FERGUSON — Raychel Proudie didn’t want her city to be the punching bag for America’s rage. Not again.
Word was out that Gov. Mike Parson was minutes away from activating the National Guard. It was 9 p.m. Saturday night in front of the Ferguson Police Department. Proudie, a Democrat who represents the state’s 73rd House district, was on her phone working sources, fretting about the possibility that a peaceful protest would descend into violence.
Proudie was upset after a line of officers in riot gear made a brief show of force, lining up in front of the police department. She grabbed a bullhorn and stepped up on a wall and shouted down at protesters.
“Everyone knows that in Riverview Gardens, and the St. Louis Public Schools, those children do not have the technology to learn and do their (expletive) work, and do you know why they didn’t?” she yelled. “Because school districts are funded by property values. So if you’re going to come in the (expletive) and burn all this (expletive) down, and drop all of this property value, that’s why they don’t have laptops. That’s why they don’t have all that (expletive).”
She pointed out that just hours before, in tony Clayton, many of these same protesters had acted without violence.
“You all walk through Clayton, where the Justice Center is, where (black people) are locked up — for nothing! — and didn’t touch a (expletive) thing!”
She implored those gathered around her to direct their anger at the proper targets. Bring it to Jefferson City. Bring it to the governor’s mansion.
“And for all of you white allies, who live in (expletive) Shrewsbury, who live in Ladue, who live in Wentzville … don’t come (expletive) our (expletive) up and go back to the lap of luxury!”
Minutes later, her fears became reality. Ferguson writhed.
Leaders, residents and business owners in this beleaguered north St. Louis County community are asking people who are protesting George Floyd’s death to turn their rage elsewhere. They say Ferguson is a different place than it was in 2014, when it became an international example of racism and police brutality after the death of Mike Brown by the gun of then-Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.
And while some say the city has a long way to go to achieve the ideals of the Ferguson Commission, it’s no longer the face of oppression and racism.
Minutes after Proudie spoke, a crowd marched toward the police department and some began pelting the building with rocks, water bottles, Roman candles. A young bearded man with a hammer, identified by many as being a young man from Jefferson County, smashed out the windows. Someone threw fireworks into a broken window, sparking a spectacular indoor display.
Dozens of cops in riot gear came from behind the adjacent fire department and began firing pepper spray in all directions. TV cameras captured another white man trying but failing to light a Molotov cocktail in front of a venerable Ferguson business, Vincenzo’s restaurant.
Many people, including Proudie, would later say that the real troublemakers were young white men who don’t live in Ferguson but just wanted to stir it up with the police without regard for a struggling city that is 70% black.
Some protesters yelled for vandals to stop. “Don’t touch Cathy’s! Don’t touch Ray’s,” one yelled. “That’s a black owned business!” And as a vandal tried to throw rocks into Vincenzo’s, a woman yelled, “That Italian restaurant is good!”
But the roughly dozen people running out of Beauty World with armloads of stolen goods were black and their conversations suggested they knew the neighborhood well. “Foot Locker!” one of them yelled, trying to organize a break-in.
The protests returned Sunday night, even though there was no formal call to action. Again, there was damage and tear gas. The windows of Ferguson Brewing Co., which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, were smashed.
“It’s getting tiring,” owner Rob Wiesen said on Monday. “I know we’ve made a lot of improvements but there is still a lot as a nation we need to work on. I agree it would be a good idea to take it to Clayton or Jeff City or somewhere where changes can be made on a state level.”
Dr. LJ Punch, an associate professor of surgery at the School of Medicine at Washington University, and an anti-violence activist, is a Ferguson resident. Punch didn’t attend the Saturday protest but came on Sunday to help clean up the mess.
“Ferguson is like a memorial, a birthplace, a Mecca, a gravesite,” Punch said on Monday. “It means something to people. I live less than a mile away from the police station and I was driving through earlier in the afternoon on Saturday and I was seeing the people coming from out of town taking their picture at the ‘Welcome to Ferguson’ sign. Clearly, there were a lot of people who came because of that history.”
“The world has seen Ferguson on fire, right?” Punch said. “So it feels like with people gathering in Ferguson, the flashpoint, it just burns faster.”
And Punch said Ferguson remains a target because the progress on reforms in the region has lagged. The Ferguson Commission, set up to recommend systemic change after Brown’s death, said last year that just five of 47 signature calls to action had been achieved.
“I don’t think anybody gets off the hook for not going through and doing the equity work that the Ferguson Commission requested,” Punch said.
Among those who would like to see the protests move on from Ferguson is James Knowles III, who is about to end his third and final three-year term as mayor.
He asked a reporter on Monday, “Why is it that every time something happens in America, you call me? I mean, not just you, but every media person in America? Ever since (Floyd) got killed, I’ve been getting calls from everybody. CNN, Fox, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal, to talk about this. You know, ‘Talk to us about this. You’ve been through this before. What is that mayor doing right? What is that mayor doing wrong? How is this like your city?’ And I’m just like, ‘You know, I’m not going to talk about it because I don’t really want you to mention Ferguson at all.’”
Colter Peterson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to correct the title for Dr. Punch.
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