FERGUSON, Mo. — Alice Singen had always seen her home town as an integrated, harmonious place. Like many other white residents, she prided herself on staying here even when others began to leave.
But since the death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white police officer, some African Americans are calling it segregated and racist. Now Singen has found herself talking in terms of “us” and “them,” “we” and “they.”
“I didn’t have any problems with anybody or any color, and all of a sudden it feels like we are being held responsible for something that’s not our fault,” Singen, 70, said as she left Faraci Pizza, a 46-year-old Ferguson business that has become a focal point of racial tension. “I don’t get it.”
That sense of shock is common here among Ferguson whites in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death and the explosive protests in the days that followed.
Protests and arrests have continued in Ferguson and across the St. Louis area, though things have been less volatile than in the summer. On Saturday, black and white demonstrators bought tickets to a St. Louis Symphony performance and at intermission stood and sang “A Requiem for Mike Brown,” with mixed reaction from a stunned audience.
That was in contrast to Monday night, when mostly black protesters at a St. Louis Cardinals game were met with counterchanting from whites, including “Let’s go, Darren,” in reference to Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown. The exchange illustrated the tensions that remain as the area waits for a grand jury to decide whether to indict Wilson.
The situation has forced many white Ferguson residents in this majority-black city — from small-business owners to the mayor and police chief — to question their beliefs about the community’s racial dynamics.
They have discovered that blacks and whites here profoundly disagree about the existence of racism and the fairness of the justice system. And now, whites who once believed their town was an exception in a country struggling with racial divisions have to confront the possibility it is not.
Neither side seems comfortable listening to the other’s perspective. The Justice Department hosted a town hall Tuesday on race relations. The meeting, as in previous agency-sponsored community gatherings, was closed to the news media.
“I keep a lot of African American friends — some of my dearest friends — but when we hang out at the brew house, we don’t talk about these issues, ” said Mayor James Knowles III. “A lot of residents are going, ‘Damn, I never realized my friends felt that way or had these experiences.’ ”
Knowles has been criticized locally and nationally for asserting that his city does not have a race problem. The tension in Ferguson, he said, is the result of an economic imbalance between renters and homeowners. Most renters, he said, just happen to be black.
Along West Florissant Avenue, near where Brown was shot, there are squat apartment complexes. The now-ransacked business corridor is lined with barbershops, liquor stores and takeout joints. The lawn signs and T-shirts say “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!”
Along South Florissant Road, there are detached houses with pumpkins on the porches. There are custard shops and coffeehouses. The lawn signs and T-shirts say “I ♥ Ferguson.”
And there’s Faraci’s, where Singen buys her pizza. A few weeks ago the owner, Jim Marshall, confronted a group of mostly black protesters about hurting small businesses. Curse words flew, both sides acknowledged. But then, protesters said, he flashed a gun at them. They called for a boycott, saying the owners were racist and supporters of Wilson.
Marshall’s wife, Dawne, tries not to talk about the incident; it makes her too angry. One day last week, she stopped kneading dough and addressed her patrons.
“We are not the type of people who they say we are!” she said. She pointed to two black residents sitting in her restaurant. “When I see you, I see you,” she said as she began to cry. “I don’t see color!”
After her husband confronted the protesters, Dawne Marshall said, he came inside and saw a crowd threatening him from the windows. “And yes, then he did show them his gun because he needed to protect his family,” she said. “Everything has gone out of control. We are from this community, and we’re not leaving, dammit.” The patrons applauded.
Carl Hart, who is white and went to high school with the Marshalls, tried to calm things. One evening, wearing a yellow “Ferguson Proud” T-shirt, Hart bought $120 worth of pizza to distribute to anyone passing the shop.
His plan seemed to be working until a group of 20 protesters — almost all black — encouraged two young boys to put down the slices.
In the group, Hart saw a black friend from the neighborhood. He smiled; she did, too. Then they hugged.
“Do you want some pizza?” he offered. She politely declined.
Hart has lived here most of his 47 years. He was class president at McCluer High School. More than a third of the students were minorities then, and he said he could not recall a racist incident. He believes in building communities and the good of people — which made it possible to think that his town’s troubles could be helped, if not solved, by a slice of pizza.
“My biggest gripe is that no one is giving the justice system a chance to work out,” Hart said. “We don’t know all the facts, but there is an investigation and a process. This is America.”
He could not fathom looters being from Ferguson. He tried to understand the perspective of his black neighbors but kept finding exceptions. Yes, twice as many black people are arrested during traffic stops in Ferguson — but then again, he gets tickets, too. Yes, he knows city leadership is predominantly white — but he figured maybe black people were not running for office.
Between 2000 and 2010, the white population plummeted from 44 percent to 30 percent, while the black population grew from 50 percent to 67 percent. He wonders, if he saw no racism back in the old days, how could Ferguson be racist now?
Kimberly Gregory, a 54-year-old African American, wants her white neighbors to support black residents more, rather than question their judgment. Or to at least acknowledge them. “They say they are colorblind, but they have a way of making you feel invisible,” Gregory said. “Some don’t even believe that there is racial profiling. Come on, now. This is America.”
In her majority-black neighborhood, Gregory staked an “I ♥ Ferguson” sign on her lawn. Nearly 9,500 signs have been sold, and the proceeds will be used to rebuild damaged local businesses.
Some of her neighbors reprimanded her for it. They interpreted the campaign as another way to mask the city’s injustice. Even the sign had two sides.
The lines, of course, are not so clearly drawn. Some black residents say it is too soon to pass judgment on Wilson. Some whites believe Brown’s death was racially motivated.
Community organizers have been working to find “white allies” to join protests in front of the police station each night, according to Tef Poe, a hip-hop artist and organizer. One Sunday when white people were called upon to join, more than 100 did so.
“I came out because everyone in this community has a right to feel safe,” said Emily Davis, who is 38 and white. “And the white people in the community need to learn how to believe their black neighbors.”
Together, the crowd chanted, “Mike Brown means we’ve got to fight back!”
Vicki Salsman and her husband, Tim, attended a town hall meeting a few days later addressing relations with the police. They appreciated the setting — intimate and closed to the media — because “it felt safe.” They walked to the parking lot and heard the protesters using the same chant.
“Do you hear that?” asked Tim, “ ‘Fight back.’ That’s scary to me.”
Vicki, 66, said she would like to talk more about race in Ferguson. But will people listen? Will people truly want racial conciliation?
“But I think it has to happen,” she said. “We can all learn from each other.”
Rowena Cleghorn, a Mexican American woman around their age, approached the couple. She told them how horrible it was to witness teenagers getting tear-gassed.
“Well, we don’t know all the facts,” Vicki Salsman said.
“But we do know that [Brown] had stolen those cigars, because we saw the video,” Cleghorn said. “And we know that the officer called him aside because he was jaywalking.”
“There is an ordinance against walking in the street,” Vicki responded.
“But is the price for that, the punishment for that, taking a life?” Cleghorn said. “As far as I’m concerned, that was murder. And I’m telling you that racial profiling, it’s real.”
The conversation stopped, and the two women looked at each other in awkward silence.
Vicki Salsman turned to her husband. “You ready?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m hungry,” he said. “We need to get dinner. I don’t know why these meetings start so late.”
Then he turned to Cleghorn: “It was good talking to you.”