How Ferguson Can Recover

Advice for a town torn asunder, from mayors who have been there.

Demonstrators continue to gather and protest the shooting death of Michael Brown along West Florissant Avenue on August 23, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. 
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
Aug. 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

Just over two weeks have passed since an 18-year-old man was gunned down by a po­lice of­ficer in the north­ern sub­urbs of St. Louis. After all the protests and un­rest, the streets are fi­nally be­gin­ning to clear, na­tion­al me­dia are pack­ing up their bags and cam­er­as, and Fer­guson, it seems, will fi­nally get some peace.

But as most of the pho­to­graph­ers move out and the act­iv­ists and talk­ing heads pack their bags, they leave be­hind a broken city with deep-set prob­lems and sim­mer­ing an­ger. Two may­ors who have dealt with fal­lout from tra­gedies in their own cit­ies spoke to Na­tion­al Journ­al about how they helped their com­munit­ies heal, of­fer­ing Fer­guson a road map to re­cov­ery.

“There’s still go­ing to be a lot of pain and a lot of frus­tra­tion and nu­mer­ous ques­tions that the cit­izens are go­ing to be ask­ing. And they aren’t go­ing to go away un­til there’s an ef­fort to reach out and try to an­swer those ques­tions,” Au­rora, Colo., May­or Steve Hogan said.

After the me­dia spot­light faded in his town fol­low­ing a mass shoot­ing that tore Au­rora apart two years ago, Hogan said, the com­munity needed to pro­cess what had happened. That’s when, he said, he really need to step up and help his city talk through it. “I think the reach­ing-out part is dif­fer­ent in every com­munity, but it has to hap­pen.”

After the beat­ing of Rod­ney King in Los Angeles and the sub­sequent ri­ots, new May­or Richard Ri­ordan said one of the most im­port­ant things he did was to make a con­cer­ted ef­fort to reach out to lead­ers in the city’s Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity. “One of the things I learned as may­or was to make friends with the top lead­ers in the in­ner city, par­tic­u­larly the pas­tors,” he said. “I think the whites there [in Fer­guson]””there and in the rest of St. Louis””the white busi­ness people have to get in­volved with the black lead­ers and meet with them reg­u­larly.”

But in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math, the most im­port­ant thing is to make clear who is in charge, both may­ors said. “If you don’t have that, it can only turn bad,” Hogan said, now two years out from the mass shoot­ing at a movie theat­er that killed 12 people. “It’s not the part of the job that an elec­ted of­fi­cial ever thinks about un­til it hap­pens, but some­body’s got to do it.”

Right now, Fer­guson doesn’t ap­pear to have a cent­ral au­thor­ity, said Ri­ordan, who be­came may­or of Los Angeles in 1993, after the ri­ots. With so many law-en­force­ment agen­cies and au­thor­it­ies from the state, city, county, and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment work­ing with­in Fer­guson, it hasn’t al­ways been clear who is in charge. That’s go­ing to be a key fix the city needs to make, Ri­ordan said.

“A lot of people are just a little re­luct­ant to do the lead­er­ship,” he said. Fol­low­ing the beat­ing of Rod­ney King and the ri­ots in his city, Ri­ordan worked to­geth­er with the com­munity to form what they called the Com­mit­tee of 100, a col­lec­tion of busi­ness and com­munity lead­ers from across the city’s demo­graph­ic makeup. They met reg­u­larly to dis­cuss on­go­ing is­sues in the com­munity.

Ri­ordan also warned that the lack of lead­er­ship is giv­ing Fer­guson a “ter­rible time” with the press. “If you’re a lead­er, what you want to do is get to­geth­er with all of the oth­er lead­ers””wheth­er it’s the FBI, the may­or of St. Louis, the gov­ernor of the state, the chief of po­lice””you should get to­geth­er and you should all agree on who’s go­ing to talk to the press. You have to be aware of the me­dia re­ac­tions,” he said. “And secondly you should keep your mouth shut un­til you have all the facts.”

It’s no easy thing to see your town in­und­ated with re­port­ers who don’t know its his­tory, who con­flate the en­tire town and its res­id­ents with one par­tic­u­lar and neg­at­ive mo­ment in time. Hav­ing your city’s name used na­tion­ally as a syn­onym for tragedy isn’t any easi­er.

“Maybe [the press] don’t know the back­ground of Fer­guson, maybe they didn’t know the back­ground of Au­rora. But that isn’t their job,” Au­rora’s Hogan said. “So what comes next is an ef­fort over time to make sure that the view six months from now, a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now changes and doesn’t re­main on that one ter­rible, hor­rible in­cid­ent.”

And when one city’s dark side be­comes a na­tion­al fo­cus, a fren­zied press can over­em­phas­ize the neg­at­ives. “The na­tion­al me­dia tore L.A. apart after those ri­ots and at the same time there was a mon­et­ary re­ces­sion and all the na­tion­al me­dia sold L.A. as a city that’s nev­er go­ing to come back,” Ri­ordan said. “But it ma­gic­ally came back. And I felt good.”

