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Picking up the pieces in riot-struck Ferguson

Residents count the cost of violence after black American teenager shot dead by white Missouri police officer.

Last updated: 20 Aug 2014 10:04
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Sylvia Ekford sweeps up broken glass at the Fashions R clothing store in Ferguson [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]

Ferguson, United States - Webster Morris clears up broken glass from the night-time looting of his clothes store in central Ferguson - the epicentre of protests over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager that has turned increasingly violent.

The shattered windows of Fashions R are covered with plywood that is daubed with dripping red crosses and the words "Oh blood", lyrics from a religious song. Glaziers are out of stock and new panes would get smashed anyway in ongoing protests, he said.

"We're Christian but the people who are looting, they don't care nothing about the Church," Morris told Al Jazeera. "They wouldn't care if we put Jesus himself up there. This ain't about them. It's about letting the community know we're gonna stay."

Like many in this downtrodden suburb of St Louis, Morris has conflicting views on the protests that followed the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, who was walking with a friend down a residential street on the afternoon of August 9.

If one of us had shot a police officer, we would be in jail and prosecuted.

- Sylvia Ekford, Ferguson resident

Deploying the Missouri National Guard was a smart move, Morris said, if troops stop looters while letting peaceful protesters air grievances. But the killing of 18-year-old Brown fits a local narrative that white cops are "untouchable" in a mostly black neighbourhood, he added.

"If one of us had shot a police officer, we would be in jail and prosecuted," said Sylvia Ekford, an assistant in Morris' store.

'One law for them, one law for us'

This perception of perverted justice echoes across Ferguson, after 11 days of increasingly violent protests that have resisted rubber bullets and tear gas and raised fresh questions about US race relations nearly six years after Americans elected their first black president.

The officer responsible, Darren Wilson, is not in jail but suspended with pay as the shooting is investigated. Some suggest Wilson may have acted in self-defence. Witnesses say Brown was shot while holding his arms up to surrender.

"The police have one law for them and one law for us," said Sherman Hawkins, a cleaner, while sipping a beer in his parked car on West Florissant Avenue, a street of mostly fast-food joints, pawn shops and charity thrift stores.

"It's meant to be the same for everybody. If it had been a black guy who shot somebody on the street, they would have been locked up straight away. So why's he not in jail? That don't make any sense."

US President Barack Obama speaks of a "gulf of mistrust" between police and residents in places such as Ferguson. "In too many communities, too many young men of colour are left behind and seen only as objects of fear," he said on Monday.

Ferguson, a suburb of some 21,000 people, has a long history of race tensions. Black residents, about 65 percent of town's population, complain about bad schools, worse job prospects, and harassment from a police force that is 94 percent white.

'Sundown towns'

Ekford said she sits in the store with doors open, watching the daily soap opera of police shakedowns.

"Let's see how many times they stop people today. We take a tally and it's always kids who can't afford it, getting five or six tickets at a time, knowing that they can't afford to pay it - $500 when they got jobs paying $8 or less an hour," she told Al Jazeera.

Violent outbursts have hit  Ferguson since the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown [Getty Images]

"The police need the revenue, that's why they're writing up all these tickets."

Jim Loewen, a former sociologist at the University of Vermont, said Ferguson's race tensions are rooted in a history of so-called "sundown towns". Police forced blacks to exit white-only suburbs before sunset during the segregation era.

Ferguson was 85 percent white in 1980, but a white-flight in recent decades swung the demographics to 67 percent black by 2012. White families left for whiter neighbourhoods in fear of crashing property prices as their community was ghettoised, he said.

"It's a second-generation problem: an overwhelmingly white police force with sundown town attitudes. They racially profile. They think they can completely disregard people's rights because they think they're doing it in the service of their town," Loewen told Al Jazeera.

Race is a factor. Black and white Americans view Ferguson's protests differently. A Pew Research Center survey found that blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that Brown's shooting "raises important issues about race". Whites are more likely to say it has been overblown.

Elizabeth Kneebone, a poverty analyst at Brookings Institute, said it is about money. As Ferguson got blacker, it also got poorer. Unemployment rose from five percent in 2000 to more than 13 percent in 2012. In the same period, those with jobs have seen pay cheques shrink by one-third.

Ferguson's tensions were ignited by a killing, but the conditions are seen elsewhere across the US, Kneebone added. The number of suburban neighbourhoods in which more than a fifth of residents live in poverty more than doubled from 2000-12.

"There have been rapid changes in the demography of poverty this past decade," she told Al Jazeera. "There are more people in poverty in the suburbs now than in cities, which are ill-equipped for growing poor populations and lack a leadership structure that reflects the community's make-up."

There are so many people who have no fear. Some of these young people don't care about life anymore.

- Webster Morris, shopowner

Military solution?

For Michael McPhearson, director of the anti-war group Veterans For Peace, the take-home message from Ferguson is how protest crowd-control increasingly resembles the military hardware he witnessed in use by US forces overseas.

He pointed to camouflage kits and military-grade body armour, short-barrelled assault rifles and armoured trucks - perhaps even a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle, which protects troops from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I fought in Iraq and didn't have that much gear, even though I was facing real soldiers carrying loaded AK-47s," he told Al Jazeera. "All this equipment creates a mentality and raises the stakes on a situation to make it much more likely that people will get killed."

Back at the bashed-up clothing store, Morris checks that his new window panels can withstand another night's rioting. Angry crowds down the street are growing. There are rumours of Molotov cocktails, guns and trouble-makers in from New York and California.

"I don't care how many police you bring in, the only way you can stop someone who's angry and hurt is to shoot them," he said.

"We've been pulled over so many times. We've been arrested so many times. There are so many people who have no fear. Some of these young people don't care about life anymore."

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

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Al Jazeera
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