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II. Revisiting Ferguson
November 22, 2020
“I can’t breathe.” These words, uttered multiple times by a 46 year old black man named George Floyd right before his death from having his neck pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee, took the nation’s attention and echo on the surfaces of Black Lives Matter posters, murals mourning Floyd’s death, T-shirts that NBA stars wore during pregame warm-ups, and in the minds of countless individuals around the world.
As Floyd’s brutal murder made it to the headlines, the nation erupted into outcries against police violence, the circulation of #JusticeforFloyd hashtags and many other posts dedicated to victims of police brutality on social media, and controversial riots.
Floyd’s death, which occurred on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, led to a massive movement that reflects the first international uprising of anti policing perspectives that spurred six years ago after the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri.
For Ferguson’s 3rd Ward Councilwoman Fran Griffin and St. Louis Post Dispatch photographer David Carson, the Ferguson protests became their daily lives.
Carson had taken a multitude of Pulitzer Prize winning close-up photos from different perspectives of the protesters holding their hands up, looters breaking into convenience stores and police officers tear-gassing rioters at Ferguson riots.
“On the first day [at the riots], I had no idea how large this would become,” Carson said, “I was out there, covering the events in my community, because that’s what I’ve been doing for years. And that’s what I continue to do. As it turns out, Ferguson was known around the world, and that’s something I never thought I would do. Ferguson is 10 miles from the front door of my house. I’ve been out there over the years covering other things. It [the Ferguson uprising] kind of took on its own life on social media and I was there to document it along the way.”
For Fran Griffin, the Ferguson protests were even more personal. Griffin, a black woman who formerly worked full-time as an office manager for a health and dental clinic and a mother of three, had lived in Ferguson since 2005. Griffin looks back at the events that led to her becoming heavily involved in the Ferguson protests in 2014, BLM activism and her later involvement in politics.
Before moving to Ferguson, Griffin had lived in Canfield, Missouri, where she would later return to mourn the death of Michael Brown Jr. with other residents.
Even in a time of us just grieving together, we were trying to figure out ways to address it”
— Fran Griffin
“The place [in Canfield] where I was raised was the same place where my mother and her siblings were raised. My grandfather had owned that house for years … So for me, the neighborhood was very family, family oriented. We were the type of community where you could literally go on anybody’s porch because everybody had grown up with everybody,” she said. “And so when I moved out to Ferguson, for me, it was different. That sense of a close community was not there. And when I went to Canfield in 2014, which was the day after Michael Brown was killed, I felt that for the first time, I felt the sense of community again. I mean, even in a time of us just grieving together, we were trying to figure out ways to address it without even knowing who it is that we should be addressing because a lot of it just simply weren’t active in the community. We were living there, but we weren’t active and having conversations with each other, and realizing that some of the things that we dealt with in terms of the police — it wasn’t something that we were just simply experiencing ourselves. Everybody in the community was experiencing the same things. And so from that point, like, we really really started coming together as a community for the first time, which was out of a tragedy. But the sense of belonging, the sense of connecting and the sense of us coming together as one was really, really strong.”
Griffin reflects on how these conversations led to an attempted sit-in at the police station and a protest march from Canfield Road to West Florissant that the police attempted to prevent with riot gear and batons.
“I saw the police line open up, and a police car literally just drove through the crowd [of protestors]. And as they drove through the crowd, people jumped out the way and just picked up whatever they could. And from that point, it just went from zero to one hundred,” Griffin said. “The police started shooting rubber bullets at people we took off running. My daughter who was seven at the time was so scared. We were running hand in hand and she literally broke away from my hand to run around the building to get away from the shock of what was happening for her. I’ve always raised my kids not to fear anybody, to always speak the truth, and to stand up for what’s right. And so in my mind, if I couldn’t do anything else, it would be to keep my body [protesting]. I literally came out the very next day and the day after that, and the day after that, because I refused to go inside.”
As the Ferguson protests reached national headlines and more Americans began to see what protestors like Griffin and photographers like Carson were witnessing first hand, Carson became more aware of how important it was to capture the nuanced relationship between the Ferguson movement and the police force.
“You can’t define a protest as one thing, because in one moment, a protest can be both joyful and tragic. And I think you have to be aware of that, as a newspaper photographer that people will base their opinions on what these events look like based on your photographs,” Carson said. “So, I tried to capture that full range of emotions … because, you know, these social movements are complex … As a local newspaper, we would be negligent if we didn’t report on these events. It was one of the most surreal things of the world, though, to be out at some of these events the night before and then sitting in my living room and hearing President Barack Obama talk about them on live television. Yeah, it was crazy. I was right there and I knew that the president and all these people were seeing these photos and that were helping shape their perspective of what was going out there so I felt that responsibility to really do a good job.”
