FERGUSON, Mo. — First, the city of Ferguson gave Mario Jones a $300 fine. Then officials offered him a paintbrush instead.
Jones, 18, on several Saturdays made his way to Ferguson’s old fire station, hovered over plywood panels with a cup of bold blue paint and worked with volunteers and other young people to create a mural that could bring a message of unity to the fractured city.
Jones was assigned to a pilot program in Ferguson that offers community service hours to teenagers facing misdemeanor charges. City leaders now are looking to expand the program rapidly as they try to reduce resentment between police and the local communities, where animosity has festered for years.
It is one of the small changes they hope will make a big difference in Ferguson and help to prevent the scenes of violence and looting that occurred after the death of Michael Brown.
Still, the fear of more unrest seems to mount by the moment as the city waits for a grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown. An announcement is expected any day.
For many, the death of Brown, 18, was the final straw.
Residents have long accused police departments in north St. Louis County municipalities of slapping them with unjustified arrests and tickets bearing fines they could not afford.
According to city leaders, 40 warrants are issued each month for teenagers who don’t show up in court for traffic violations.
“We’re redoubling our efforts to change our traffic system and court system and make it better for everybody, easy for people to take responsibility for whatever offense they committed without it becoming overly burdensome,” said Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, himself an embattled figure since the shooting.
The community service program stemmed from conversations held a year ago. Gail Babcock, a program director at the Ferguson Youth Initiative, said the city was trying to figure out why young people weren’t civically involved, “and this ticket issue kept coming up.”
“And because they couldn’t drive, they couldn’t attend programs and be a part of the community,” Babcock said.
Nearly 50 young people have entered the program since. Most are between ages 17 and 20, and about a quarter are women. The city’s budget provided $16,000 for this pilot program, but it is expected to grow.
Since Brown’s death, Babcock and the city’s youth advisory board have been brainstorming more ideas. The Justice Department also has floated some ideas, ranging from the athletic to the theatrical. They included basketball and baseball games with police officers and court-involved youth playing on the same teams.
And theater? “The cops would play the gang members,” Jones said. “And then we would play the cops. It’s a play. What’s the name of it again?”
“West Side?” another participant chimed in.
“ ‘West Side Story,’ that’s right,” Jones said. “Sounds cool.”
Babcock admitted some of the ideas might sound a little hokey, but “the community is interested in anything that can get people to be engaged.” By having police and young people work together, Babcock hopes to show that there are good people in each group — and that stereotypes should not be a simple as the stroke of a paintbrush.
“I feel like I’m becoming a part of the community by doing something that’s positive, instead of sitting around and doing nothing,” Jones said.
Jones was arrested, actually, while sitting around and doing nothing. The St. Louis resident was visiting a cousin in Ferguson, and they ended up hanging out in a “vaco” — slang here for an abandoned building. Police charged Jones with loitering.
The police were “a little racist” with him, Jones said. One, he said, told him, “You black kids can never just be happy sitting at your own houses; you have to sit at someone else’s.”
Jones’s tale sparked a conversation about interactions with the police.
A 17-year-old said it was uncomfortable to hear a Ferguson officer drive past him and say, “A young black man who is not sagging his pants. That’s impressive.”
And an 18-year-old woman talked about being put in a headlock when she was arrested and feeling that she could do nothing but swing back.
The police “look at us like we are going to cause trouble, and we look at them like they’re going to cause trouble,” Jones said. “So we don’t speak. And sometimes, they arrest us.”
So it didn’t strike any of the program participants painting the mural that the Ferguson protests appear to be primarily youth-led, with some as young as 15 standing in the front lines, cursing at officers and risking arrest.
“This generation in Ferguson is trying to say, ‘I’m ready to have a conversation, but you’ve ignored me, and now we’re going to force you to listen,’ ” said Dwayne James, who is Ferguson’s lone black city council member. “Now they’ve got our attention. So we have to listen to what they’re going to say.”
Local artist Annie Martineau floated the idea of working with youth and volunteers as a “cathartic exercise to everything going on.”
She etched out abstract shapes on eight panels of paper to be linked together over the course of three weeks. About 25 people showed up to help out, including about a half-dozen doing community service.
Over two and a half hours, no one painting explicitly mentioned Michael Brown or Darren Wilson or the chanting protesters.
Sunlight beamed through the windows as they worked, filling out the first letters of the phrase “One Love.”
Jones stepped back to take a look.
“One Love,” he said. “That’s cool.”