Our Ferguson, 'after MB' Our Ferguson, 'after MB'

A protester, a cop, a new councilman, a child: Views of their town one year after the death of Michael Brown

Story by Moni Basu, CNN
Photography by Wayne Lawrence for CNN

Jerome and Cathy Jenkins, at Cathy's Kitchen, one of their two restaurants

The way Jerome Jenkins sees it, Ferguson's history now falls into three periods: before MB, during MB and after MB.

Jenkins, 48, is most interested in the "after Michael Brown" period, especially as the first anniversary of the teenager's shooting death approaches. It's a complicated "after," tinged with anger, resentment, sadness. In black Ferguson, he says, there's still hopelessness. In white Ferguson, disbelief.

"The white community still doesn't want to admit how bad it is," Jenkins tells me as he sifts through the books of his family's two downtown restaurants, Cathy's Kitchen and J & C Barbecue and Blues. The latter opened in March, when broken and burned buildings still stood as unhealed wounds of the tragedy that unfolded here. Most have since been bulldozed or rebuilt.

Jenkins believes his eateries represent the best of Ferguson. Yeah, the gumbo and pulled pork kick ass. But most of all, his restaurants are places, he says, that bridge the race and class divides outed last August 9 by the shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer.

"This was the only happy spot in all of Ferguson when things went down," he proclaims. "This was the only place where blacks and whites came together."

I tell him I can't vouch for the "only" part, but it's true that every time I've been inside Cathy's Kitchen the lunch crowd has been diverse. Protesters ate here; so did police officers.

That's the case on this summer afternoon, just a few days ahead of the first anniversary of Brown's death. Part of it, I suspect, has to do with how Jenkins and his wife, the eponymous Cathy, embrace everyone. They both grew up in predominantly black Gary, Indiana, but chose Ferguson as their new home more than two decades ago. They value community, and their restaurants attract people from all walks of life.

Everyone in Ferguson sought sanctuary during the darkness last fall, when the air was volatile and filled with bitterness. They sought physical and emotional refuge in churches, in homes, at the library or the community center. For many, Cathy's Kitchen was a haven, with its cardinal (as in baseball) red walls, checkerboard tiles and the soulful sounds of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin wafting through the speakers.

On this day, a busload of folks from nearby Washington University are ending their "tour" of Ferguson at Cathy's Kitchen with plates of blackened tilapia sandwiches, jerk wings and Memphis-style gumbo. The curious are part of the "after MB" history of Ferguson.

This was where I met so many people during the tumult of the past year. The unrest that began with Brown's death last August stretched through the fall to a grand jury decision in November not to indict police officer Darren Wilson. The events ignited a national conversation on race -- and on policing as other shootings of unarmed black men by white officers were caught on camera or otherwise came to light across the country.

Ferguson itself became a symbol -- both positive and negative. So on this trip to the St. Louis suburb, I asked some of Ferguson's residents to take me to the places they feel are emblematic of their city a year after Brown's death.

Charles Davis, at his eatery Ferguson Burger Bar and More on West Florissant Avenue

Charles Davis chose his own eatery, Ferguson Burger Bar and More, located on West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson's black business corridor. It's the street that intersects with Canfield Drive, where Brown was shot, and incurred the most damage from looters and vandals. The morning after the grand jury decision was announced, West Florissant was battered and burned as though bombs had fallen from the sky.

Davis, 48, and his wife, Kizzie, 36, opened the Burger Bar one day before Brown was killed. Not once through the unrest did they close their doors.

"I wasn't worried then and I am not worried now," Davis says. "People have said: 'Thank you for not boarding up, for being a beacon of light.' "

A few days ago, a white woman hugged Davis, who is black. "You inspire me," she told him.

Business has been slow but steady. Davis is adding a counter and more tables. The problem, he says, is that his customers are mostly from other areas. The people who live in the nearby apartments off Canfield Drive and West Florissant tell him his prices are too high.

That says something when $7.39 is considered a lot for a sandwich and fries; those people are also unlikely to patronize a new Starbucks planned down the road. Still, Davis salutes anyone making an attempt to open in Ferguson.

When he was Michael Brown's age, Davis had a job at an auto lot in nearby Jennings and drove a different car every day. He got stopped by the cops -- many, many times. Things needed to change, he says. And he thinks now they will.

