FERGUSON, Mo. – Life in this working-class St. Louis suburb of modest brick homes and low-rise apartments hasn’t been the same since Angelia Dickens’ son tearfully told her, “The police shot a boy.”
Since that news two weeks ago, she has been afraid to leave her apartment at night as protesters clash with police in sometimes violent confrontations. She’s stopped going to her job at a call center after it took two hours to navigate police barricades and street closings to get home.
Walking down Canfield Drive, Dickens looks right and sees Missouri state troopers assembled outside a boarded-up barbecue joint. She looks left and sees media satellite trucks. Ahead, volunteers pick up trash along the commercial district where throngs gather nightly to protest the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white officer.
For the rest of the nation, this is the setting for seeing the angry tensions between young African-Americans and white police officers in predominantly black neighborhoods. Protesters and reporters have flocked here from around the nation.
But for residents, it’s also the place they live. They’re struggling over how to do that, no matter how strongly they feel about the issues being fought over.
“Hopefully I can get up Monday and start a fresh week at work,” said Dickens, 55, who’s turning to charities for help paying her rent and utilities this month. “I’m hoping all this can die down and I can go back on with my life.”
The protests have been peaceful for the last three nights, trading confrontations with police for one-on-one talks with officers about Brown’s death and tactics used during previous demonstrations.
But there’s no question that the lives of the people who live near where Brown was shot on Aug. 9 have been upended by the protesters and the police, and they wonder how much of the disruption will be temporary. Their closest gas station was burned down during looting. Several stores were damaged. Many of the barber shops and restaurants along West Florissant Avenue commercial strip are boarded up to prevent looting.
Dellena Jones hasn’t seen customers at her hair salon shop, where the glass door was shattered by a concrete block.
“If we keep doing this, we are part of the terror,” said Jones, 35.
But elsewhere in Ferguson, a suburb of 21,000 where “I Love Ferguson” yard signs are common, signs of unrest are rare.
The city is the “small, relatively quiet community” about 10 miles from downtown St. Louis where 69-year-old retired social worker Carolyn Jennings moved 30 years ago. Her neighborhood was mostly white then. Now, it’s almost all black, with only a few elderly whites left. Amid the closing of manufacturing plants and decline of property values, white residents moved to more distant suburbs.
These days, Jennings sits near City Hall holding a sign that reads, “Execution by Ferguson police is penalty for walking while black.” All day, drivers honk in support of protesters calling for the arrest of officer Darren Wilson.
Lt. Jeff Fuesting of the St. Louis County Police Department said officers will have to find a way forward with residents who were sympathetic with the protests and were subjected to tear gas in the demonstrations.
“It’s too early to tell how we’ll do that,” he said.
Karon Johnson, 22, moved into a Canfield Green apartment Aug. 5 with his pregnant girlfriend and 14-month-old son, hoping it would be safer than their previous neighborhood. His girlfriend gave birth to a girl the day before Brown was killed in the street, and they returned home days later to what felt like a war zone.
“Helicopters overhead. Police everywhere,” Johnson said, strolling his son. Now his concern is getting the dishwashing job he was interviewing for at Red Lobster. “$11 an hour,” he said.
Angela Shaver, 46, a Missouri Department of Social Services case worker who’s lived in the neighborhood 20 years, normally works with needy and disabled residents who apply for food stamps and Medicaid. She said she has been on stress leave since the shooting, which was close enough to her apartment that she heard the shots.
She’s started writing a journal to channel her anxieties at a counselor’s suggestion.
“I could write a book,” she laughs.
One evening, she looked out her window and saw so much smoke that she thought her building was on fire. After she went outside, she realized it was tear gas coming from blocks away. The next day she couldn’t swallow, her throat raw.
Kris Holt, a 24-year-old rental car business employee, said he supports the protests, but worries they will “create some bitterness” with residents if they continue much longer. He and his wife had to sleep on his parents’ couch one night this week after being unable to make it through police barricades to get home.
“I care about Michael Brown,” Kris Holt said, “but I still have to live.”