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Six months after Michael Brown’s death, is Ferguson still divided?

In Ferguson, residents are still grappling with big issues such as poverty, education, racism and police accountability

FERGUSON, Mo. – For more than 20 years, Mumtaz Lalani has made his living at the Dellwood Market, a convenience store he owns near Ferguson. But now he wonders whether his store, or the city, can survive. 

Since the shooting death of Michael Brown in August, his store's been attacked three times. The nearby strip mall he owns was also leveled. Following the grand jury decision in November not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, more than 180 people ransacked his store.

Boards now replace the broken floor-to-ceiling windows. Scanning the store aisles, Lalani pointed out hanging wires where a security monitor used to be. He turned to a new ATM machine – a replacement for the old one, which was also stolen.

“They wiped out totally everything,” he said. “Whatever they couldn't steal – my computers, my surveillance cameras, my cash register – they just broke it.”

Lalani's nearby strip mall is now leveled.
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Police released a surveillance video in hopes of identifying the people who looted his store, and Lalani said a few suspects have been arrested. But he doesn't expect to recover any damages. 

“What I don't understand is, people say that they want change,” he said. “I mean, what kind of change do you want?”

Six months after Brown was shot and killed by Wilson, West Florissant Avenue, the city’s main business strip, remains a patchwork of small businesses and charred buildings that were set ablaze when the city erupted in protest. These shells of buildings are a stark reminder of Ferguson's lingering, open wounds.

“Maybe [if] he had an actual relationship with the community outside of getting money from the community, that wouldn't have happened," said Darren Seals, a Ferguson activist who's been protesting police brutality since Brown's death, said of Lalani. "…You don't care, that's what happens when you don't care. People don't care about your stuff.”

He added: "To be honest with you, Mike Browns are dying in our city every day. No one cared until QuikTrip burned down.” 

An assemblyman at General Motors by day and a rapper by night, Seals was standing next to Brown’s mother when the grand jury verdict came out. He called the mood in Ferguson depressing.

Darren Seals, right, has been protesting in Ferguson against police brutality in the months since Michael Brown's death.
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“There's so many people are disappointed and so let down and so hurt,” the 27-year-old said. “…I am disappointed in a sense of people taking for granted how important this is. This is a chance to be something in life that means something, to do something selfless for other people, to leave a legacy behind.”

In January, a public meeting aimed at establishing a civilian oversight board for the St. Louis Police Department turned into a scuffle, after Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, and Ferguson Alderman Terry Kennedy faced off.

“Everybody is shouting and nobody's listening,” Lalani said of the meeting. “Everybody's trying to beat up everybody…Why do they have to be so violent? Can't they just calm down and talk this fully?” 

But there are signs of progress. An ongoing Justice Department investigation could prompt changes in how the Ferguson Police Department interacts with the community it’s sworn to protect and serve.

"We anticipate that they're going to come in with some changes that we're going to have to make," said Police Chief Tom Jackson. "Some of them we already are making because they've given us a heads up. We're going to take what they say seriously, and we're going to act on it."

‘This is a chance to be something in life that means something, to do something selfless for other people, to leave a legacy behind.’

Darren Seals

Ferguson activist

April's City Council elections could change Ferguson’s political leadership. Ferguson is about 70 percent black, but Mayor James Knowles and five of the six City Council members, are white. Ferguson Committeewoman Patricia Bynes is helping new candidates campaign, and she hopes there's new appreciation for how important the City Council is.

“The majority of these issues that we were in the streets fighting for and talking about, they're local issues. They can’t help you in D.C. They have to help you in your local city hall," she said. "…The St. Louis region has never really tackled the underlying issues of poverty, education, lack of jobs, racism, racial profiling, police accountability. St. Louis likes to be polite with its racism.”

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