"I don't think it can ever be business as usual in Ferguson."

That is the power of Michael Brown, say those who took to the streets after August 9.

Gina Gowdy, at the new community center at Greater St. Mark Church

Gina Gowdy, 36, held an upside down American flag in front of the police department the night of the grand jury decision in late November. The black community was in distress, she says; Brown gave them vision.

"Mike Brown brought all of us together," she says during an afternoon session for kids at a new community center at the Greater St. Mark Church. A few months ago, there was nothing here except an abandoned brick building and a parking lot with ragweed bursting through the crevices. Now Gowdy volunteers here -- sometimes seven days a week -- to make sure kids from low-income families have somewhere to go and something constructive to do with their time.

She asks kids in Ferguson what they want to be when they grow up. A lawyer? A flight attendant? A musician?

"I want to be alive," one kid told her.

That answer broke Gowdy's heart. "We have to have change," she says.

She sees change happening in Ferguson "after MB," though not fast enough in her estimation.

She, like almost everyone else I spoke with, pointed to new faces in the city's administration as signs of progress.

More than 67% of Ferguson's 21,000 people are black but when Brown was killed, there was only one black city councilman. The mayor was white, as were the city's top managers.

April elections brought big change. Half the city council is now black, as is the police chief and city manager. Among the new faces is Wesley Bell, a 40-year-old lawyer who serves as a municipal judge in nearby Velda City and is now a councilman in Ferguson.

New councilman Wesley Bell, at the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College in Ferguson

Bell took me to the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College in Ferguson, where he teaches criminal justice. His office is decorated with St. Louis Cardinals figures, a Dominican Republic souvenir and a Barack Obama bobblehead doll.

"For me it starts right here," he says. "When I was hired, the college said: 'We don't care about you publishing. Get involved with the students.' "

So he set about expanding the minds of Ferguson's youth.

"The easy part is saying what they can be," says Bell, who grew up in the area. "The hard part is convincing them they can realize their potential.

"Ferguson," he continues, "is a smaller example of a much larger problem regionally and nationally. You can see the disconnect, the disenfranchisement of young, poor people. We assume people come out of the womb knowing how to navigate life. We are all products of our environment."

Bell promised voters in April that he would help implement community policing; that he would make sure the city put a greater emphasis on working fairly with ordinary people.

A Justice Department probe found that officials in Ferguson repeatedly pushed police to increase city revenue through tickets that resulted in a disproportionate targeting of black people.

The city, says Bell, is now in compliance with state laws.

Bell says it's not a matter of hoping for change anymore in "after MB" Ferguson.

"It is going to happen."

Cat Daniels, at the new memorial for Michael Brown

The most obvious marker of Ferguson's tragedy lies on Canfield Drive, near the spot in the two-lane road where Michael Brown's body fell to the ground. Cat Daniels, 53, stands by a permanent plaque etched into the sidewalk; it replaced a makeshift memorial of flowers, stuffed animals, photographs and balloons.

Daniels takes stock of her community -- one that she says is no longer asleep.

"We were lulled into a false sense of security. We had our eyes closed. Mike Brown opened them," she says. "Ferguson sparked a revolution but we have a long way to go."

Daniels is a local caterer who became widely known as Mama Cat after she began cooking for young people on the streets last fall. They were out there for hours, she says. Someone had to feed them. Now she's planning to cook for an anniversary dinner in honor of Brown.

When I first met her in November, Daniels told me her generation had dropped the ball and that the gains made by the civil rights movement were at risk of coming undone. She beamed with pride that a new generation of black men and women were out there demanding fair treatment.

"I'm cautiously optimistic about Ferguson," she says in her new Black Lives Matter T-shirt that she brought back from the movement's July meeting in Cleveland.

"I've learned about humility and patience. Lots of patience," Daniels says. "The only way to combat problems sometimes is through love."

Love seemed nowhere to be found when things heated up in Ferguson. Anger and frustration took over, the residue of which still taints the air.

Police Officer Jill Gronewald, 36, started her job two weeks after Brown's shooting. She heard a lot of obscenities hurled at the cops; she felt the hatred.

Ferguson officer Jill Gronewald, across from the protest area near the city's police department

"The protesters hate this uniform no matter who's in it," she says. "Am I aware color exists? Absolutely. But when I go out there, I don't see color. There is a perception we are not listening. But we are."

