Ferguson, Missouri – It’s been a harrowing few days. But as Ferguson starts picking up the pieces and looking to the future, many residents here are emphasizing the positives in light of the holiday.
“I’m more thankful this Thanksgiving than I’ve ever been in my life,” said Marilyn Spencer, who for decades has run the Spencer Bakery, a local institution, as she greeted customers with hugs. “We’re safe, everyone’s all in one piece, nobody got hurt. I’m blessed.”
Still, for some, especially in Ferguson’s black community, celebrating will feel awkward in the wake of an episode that has roiled emotions and left many here with a sense of deep and abiding injustice. A grand jury decided Monday not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the August shooting of Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed local teen.
For Brown's family, in particular, the holiday is a reminder that one seat their table will stay empty. “I don’t even want to think about tomorrow being Thanksgiving, it’s just Thursday,” Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, told MSNBC’s Rev. Al Sharpton Wednesday night while chocking back tears. “I don’t even want to celebrate because I can’t.”
Others around Ferguson felt an echo of that sentiment.
“Of course, we’re extremely sad that Michael Brown’s parents don’t have him to celebrate with them,” said Sheila Young as she shopped at a Schnuck’s supermarket down the street from the Ferguson Police Department, which was the scene of angry protests earlier this week. “But there’s still a lot to be thankful for, and hopefully this creates a dialogue of change that’s much needed in this community. My mom used to say: 'You wake up on this side of the ground, it’s a good day.’”
Another shopper, Holly Ellis, agreed.
“It’s kind of hard to get into Thanksgiving with everything that’s been going on in our community. But I just meditate and say, you have to keep going. Because I got kids, and things to be thankful for,” Ellis said.
And for others, it’s really no different from any other year.
“I’m living, I’ve got my daughter being a senior, and I’m gonna go celebrate my mom’s 60th birthday,” Stan Marian said as he shopped.
In the lead up to Thanksgiving, Michael Brown Sr. joined his pastor, the Rev. Carlton Lee, as the two walked door-to-door handing out dozens of turkeys to members of their community. The following day, the slain teen’s father and 10 more family members went to Lee’s house of worship, Flood Christian Church, and were baptized.
“I was thankful to be with him," Lee recalled. Michael Brown Jr. was supposed to be baptized the week that he died, the reverend added, but the 18-year-old never made it.
Now more than 100 days later, Lee’s church lies in ruins, burned to the ground Monday night in violent outrage expressed over Brown’s death. Still, out of the destruction, Lee said there was still room for hope of a new recovery.
“Ferguson will be like the phoenix and we will rise to an all-time high,” he said. “I think people are more appreciative of life, of humanity. I’m very hopeful for a recovery.”
At the I Love Ferguson store downtown, which sells t-shirts and other items to raise money for local businesses that have been damaged, volunteer Sandy Sansevere said they’d seen a spike in donations totaling around $7,000 since Monday night’s violence.
"We do have things to be thankful for: We have our lives, we have our families, we have each other."'
“We do have things to be thankful for: We have our lives, we have our families, we have each other,” Sansevere said. “And people are being so generous right now to the community of Ferguson. It is so uplifting.”
Not that Sansevere had any sympathy for people causing violence. “We would like them to get all those people that are breaking the law, and throw them in jail and don’t let them out,” she said. “It’s just scary, because these people don’t care.”
Emily Davis, who was helping clean up outside Ferguson City Hall, which suffered damage Tuesday night, said recent events, despite the violence, had made her feel more connected to her town than ever before.
“People are just paying attention to their community in a way they never had before,” said Davis." People are asking: 'What can we do to make this a stronger place for everyone who lives here?'” she added. Davis said the all-consuming nature of what’s been happening might make it hard to connect over the holiday with family from out of town.
“At the moment, we sort of have blinders on, and we sort of live and breathe Ferguson,” she said. “And our families who don’t live here have other things to talk about … I don’t think they really understand.”
As for Spencer, the bakery owner, she said she was overwhelmed with expressions of support, after being woken in the night by loud protesters outside her store.
“A lot of people are coming in to see if we’re alright,” Spencer said. “The phones been ringing like crazy – old customers calling because they’ve seen it and they want to see if we’re OK.”
“In a crisis it does bring people together,” Spencer added. “But I don’t want to go through this again.”