Not only did the murder of Michael Brown and other instances of police violence appearing in the media cause a massive upheaval in Black Lives Matter protests, but it also resulted in a surge of African Americans, including Fran Griffin, turning to politics for reformation.
Griffin, who found out through the Ferguson riots that the issues such as the extensive amount that she was ticketed by police officers during her 20’s and her inability to pay off her warrants until her 30’s were not problems that only she faced, but also in predominantly black neighborhoods around the country.
Determined to learn about and eradicate the systematic racism in the city’s legislature, Griffin joined the Neighborhood Policing Steering Committee (one of the organizations that were established after Ferguson signed the long term Consent Decree which implements plans to reform the unconstitutional racial bias in policing, municipal court practices, and increase community engagement) and began attending city council meetings.
“We saw that there were people in those seats that were supposed to represent us but were not trying to put money into certain parts of the community. I knew there was something I needed to do in terms of being able to represent people without voices,” Griffin said.
In 2016, Griffin ran for councilwoman with a write-in campaign dedicated to addressing the community’s needs. Even though she did not win, she gained the support of many community members that she met during the campaign. In 2019, she ran again and won.
“I’m not your average politician,” Griffin said. “You’re not going to see the, you know, the collar and everything because I told myself that if I’m going to do this work, I have to be as authentic as possible. I can’t pretend to be something that I’m not and then try to get other people to believe in me when what I’m showing is not who I really am. So I told myself, I have to be authentic in it, you know, and I’ve stayed that way. I will stay that way. I’m definitely not considered a traditional politician. I don’t even consider myself a politician. I consider myself a public servant. Because that’s what my responsibility is: to serve the public.”
Since she became a councilwoman, Griffin had worked with other council members under the Consent Decree to reduce the number of police officers in Ferguson (a city with a demographic of almost 70% black residents), increase diversity within what originally was a virtually all-white police department and offer police training designed to restrict the force used by police officers during arrests and increase policing accountability.
“If we have a community that is predominantly one particular culture, everyone knows how to communicate. There’s no language barrier, there’s no culture barrier, and not only that, they [police officers] also know what an oppressive system does to a community, because they’ve experienced it themselves, so they’re a little more tolerant on how to deal with the issues,” Griffin said.
Griffin has also been trying to move Ferguson forward economically and socially with plans of providing more social services to assist financially and emotionally troubled community members in order to reduce crime and arrest rates as well as more businesses.
“Originally, they [the city] were generating revenue off of fines and fees. Now that those are no longer in place, we need to deal with the economics of our community. In order to keep Ferguson Ferguson, we need to generate revenue, so that comes with businesses in the area. We got two streets in the city of Ferguson–South Florissant and West Florissant. If you go down South Florissant, you see nothing but businesses. You go down West Florissant and it’s a desert. If we can put businesses on both streets, then that means more revenue for the city. More sales tax that goes towards our community, our school districts, taking care of basic needs like keeping the grass cut and maintaining street lights,” Griffin said.
She also adds that she and the other council members are working on forming a reparations committee consisting of individuals with educational background in Black History, the City of Ferguson or economics to design a comprehensive plan that creates and lays out the structure for economic development within Ferguson for the next twenty years through a “racial equity” lens.
As political demographics and the general public’s view on policing have continued to shift since the Ferguson uprising and the death of George Floyd, David Carson exhibits optimism for more understanding and equity in the future.
Michael Brown’s name has taken on a whole symbiology of its own”
— David Carson
“Michael Brown’s name has taken on a whole symbiology of its own. His father has an entire organization called Chosen for Change that is dedicated to keeping
the memory of his son alive … If you do some research on this [Trayvon Martin’s murder], I think you’ll see that Black Lives Matter was barely a blip on social media prior to Ferguson. In a way, Michael Brown’s death breathed life into Black Lives Matter. For me, Ferguson itself was the second civil rights movement … and while I think the country still has a very long way to go to rectifying this, change is only going to happen through some tough conversations and at least there are some going on now. Hopefully, we will start to see some more solid changes.”
Councilwoman Griffin also demonstrates hope for the younger generations’ ability to eradicate systemic racism in higher institutions.
“My daughter, my 7-year-old, was the one that stuck with me like glue the whole time … so she saw a lot. She experienced a lot. Unfortunately, it took a toll on her, as far as the trauma that she saw as a young kid. But, it definitely made her a much stronger person,” Griffin said. “Those babies that came out on the streets saw what we saw, I knew that when they became of age … yeah, you’re talking about some fighters. They [police force] did not know what they created by doing what they did. And so now we’ve got a whole other generation of strong leaders in the making that I am so proud of. Like, I am so proud of them because they’re not willing to give up either. They’ve seen from a very early age, the reality of what happens in our communities. They got a quick lesson and they are refusing to back down just like everybody else. So I know this change is going to happen in my lifetime. I feel it.”