But main­tain­ing and re­pair­ing Fer­guson’s na­tion­al im­age should not be the fo­cus now. Hogan said that try­ing to pro­tect the city’s repu­ta­tion in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of a tragedy like the shoot­ing in Au­rora, or the shoot­ing and protests in Fer­guson, is “not only in­ap­pro­pri­ate, it’s wrong.”

“The vic­tims and their fam­il­ies, they don’t care about the repu­ta­tion of the city. The first re­spon­ders who had to take care of whatever happened, they don’t care about the repu­ta­tion of the city,” he said. “You have to lead with your heart and your soul and your feel­ings, but do it in a strong, dir­ect, in-con­trol way. Then over time, you can start to ad­dress the psyche of the com­munity.”

That pro­cess takes much longer. It’s been 23 years since of­ficers in Los Angeles beat Rod­ney King nearly to death. Hogan said that he ex­pec­ted it would be 10 or 15 years be­fore he could truly say that Au­rora had “come back” from the shoot­ing. “I mean, people still talk about Columbine and that was 15 years ago,” he said.

“Au­rora is al­ways go­ing to be men­tioned in the con­text of someone else’s tragedy,” Hogan said. “But if we do our jobs right over those 10 or 15 years, first of all, there will be plenty of op­por­tun­it­ies to have Au­rora be iden­ti­fied in a dif­fer­ent way, in a pos­it­ive way over that time.”

They’re mak­ing pro­gress, a little bit at a time, and that’s all that mat­ters to Hogan. “Cer­tainly, for the fam­il­ies of those who died, it’s nev­er go­ing to get bet­ter,” he said. But more and more he sees his city com­ing back. Some 20,000 people have moved to the city in the last two years, and more and more people are go­ing to see movies at the same Cen­tury 16 Mega­plex where a dozen people lost their lives. Now, even the fam­il­ies of those who were killed par­ti­cip­ate more in com­munity activ­it­ies, Hogan said.

Like Fer­guson, Au­rora is still go­ing through the leg­al pro­cess. Movie theat­er shoot­er James Holmes is sched­uled to go to tri­al at the end of this year, and in Fer­guson, a grand jury is ex­pec­ted to hear evid­ence sur­round­ing Mi­chael Brown’s killing through late fall. More leg­al battles could be on the ho­ri­zon for Fer­guson. That kind of a lengthy pro­cess “res­ults in front-page head­lines at times,” Hogan says.

But even that gets easi­er over time. “There aren’t as many re­ac­tions to those head­lines as there were in the first year. And by ‘re­ac­tions’ I mean people call­ing for men­tal-health ser­vices,” Hogan says. Au­rora opened up what they’re call­ing the Re­si­li­ence Cen­ter in the af­ter­math of the tragedy, of­fer­ing free coun­sel­ing and an open space for all kinds of activ­it­ies, open 24 hours a day.

Los Angeles had a very dif­fer­ent path to res­tor­a­tion. More than a year after King was beaten, the of­ficers re­spons­ible were ac­quit­ted, lead­ing to ri­ots and loot­ing all over the city. Sixty-three people were killed and thou­sands were in­jured be­fore the un­rest settled down.

Un­for­tu­nately, Ri­ordan says, it took an­oth­er tragedy for Los Angeles to truly be­gin to heal. The North­ridge earth­quake in Janu­ary, 1994””just a year and a half after King’s beat­ing kicked off the L.A. ri­ots””tore the city apart in a more lit­er­al sense. The dev­ast­a­tion, Ri­ordan says, really brought the city to­geth­er. “I in­struc­ted the people of L.A.: help your neigh­bor, help your­self, do not worry about city laws or reg­u­la­tions or any­thing, just get things done,” Ri­ordan says.

But there were still deep wounds in Los Angeles, some that still ex­ist today. Ri­ordan, who took of­fice a year after the ri­ots, says that he was in­stru­ment­al in oust­ing then-chief of po­lice Wil­lie Wil­li­ams, the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an to hold that po­s­i­tion. Wil­li­ams had failed to come through on prom­ises to re­vamp the force in the af­ter­math of the King beat­ing.

And Ri­ordan, who is white, con­tin­ued his out­reach to the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity. “When I came in­to of­fice the first day, a bunch of the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an lead­ers asked to meet with me, which I did. I re­mem­ber hold­ing hands in a circle with them and say­ing pray­ers,” he said.

“That helped. But noth­ing was ma­gic­al on its own,” Ri­ordan ad­ded.

Fer­guson is go­ing to need time to come back. By main­tain­ing an open dia­logue with­in the com­munity, of­fer­ing lead­er­ship and cre­at­ing the space and ser­vices for its cit­izens to heal, of­fi­cials can be­gin to re­store the city. But that’s not go­ing to hap­pen overnight.

Hogan gave the same ad­vice to Fer­guson that he gives his own cit­izens. “We can­not for­get and we can­not ig­nore what happened,” Hogan said. “But we do not have to be ob­sessed by it and we do have to move on.”

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