems like people are coming here basically to exploit the situation and ultimately to maybe get a Pulitzer, maybe get their picture on Twitter re-tweeted a thousand times,” Mark DeSantis, a software developer who has lived in Ferguson for 10 years told msnbc.
“Jesus, we are beyond progressive,” Fletcher said after the meeting.
The message of “I love Ferguson,” which Fletcher dreamed up a few days ago to get peoples’ attention, has become a gravitational center for this side of Ferguson. He’s already raising $13,000 and printed 5,000 yard signs, with many more on the way. Any extra money will go to the businesses that were damaged in the unrest.One-by-one, residents came to speak and offer suggestions about how to heal the community and bridge the divide between what many here acknowledged are “two Fergusons” and make the city better than ever.
There were ideas about how to increase the number of city wards in order to add black members of the city council without ousting current members and a proposal for a scholarship program to send young black men to St. Louis Police Academy.
The local veterinarian, whose business was vandalized, suggested the largest-ever single ALS Ice Bucket Challenge right down the middle of W. Florissant Ave, the center of the protests. Another resident proposed a parade. Yet another invited everyone to a concert.
Byron Conley, one of the few black community members to take the microphone, said he wanted police officers to just talk casually to residents more often. But even he wasn’t happy with his town’s image in the national press. “They want to cover what they want to cover,” he snorted.
But the attention also makes Ferguson a place where people joked about how many times they’ve been interviewed on TV. One local pastor said he had done 17 interviews, before leaving to take another call.
It makes a place where James Knowles III, the city’s mayor, gets a roaring standing ovation when he takes the podium, but has to keep his remarks short, because, ”I’ve got to be on Anderson Cooper in just a few minutes, so I can’t be too teary eyed,” he said.
“At least now when people ask you where you’re from, no matter where you are around the country or the world, you won’t have to say St. Louis assuming no one knows what the heck Ferguson is,” Fletcher joked, sending up a loud applause.
Meanwhile, across town, on W. Florissant Ave, the roads are still closed, but the mood is much calmer than on previous nights.There were signs that the anger of the last 12 days was shifting toward political action. At the corner of W. Florissant and Ferguson Aves, right outside the corner store where Brown is said to have stolen cigars, Merdean Gales of the Progressive National Baptist Convention manned a voter registration table, signing up 50 new voters in just two hours.
“The climate of the community has changed,” said Gales. “That was the component that was missing from the movement this week.”
Shortly before nightfall, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill weaved through the sparse crowds, a rose in her hand as she greeted the protesters.
“I understand how upset everybody is and I understand that they want something to happen,” McCaskill told msnbc. “And I understand the perception that state and local governments haven’t historically been fair in civil rights matters.”Speaking to reporters, she added, “I say with a smile on my face that some of you guys need to go home.”
After dark, Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson grew emotional during a group prayer with protesters. Roses lined the center of the street where Brown was slain as residents gathered a vigil around the makeshift memorial at Canfield Green Apartments.
Knowles, for his part, has found himself in the shadow of the other major players in the drama surrounding Michael Brown’s death. Speaking to msnbc, he defended controversial comments he made earlier this week to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that he didn’t feel there were any racial divisions in his city.
“There are a lot of people misconstruing that,” he told msnbc. “The divide is oftentimes that people would talk about is probably more socio-economic, but really we have differences, clearly.”