The attitudes in Ferguson reaffirmed Gronewald's beliefs in the need for community policing. She wants very much to be Officer Friendly.

On a recent Sunday she was patrolling Ferguson's January-Wabash Park when she came across an older African-American man fishing with his grandson. He had just gained custody of him. Gronewald did not ask about the circumstances that resulted in the boy not being with his parents. She cherished the moment: a man with a child, enjoying nature, finding peace in something as simple as catching catfish.

It's her idea of how everyone should be in Ferguson "after MB."

On the last Tuesday of July, I meander into a monthly council meeting at City Hall. The chamber is packed; the agenda covers everything from a liquor license renewal for Mimi's Subway Bar & Grill to a proclamation on the 50th anniversary of Ferguson Optical.

A handful of people have shown up wearing white T-shirts that say: "FERGUSON MAYOR MUST GO."

Mayor James Knowles III drew ridicule last year from activists after he declared that his city was not racially divided. His sharpest critics want him gone for leading a city that the Justice Department found was unfair to black residents. But not enough signatures have been collected to mandate a recall vote.

Knowles stands by his words and deeds. He says he has played a role in creating a community that is more engaged, and that it's unfair to judge his years in office by one single incident. He points to the revitalization of the downtown corridor as an example of progress and how Ferguson became an island of sorts in a surrounding sea of failed cities.

Mayor James Knowles III, at a restored farmhouse

Knowles was present the day the city announced the permanent marker for Michael Brown. "This event will forever be a part of Ferguson's history -- but it is important that the community moves forward," he said then.

Last week, he took me to an old farmhouse in Ferguson that was restored to its historic glory by its owner, Mike Jawahir. Knowles held his wedding rehearsal dinner there but the reason he has chosen this place as a symbol, he says, is to showcase Ferguson's roots.

"This house was on the verge of collapse," he says, his green City of Ferguson polo shirt matching perfectly the vast lawn. "And now look at it. We've got to take all the dilapidated buildings and make them beautiful again."

He wants me to know that he just as well could have picked the Canfield Green apartments where Michael Brown was killed. The point is, he says, that he is committed to rebuilding Ferguson.

Tony Daniels, at Ferguson Heights Church of Christ

Tony Daniels was the same age Michael Brown was when he was killed. Now, at 19, he is living the life that Brown's family had wished for their teen.

Daniels carries a steady 3.0 GPA studying business administration at Mizzou, shares an apartment with three friends and wonders if there is a future for him in the Ferguson area. Probably not, is the answer. Daniels would love to move to Atlanta and get into the entertainment world.

A year ago, Daniels found out about Brown's shooting as word spread lightning fast on Twitter. "That could have been me," he thought. He went to the streets, the candlelight vigil, the protests. On this day, he takes me to Ferguson Heights Church of Christ, where he has found solace for the last nine years.

It's a place where he can cut loose, dream of the future, dare to hope.

His friends at college ask him why protesters burned Ferguson down. They don't always understand.

"I don't condone what happened, but I get it," Daniels says. "Why are the police killing us?"

He hopes the next generation of black youth won't give up on their dreams.

Christopher Wheat, at a store that sells "I love Ferguson" merchandise

Christopher Wheat, 11, certainly isn't giving up. Raised by a black father and white mother in Ferguson, Christopher is fascinated by airplanes and Lego robotics. Race was never an issue in his life until after Michael Brown's death. Then he heard a protester threaten his dad, hurl profanities at his mom. A boy at school asked him, "Why is your mother white?"

His Lego class instructor, Mike Brandon, and his father, Ken Wheat, are his heroes.

"He's giving kids something more to do," Christopher says of Brandon. "Otherwise I might be home on my iPad. This way I learn to use my mind more."

Christopher's emblem for Ferguson is a downtown store that sells "I Love Ferguson" merchandise designed to raise money to help businesses that lost revenue in the unrest. His instructor and father both volunteer there. So does Christopher.

I ask if he likes living in Ferguson, despite everything that has happened here over the past year. He nods his head vigorously, yes.

"Most people in Ferguson act like Mike," Christopher says. "They are generous, giving and nice."

Not everyone feels this is true in Ferguson. But Christopher's faith in people stays with me as I leave this place one more time. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." That is the hope of Ferguson "after MB."

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