FERGUSON, Mo. — The two women — one black, one white — met last fall painting pictures on broken windows in a broken city. They agreed on the need to come together to bridge the racial divide that has yawned wide in this St. Louis suburb since a white police officer shot a black 18-year-old dead in the street last summer.
But this week, as Ferguson grappled with scathing federal findings of police abuse and the subsequent shooting of two officers by an unknown assailant or assailants, the women found themselves still divided.
“It really feels different around here,” Carol Swartout Klein, who is white, said before she and her friend got dinner at the local brewery. “I really do believe things in Ferguson are getting better.”
“I wish I could say for sure that things were getting better,” suggested her friend, Janice Hygrade, who is black. “People are still upset.”
On Saturday, police continued to search for the shooter or shooters, saying they had no new developments to report. But the community was looking for a different set of answers. If the anger will not subside with flowers painted on windows, with full vindication of the worst complaints of racial discrimination by federal investigators, or even with the resignation of top city officials, what will it take?
“It’s going to take baby steps,” Hygrade, 43, told her friend. “A lot of baby steps.”
“And you got to get things wrong fixed,” Klein, 57, said. “You can’t go back to normal.”
“But what is normal?” she asked.
At the very least, some measure of soul-searching has come to Ferguson as their city has been thrust into the center of a renewed conversation about race. Some took to community events and programming to help Ferguson heal — a local circus was in town on Saturday, after all. Some continue to use the moment to call for wholesale change to the justice system and the disbanding of the city’s police department.
Activists announced Friday that they are beginning to collect signatures to recall Mayor James Knowles III, who has resisted demands to step down. The local Urban League is expected to announce on Monday plans to construct a community center on the lot that still houses the charred remains of a QuikTrip gas station, looted and burned the evening after Michael Brown’s death on Aug. 9.
Officials at the Metropolitan Urban League of St. Louis did not go into details, but the center’s focus would be to provide job training for the young men who live along West Florissant Road. Nearby, a small hill of teddy bears memorializing Brown still lay in the middle of the street where Brown, 18, was shot by Darren Wilson, who was a Ferguson officer at the time.
The Chinese restaurant and the liquor store are still boarded up, and the nearby ribbons on a barbed-wire fence have started to whiten. An old Ponderosa steakhouse promises it will one day be “The Center for Hope and Change,” though it remains closed.
But on Friday night, Fernanda Brady, 33, stepped out of Prime Time Barber Shop a few steps away and found reason to smile when he scanned the smooth traffic flow on the street.
“Usually, on a night like tonight, I would have seen 12, 13 cars pulled over by now” by police, Brady said. “That’s not happening anymore because they’re ashamed.”
Nowadays, Brady said, he finds himself “spirited but skeptical” about the future. After years of watching officers mistreat black residents on the street, he said, he figured it would be only a matter of time before the police department reverted to old practices. Vindication did not erase mistrust.
“What happens when the Department of Justice isn’t putting the spotlight on us anymore?” Brady asked. “The police don’t live in Ferguson, and they don’t know the community. I’m going to be real: I think things will just go back to the way it was.”
Brady said many residents mistook the lack of continuing protests around the police department as a sign that those in Ferguson who were unhappy had been satiated. The truth is, many say, it was the cold weather that caused many people to stay away.
“How could we be happy?” Brady said. “Darren Wilson is still free.”
As he spoke, Thomas Bradley, 25, stepped out of the barber shop. A week before Brown’s death, he said, two officers beat his head on a police car after he was handcuffed and then charged him with trespassing.
“I actually used to want to be a police officer until that happened,” Bradley said.
He said he told his story to a representative from the Justice Department. “I feel good that the Justice Department listened and did something,” he said. “Maybe the police will, too.”
The shooting of two officers early Friday laid bare just how volatile the relationships remain between local police and Darren Wilson supporters on the one side and the protest groups and their sympathizers on the other. Some hoped the moment would bring the two factions together. But some feared it would pull them further apart.
Within hours of the shootings, police union officials had declared that the shootings were “what the protesters want” and St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar declared that the shooter had been “embedded” in the crowd of demonstrators — a claim he would walk back the following day.
Clinton Kinnie, an 18-year-old protest organizer who is a student at Lutheran High School, a racially diverse private Christian school in St. Louis, said he is often confronted by white classmates who don’t understand the issues in Ferguson.
“I took a lot of flak from people after the officers were shot,” Kinnie said. “I had to explain to people that we were out there making our voices heard, being nonviolent, that none of us were the ones shooting. We could have been shot, too.”
The episode showed how much the community remains on edge, unclear about whether the worst has passed. In Ferguson, residents treasure the future as much as they fear it.
“My stress level is so high right now,” Hygrade confessed to her friend. “Anyone could be the shooter.”
Hygrade remembers shaking in her home as looters ransacked businesses on South Florissant Road after the grand jury declined to indict Wilson. Her 6-year-old daughter asked why things were happening. She took young Jade to paint as a form of therapy.
There she met Klein, who was capturing the moments for a children’s book, “Painting for Peace in Ferguson,” about the surge in city murals.
Klein said that whenever she does a book signing, she takes along a box of tissues. Flipping through pages illustrating a community working together often brings readers to tears.
“Ferguson’s been knocked down before,” Klein told Hygrade, as Jade played in the distance. She referenced tornadoes, white flight, the loss of a Ford factory. “We got through all of that. And we can get through this.”
Hygrade tried to remain positive, although she thought none of those things were as challenging as the persistence of prejudice.
“The kids in my neighborhood are scared,” she said. “They asked, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ I said, ‘Just be a kid.’ Kids don’t know how to be kids anymore.”
As they were speaking, Jade eventually came back to her mother.
“Look,” Jade said. On a piece of paper, she had drawn a heart that said, “I love Ferguson.”