Six months ago, Ferguson, Mo., was the kind of nameless suburb visitors to the city of St. Louis passed through. That was before a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager on a street this summer and months of daily protests transformed the unassuming city into a symbol.
Ferguson is now a word that evokes feelings.
Though it has been less than four months since Michael Brown was killed, the town seems to have entered the pantheon of places that stand as metaphors. Ferguson’s symbolism now sits alongside Selma’s significance in the civil rights movement, Columbine as a symbol of teenage rage and gun violence, and Kent State’s historic link to anti-war protests. Those are places that have adjusted — some more smoothly than others — to their emblematic meaning.
In Ferguson, dozens of buildings and vehicles burned Monday night after the announcement of the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s killing. It is impossible to imagine that the town will ever be the same. And people who knew the Ferguson of old are grappling with the change.
Throngs of reporters, representing more than 100 media organizations at the height of the news story, traveled to the town to cover the protests — some peaceful, others with flashes of violence. Since August, activists from across the country descended as well to help shape a movement addressing the relationship between law enforcement and the black community. The unrest in the St. Louis suburb even drew the president to the White House press briefing room this week to make a statement. “This is not just an issue for Ferguson, it is an issue for America,” President Obama said.
But it is Ferguson we are talking about — not America.
The chaos that has swept the community of 21,000 still feels surreal, said Chris King, a longtime resident and editor of the St. Louis American, a publication that covers the community.
“It is a little odd because Ferguson is a small municipality,” King said. “I don’t know that I ever heard anyone say, ‘I’m going to Ferguson,’ before August 9,” the day that Brown was shot by Wilson in what the officer described as self-defense.
Previously, Ferguson “tried to brand itself as having a main street and downtown, but it had very little distinct identity in our region,” said King, who simply thought of the city as part of greater St. Louis. Ferguson’s relative anonymity is lost. Near the top of the city’s Wikipedia page is a section about Brown’s shooting.
As Ferguson’s residents and civil rights activists struggle with the image grafted upon the city by the events in the past months, there are lessons the town can learn from other places where a tragedy looms large over their relatively small size — such as when a violent event shrouds a town, or school, or city in the public imagination. It’s no longer just someone’s home town or their high school. It’s something more: a place where something bad happened.
In April 1999, the tragedy that dominated national headlines was the shootings near the city of Littleton, Colo., at Columbine High School, where two students murdered 12 classmates and one teacher. In the immediate aftermath, the horrific massacre became known alternately as the “Littleton killings” and the “Columbine killings.”
The names were “co-dominant,” recalled Dave Cullen, author of “Columbine,” a book about the shootings. “They were used interchangeably, [but] over time Littleton dropped further into the background.”
In the same way, Brown’s name is being subsumed by protesters focusing attention on the fraught relationship between black Americans and law enforcement. The place and the protest have become more dominant in many ways than the name of the teenager who died.
Earlier this week, Cullen, who lives in New York, couldn’t immediately recall Brown’s last name, but he was completely familiar with the narrative of Ferguson, which to him has come to signify protest against over-policing of black communities.
Cullen, who covered the news of the shootings at Columbine High School and later studied what happened there, watched as the word “Columbine” also became a shorthand — in its case for a mass killing.
“The community was not happy about it,” Cullen recalled. “They found it really horrifying. They felt like the school has been taken from them first by the killers and then by the media and public.”
Four months after the shooting, the Columbine school community held an elaborate ceremony that they called a “Take Back the School” rally. It was the first day of a new school year. Parents and other community members formed a human shield surrounding the school to keep members of the media out.
Still, “Columbine is the name of a tragedy and not a high school for most of the public, but for the primary survivors [at the rally] it was powerful,” Cullen said.
The Littleton community decided to keep the school open. The library where much of the violence happened was torn down and rebuilt. A memorial honoring the victims was created a short walk away from the school.
Today, the students who attend school there think of Columbine as a high school, not a tragedy, Cullen said.
The city of Ferguson’s leadership has also tried to differentiate the place from the events that have occurred in its bounds. The mayor, who is white, has been defensive, at one point saying racial divides did not exist there. After protests began, residents wanting to show civic pride opened up a store selling “I (heart) Ferguson” merchandise.
“There are 25 communities within a mile radius of the city of Ferguson. All of these communities have similar issues,” Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III told cable news network Al Jazeera America this month. “All of these communities have transgressions that people are angry about. All of that anger is being lumped on the city of Ferguson.”
As some townspeople purchased Ferguson paraphernalia to show their civic pride, local social activists adopted the city’s name, too, calling themselves “Ferguson protesters.” King, the newspaper editor, said he began to classify the protesters that way as well, even if he knew they were actually from the city of St. Louis. To King, the word “Ferguson” had come to signify a “social justice movement.”
Visiting Ferguson can feel oddly deflating. This summer, just a week after Brown was killed, it was boring in its familiarity despite its already growing symbolic import. The strip malls, the fast-food restaurants and the dollar stores looked like those in suburban communities across the country — before, of course, some of the stores were burned this week.
So, what now?
“The world knows that we’re angry. The world knows what happened. Now it’s about where do we want it to go,” Ronnie Notch, who lives in St. Louis County and has participated in peaceful protests in Ferguson, said this week. “How do we heal? How do we rebuild?”
The differing answers to those questions are key to how Ferguson will ultimately be remembered. It is unlike Columbine or Newtown, Conn. — also the site of a mass school shooting — in important ways.
“In Ferguson, it wasn’t just something done to them. Local people rose up in protest,” Cullen said. “It wasn’t just a tragedy — it’s a mixture of a tragedy and an empowering moment.”
As Ferguson moves into its future, it is not at all clear what kind of symbolism will endure there. Will it be celebrated as a turning point in a social movement to improve the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color?
Already, several local and a few national rap artists have included mournful references to Ferguson and Brown’s death in their lyrics.
Kent State, too, was immortalized in song after national guardsmen fired into a crowd of students engaged in antiwar protests on the Ohio university’s campus, killing four students in May 1970. It was near the height of opposition to the Vietnam War, and the students’ deaths inspired Neil Young to write the song “Ohio.”
The deaths at Kent State also brought on a fresh wave of anti-war activism on college campuses across the country. Forty-four years later, the words “Kent State” still bring to mind those anti-war protests and the students who died on the university campus.
Both Ferguson residents and those who care about the months-long protest movement there can hope for a respectable end. There is still time to shape the full meaning of Ferguson.
Think about Selma, a small town in Alabama that was central to the cause of nonviolent civil rights protesters in the 1960s. The town is so linked with the movement that a movie coming to theaters next month is simply titled “Selma.” The film tells the story of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, led by Martin Luther King Jr. They were critical to the future of the civil rights movement and came to define the place.
The resistance to civil rights was once Selma’s shame. Now it is home to museums and memorials chronicling the 1960s movement for racial equality.
It’s possible that Ferguson could someday experience a transformation like Selma’s.
But whatever happens, it can’t go back to being a forgettable St. Louis suburb.