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Behind Protests, Ferguson Remains Community in Transition


Standing between racks of tie-dyed “I love Ferguson” tee-shirts, longtime resident Jacqueline Dehmer is proud of her community.

In the year since the shooting death of a black teen by a white policeman rocked this small, central U.S. city, she and about two dozen other volunteers have raised more than $100,000 to rebuild businesses looted during protests by selling Ferguson-themed souvenirs.

“I want people to know about Ferguson, and that we are a friendly, loving community, not at all what was portrayed,” Dehmer said.

See images of Ferguson in transition

Unarmed but suspected in a nearby robbery, Michael Brown’s killing up-ended the St. Louis suburb of 21,000 people.

Merchandise from the 'I Love Ferguson' shop. (Victoria Macchi/VOA News)

Merchandise from the 'I Love Ferguson' shop. (Victoria Macchi/VOA News)

The tree-shaded Canfield Drive, where officer Darren Wilson shot Brown, was a part of Ferguson Dehmer didn’t know. And the problems of young, black city residents weren't on her radar, admits Dehmer, who is white and 76 years old.

But Ferguson resident Kenneth Wheat, who also volunteers at the shop, said he knows his skin color has prompted police to stop him before. It’s also why he’s had a hard time figuring out where he stands in the debates about discrimination and police violence triggered by Brown’s killing.

“At first I was torn with what was going on, because being a black man, I understand,” he told VOA.

When protesters came from outside Ferguson and confronted him and his friends at a local market last year, Wheat said he asked them to leave. They responded with “yelling, screaming, cursing, pushing people," he added.

“All I heard from them were, ‘you’re an Uncle Tom, you’re a sell out,’ and that’s when my decision was made,” Wheat said.

Volunteer

He decided to protect the reputation of his friends, his neighbors, his community.

To do that, Wheat said he got more involved. One way was by volunteering at the “I Love Ferguson” store, located not far from the Ferguson Police Department.

Wheat said he isn't alone, and that to him one example of the positive change in Ferguson is how, one year later, more of the community is getting involved.

For a fifth night, protesters gather along West Florissant Avenue to protest the killing of Michael Brown a year ago, in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 11, 2015.

For a fifth night, protesters gather along West Florissant Avenue to protest the killing of Michael Brown a year ago, in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 11, 2015.

After dozens of protester arrests earlier this week, demonstrations faded by Tuesday evening.

On Ferguson's West Florissant Road – scene of previous clashes between security forces and protesters – scores of young people gathered around cars and sat along curbs in small groups across a shopping strip parking lot. Across the street, police wearing bullet-proof vests chatted among themselves in clusters.

A few times, chants broke out or a protester strayed into the street, but as night feel across the busy thoroughfare, there was little resemblance to the tension of previous rallies.

'Back under the rug'

Another protester also had little confidence deep change is here to stay in Ferguson.

“Everything is going to go right back under the rug, after a week, everything will be right back to normal,” a woman, who declined to be identified, told VOA during a demonstration earlier this week.

“The police is still going to be the same, you'll still have black-on-black crime, white-on-white crime, and whatever other crime, this is not going to make a difference," she said.

While daytime shines light on some of those new storefronts and the change under way in Ferguson a year after Brown’s death, nightfall brings the protests – and the media – back to the streets, and the unwelcome narrative that this place remains a dangerous tinderbox.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.

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