FERGUSON, MO. | The bloody body of a black teen, shot six times by a white police officer, lies in the street for hours.


Police remain quiet for days and then, as protests mount, respond in force. News accounts carry the images:

Police officers in helmets and gas masks and camouflage. Armored personnel carriers rolling through suburban streets. A sniper, prone atop one of them, sighting his weapon at the people gathered in anger and grief.

Rubber bullets. Riot gear. Shields and billy clubs.

Masked looters, Molotov cocktails and a burning convenience store.

Tear gas, smoke bombs, snarling police dogs.

Now violence in Ferguson is coming to end, but people in other cities wonder: Could this happen here?

And if it happened in Jacksonville, how would our city respond to a situation so tense, so angry?


Al Letson traveled from Jacksonville to Ferguson, to see firsthand that city’s grievances and its struggles to right itself.

He’s host of public radio’s “State of the Re:Union,” which looks at the experiences of communities around the country. His hometown, he knows, has its share of problems.

“You know, I think it could possibly happen in Jacksonville,” Letson said.

But he thinks the city — through the efforts of many — is better equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude.

“Being really honest, I think [Sheriff John] Rutherford would handle the situation better than they would here. Say what you want about Rutherford, he doesn’t really run from the press. He gets information out, and Jacksonville has a pretty large black presence in the police department, which is part of what shook people out here.”

The violent unrest in Ferguson, of course, didn’t happen in a vacuum. After the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9, protesters brought up the names of other slain black men, including Trayvon Martin in Sanford and Jordan Davis in Jacksonville.

“This is the straw that broke the camel’s back, when we saw all the other things happening around the country,” Letson said.

Related: Father of slain Jacksonville teen Jordan Davis visits site where Ferguson teen Michael Brown was killed

Ferguson has sparked town meetings across the country. And Jacksonville will have one on Tuesday, at St. Paul Missionary Church of Jacksonville, 3738 Winton Drive.

The Rev. John Guns, the church’s pastor, said he has invited the public to the 7 p.m. event. It will bring together sheriff’s officers and young black men to talk — so that Ferguson doesn’t happen in Jacksonville. He plans for it to be the first of many regular such meetings to help improve relationships between police and the community.

The misunderstanding goes both ways, Guns said.

“Ferguson is about a generation that is mistrusting of law enforcement, and law enforcement that is sometimes not as sensitive and aware of some of the dynamics of this generation,” he said.

Guns, who is African-American, is founder of Operation Save Our Sons, a national initiative to help teenage males succeed — and survive.

Young people, he says, have to know how to “successfully and appropriately” respond, with respect, to authority.

Guns believes there is much work ahead in Jacksonville, but some reason for hope. “I think there is some open dialogue between the powers that be in the community and those in the community,” he said. “That’s why it’s important that we build this bridge between our young people and law enforcement.”


Speaking with Ferguson-area residents, it’s clear that much of their anger and frustration came from how Brown died and how his body was treated.

In the immediate days following Brown’s death on Aug. 9, police and law enforcement refused to answer questions about the shooting.

That silence allowed for a narrative — provided by witnesses at the scene and through word of mouth — to grow.

It’s not clear what the authorities’ investigation into Brown’s death will determine. But many of those in Ferguson believe that after some sort of altercation with Officer Darren Wilson, Brown put his hands up in surrender and then was shot.

Laron Brooks, 27, lives down the street from where Brown was killed. He said if a teen can be shot as he surrenders, then it can happen to anyone. Even his 4-year-old son has asked if police will shoot him.

“They don’t even treat us like people,” Brooks said. “I feel like most of the people who are cops are racists who want to mess up the balance.”

Residents near the protests were upset that Brown’s body was in the road for four hours, while his mother, in tears, pleaded with police to remove her son.

“Which I felt was totally crazy,” Brooks said. “Four hours for a body sitting on the ground for little-bitty kids to come outside and see.”

That fueled anger and frustration, said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant. She helped rally the religious community together after Brown’s death.

Blackmon said she believed the prolonged sight of Brown’s blood running in the street helped to fuel the anger and frustration.

“I know that sounds crazy,” she said. “But we don’t normally see a black man lying in the street with blood streaming out of his body. We don’t normally have to know that he laid there in the street like an animal for four hours. Just think about that.”

Blackmon said the lack of dignity shown to Brown, coupled with the seemingly cavalier and nonchalant way police dealt with the aftermath of the shooting, incensed the large crowd that gathered around his body that Saturday.

Van Jones, former White House environmental adviser, lawyer and activist, said the apparent lack of aggressive investigating by police gave the community a feeling that there was a cover-up. Combine that with the other factors, he said, and you could have an explosion of tension and violence anywhere.

“There is no place on planet Earth that you won’t then have a major problem on your hands,” Jones said.

The disconnect between Ferguson’s largely white power structure and its largely African-American population was on full display when Mayor James Knowles, who is white, said in multiple interviews that there were no racial tensions in his city.

Andrew Tetzlaff, 52, who is white and lives in Hazlewood, a neighboring town, was dismayed by Knowles’ assertion.

