Patricia Bynes was miked up, standing outside in temperatures hovering in the 30s, waiting to go on television to answer questions as a Ferguson community leader. “I don’t know if I’m shaking because I’m cold or I’m shaking because I’m angry,” she told Al Jazeera America on Monday night.
Speaking after St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s announcement that no charges would be filed against police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Bynes was still taking it in.
“It’s not enough to be angry,” she said. “You have to do something with it. If people want justice, we’ve got to stop this.”
Bynes is the Democratic Committeewoman for Ferguson Township and has been working since August to recruit and train potential leaders and political candidates for local elections. Ferguson is unusual in that it has municipal elections in the spring, and she’s canvassing to have new faces on the ballot come April 2015.
For many people in Ferguson and in greater St. Louis County, the news of the grand jury's decision was not a shock. Many expected Wilson to be cleared. But the reality has jarred the community and sparked violent protests and vandalism along Ferguson’s streets, with police and demonstrators clashing into the cold, wintry night.
Bynes tapped into the momentum created by the protests that have continued outside Ferguson’s police station on South Florissant Road for more than 100 days after Brown’s death, to keep people energized about becoming involved in local politics. That, she says, is the first step to any real kind of change.
“This shows that there’s more than just the police who are involved. Everybody in this country needs to know who their county and state prosecutor is, who their police chief is,” she said. “If you’re angry, you need to be going to meetings and ask for a police board review. I pray to God I have so much work to do so I can’t spend any time being angry.”
Like Bynes, Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal has been working on political change at the community level. She heard the news about the grand jury decision while she was at home tending to a sick relative. “I was very idealistic and hopeful that we were going to get an indictment, and even if it was one of the lower level charges, I was very hopeful,” she said. “I’m concerned I may have constituents that end up dying either today or in the coming days because of the violence and the anger and the excessive use of force.”
She plans to file legislation in the Missouri state Senate soon that would include changes such as requiring police officers to wear audio and video recording devices while on duty, significantly narrow Missouri’s definition of appropriate force and have a third party on hand whenever tear gas is deployed in a protest environment to observe its effects.
“We have to be very open about race relations. This is now our race war,” Chappelle-Nadal said, adding that she urged protesters not to engage in violence. “Don’t destroy our homes and our backyards. We just don’t need to experience any more destruction. This community has never won.”
That intensity to change the laws is something Michael Wesley Jones, who works at the county executive office in St. Louis is hopeful may be one positive result out of this crisis. Channel surfing to watch footage of the protests in between President Barack Obama’s address to the nation, he said Ferguson has become more than just a town. Now, he says, it’s a metaphor for race relations in America.
“The act of resistance and continuing to strive really creates the change, not ‘What day are we going to win? Are we there yet?’” he said. “To me, the most heartening thing about all of this around the Ferguson movement is how many really young people are coming to this to work on issues of social justice.”
Jones has been working in local government for over three decades and is retiring at the end of this year. “A real challenge for a region like St. Louis is that it doesn’t have the leadership necessary to address the challenge at large,” he said. “I would be hopeful it does, but in my 30 years of public life I’ve seen no evidence of leadership that’s up to a moment like this.”
Virvus Jones, a former county comptroller, was on vacation in Hawaii and communicating with his daughter back in St. Louis, checking that their neighborhood was safe. “In all honesty, I can’t tell people not to be upset, because I’m upset and everyone I know is upset,” he said. “It’s beyond Ferguson. It’s about civilian control of the police department in this country.”
Residents, he said, must be the ones to oversee and enforce police authorities, not the police departments themselves. “We should be looking over your shoulders,” he said, regarding the use of body cams. “You have a gun. Why shouldn’t we? We should be looking at anyone who has the power of life or death — they should be supervised more.”
He, too, believes that a change in political leadership is the only way to improve things in Ferguson and in the rest of greater St. Louis and Missouri.
One person who has observed the younger people and the community leaders firsthand even before Brown’s killing is Chris King, the managing editor of the St. Louis American, the leading African-American newspaper in the area. King previously voiced optimism about political change, particularly in the lead-up to the November elections, and the possibility that black Democrats would unseat the white Democrat in favor of a conservative Republican, to send a message that they would no longer be ignored as a political entity. The move gained traction but failed to give the Republican the vote, leading the Democratic candidate to become the next county executive. King had been excited about the possibilities.
When contacted on Monday night, he was home and sounded dejected. “I’m just disgusted,” he said. “It just reinforces the huge divide between the peaceful protesters, who captured the world, and the rage and frustration in the community.” He was meant to get to Ferguson to track the demonstrations but wasn’t sure he would go.
Later, watching the president address the nation calling for calm, he tweeted, “Obama: never less hopeful or convincing.”