“What planet are you living on, man?” Tetzlaff said as he stood among the protesters on Thursday night. “Who is that presumptuous? It’s like I can’t believe a grown-up would say something like that.”

Blackmon, the pastor, said Knowles is in denial and is in over his head.

“If you think there are no racial tensions anywhere in America, not just in Ferguson, than you’re in over your head,” she said.


In Jacksonville, Nat Glover chose his words carefully. As the city’s former sheriff — and its first black sheriff — he made clear he did not want to comment directly on the situation in Missouri.

He knows that in Jacksonville there has been significant distrust among many in the black community toward law enforcement.

“That has a historical component to it,” Glover said. “As an African-American growing up in one of the poor neighborhoods, there was absolutely an absence of trust in the community — and although that was some time back, I think some of that carries over with a number of people.”

Glover said Jacksonville has become more open in its relationship between law enforcement and residents.

Rutherford called that a priority for both Glover and himself. He points to efforts that include sheriff’s advisory councils, outreach to churches, neighborhood watch meetings, community town hall meetings and monthly walks in the community.

“In the middle of a crisis, you’re not going to go out and establish relationships in any portion of this community. We’ve already got to have those relationships established,” he said.

There’s work to do, though.

“We’ve made progress, but we’re not there,” Rutherford said. “We’ve got a long way to go. I understand that. That’s why we still have to be concerned about this.”

State Attorney Angela Corey’s office has been involved in numerous high-profile trials that have gained national attention, including those of George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn, Marissa Alexander and Cristian Fernandez.

That attention can present challenges that the public — and the media — sometimes don’t fully understand, she said. Much misinformation is floated, she said, and authorities often have their hands tied in how they can respond.

“Getting that initial information out is good,” Corey said. “The dilemma for us is anything that could jeopardize the investigation, or anything we’re not allowed to release by law.”

Jacksonville has made good strides responding toward concerned citizens, she said, but authorities can go just so far.

“I’m unsure why people think petitions or protests or anything else are going to have an effect on public officials,” she said. “We do our job based on facts and law, not based on public opinion.”


Bonnie Reynolds, who lives in Jacksonville, was back last week in St. Louis, where she was born and raised. To her, the news of Brown’s death was all too familiar.

“It just brought back the really, really traumatic feelings of when Trayvon Martin was murdered and then Jordan [Davis] was murdered,” she said.

The events in Ferguson became even more personal for Reynolds when news came that her 38-year-old cousin, Michelle Francwar, had been shot while peacefully protesting.

Francwar, from her home in St. Louis, said she joined the protest because too many black men are being killed by police — and by other black men.

“You get tired of unarmed black men getting murdered by police,” she said. “You get tired of them doing it to themselves.”

On the night of Aug. 17, Francwar saw a wave of people begin to run toward her and her friend. Then she heard gunshots, followed by a ping off a traffic sign near her.

Something moist and sticky drew her hand to her left shoulder.

“I’ve been shot,” she recalled thinking.

Sitting in her home, gauze packed on her shoulder, Francwar struggled with the question of whether her protesting was worth the bullet still in her shoulder.

“That’s a tough one to answer,” she said. “On some levels, yes; I wouldn’t want to do it again. No, I wouldn’t want to get shot again.”

She said she still supports the point of the protest, but she will not be going back out to the protest area.


In Ferguson, Barbara Gantner was hustling out of Wal-Mart a couple of miles away from where Brown was killed.

“I think there’s some [racial tension], but the black people are not helping their cause by how they are carrying on is my feeling,” she said.

Gantner, who is white, said she sympathized with Brown’s parents, but noted how quickly the African-American community began speaking so highly of Brown.

“When it first happened they almost canonized him, made him a saint, he was such a good kid,” Gantner said. “Well, that’s not necessarily so. I’d like to see more truth about him as well as the police officer.”

Several white residents made Gantner’s point about the unrest, but Blackmon, the black pastor who helped galvanize other clergy after Brown’s shooting, disagrees.

“I’m not for violence,” Blackmon said, “but we need this unrest. It’s been a long time coming.  I hope we don’t get peaceful again, ever. There has to be this unrest.”

Unrest, she said, will help unify and move black communities from a place of complacency to action. Blackmon said it was in states of unrest that black communities founded universities, had higher graduation rates and bettered communities through boycotts and sit-ins.

“All that came in periods of unrest,” she said.


On Thursday night, Shawntelle Fisher handed out fliers to protesters and media inviting people to a celebration and service at her church in Ferguson.

She said she hadn’t had many interactions with police there other than receiving traffic tickets — tickets, she said, laughing, that she had earned.

She’s looking forward to the media, protesters and security measures in her community vanishing.

She wants normal.

“We trying to move past this,” she said. “It happened. We need to just let the powers that be handle what’s left to do.”

Like nearly every part of the country where communities are grappling with issues of race and relationships with law enforcement, in Ferguson, there is a lot left to do.


Topher Sanders reported from Ferguson, Mo., Matt Soergel from Jacksonville.


topher.sanders@Jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4160


matt.soergel@Jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4082