Community reflects a year after Ferguson shooting

Rabbi Susan Talve is placed under arrest at the entrance of the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Building in St. Louis on August 10, 2015. A group of about 200 protesters marched to the Federal Building as part of a day of disobedience held with the one year anniversary of the Michael Brown Jr. shooting death. About 50 people were arrested. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As the days tick down to the Aug. 9 first anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting, there is one thing almost everyone can agree on.

“It’s been a long year,” said Rabbi Susan Talve.

Central Reform Congregation’s spiritual leader was among a number of people in the Jewish community who have been active in protests related to the controversy surrounding Brown’s death last August, the aftermath of which sparked riots and demonstrations in the North County suburb and other parts of St. Louis, and roiled a debate over treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement nationwide.

Like many, Talve seemed to have mixed feelings about whether the last year reflected positive or negative developments.

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“The fruit, the gifts of the year, for me have been the relationships that formed,” she said. “The relationships have been so rich and so rewarding and also painful. Together, we’ve looked into the abyss of the divided St. Louis.”

She said that the she felt the events in the wake of Brown’s demise confirmed what she already felt about the racial disparity in the area — a split so wide she admitted it was “all I can see sometimes.”

Still, she said she was proud of the city and believed Brown’s death had sparked important conversations on topics like municipal court reform, police accountability and demands for better wages.

She said the area could no longer ignore discussions over racial profiling or negative treatment of minorities.

“I think we’ll never go back and that is a good thing,” she said.

Rush to judgment?

At Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, Rabbi Ze’ev Smason agreed that issues of racial inequality and instances of abuse by law enforcement are of vital importance.

However, he also notes that both the St. Louis County grand jury and a Department of Justice probe cleared Darren Wilson, the former Ferguson police officer who shot Brown, of any wrongdoing. 

Yet, Wilson was forced into virtual hiding during the investigation and ultimately resigned his position. In recent media interviews, Wilson has indicated he has been unable to find a job in police work.

“There is no discussion of what seems to have been a profound inequity of the false charges against him,” said Smason, who said an imbalance in media coverage and a rush to judgment before the investigation was complete bordered on “persecution.”

“Lost in the shuffle is what happened to Officer Wilson and a balance of understanding that while citizens need to be treated properly and equitably, it seems like he got a terribly raw deal also,” he said. “I would like to see at least some discussion in the Jewish community devoted to that like there is discussion on the other side of the issue.”

He said law enforcement does sometimes engage in bad behavior but that the view presented has been skewed heavily against them.

 “I think that, to a degree, the name of the police was besmirched unfairly,” Smason said.

Uncertain but smiling

If some Jews still debate the nature of the protests and discord that engulfed Ferguson, others found themselves forced into a front-row seat for the unfolding story. Just across West Florissant from the convenience store where controversial surveillance footage showed Brown taking cigarillos, sits STL Cordless, a mobile phone outlet that was looted in the initial summer unrest. When the November grand jury verdict came down, owner Sonny Tzion Dayan refused to board up his windows in hopes calm would prevail. Instead, looters would smash the windows that night and the Shaare Emeth congregant would watch in horror as businesses across the street went up in flames.

Interviewed in his small shop during a busy afternoon last week, Dayan exuded a mixture of optimism and uncertainty. 

“I decided to stay for sure. I’m not moving,” he said. “I think we have all learned a great lesson here and the community, as myself, grew from that experience. We realized a lot of things that we didn’t know before.”

He said that, in general, things are better than they were before and he does see some upside to the process the community is going through. He’s also gotten to see the more generous aspects of human behavior. Cleanup and community reinvestment efforts were common after the riots. 

Meanwhile, a Go Fund Me campaign to keep the shop open netted about $14,000 — not to mention letters and postcards of support from around the nation.

“Some even sent cash. It is really overwhelming. We grew to be better humans from that experience,” he said. “You see all that attention, all those people who want to help and you can feel nothing but uplifted.”

He said STL Cordless is doing well enough. Unfortunately, some clientele did vanish after the violence.

“We are well-established. We’ve been in the area for 20 years,” he said. “We had customers from all over St. Louis. They would come driving all the way from Wentzville or Illinois. After the chaos, we lost some of that business.”

He said fellow business owners report mixed results. Some are doing OK. Others are still seeing tough times.

But bigger questions loom in Dayan’s mind as well. He said he hopes larger issues in the community will be addressed and worries that too many young people still wander the streets with little opportunity and few prospects for the future. He feels these are complex issues, which go deeper than just Ferguson and will require resources and discussions to solve. Like some business owners, he is also concerned whether the law will be enforced should difficulties arise.

Still, the optimism comes through. 

“If you remember anything out of our experience here, please remember that we are smiling today, smiling and relaxed,” he said. “We feel like we are in a better place.”

The role of police

Arielle Klagsbrun, an activist for St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace, said her group, which opposes Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has also been heavily active in Ferguson protests. She feels that deaths of minorities caused by police is an issue coming to the fore.

“But it seems like we still have a long way to go to living in a world where black lives matter,” she said.

Klagsbrun said the question of how much progress had been made was a difficult one to answer but she believed the debate had “shifted immensely” since last year. 

She was also critical of the Jewish community, which she says hasn’t done enough in “confronting its own systemic racism.” She criticized the local Anti-Defamation League for an event last week (see story on Page 3) in which the group honored local law enforcement, an action her organization felt was inappropriate given the present circumstances.

“I’m often a little dismayed at what side I see the Jewish community on, which has been the side of the police and often on the side of the status quo,” she said. “I hope that in the next year, the Jewish community really takes the side of justice and stands with black and brown people as allies in this fight both against systemic racism here and for justice in Palestine.”

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois, said the event Klagsbrun referenced was recognizing the participation of area police in “Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust,” a long-running project that educates officers about ways to support constitutional and human rights. 

She said the program was very successful and criticism of such an event was off-base.

“If you talk to most people who are in the advocacy community in and around Ferguson, people recognize that we need more conversations about race, more conversations about bias, more learning opportunities, not less,” she said.

Aroesty believes progress has been made since Ferguson first hit the headlines noting that from educational issues to economic development “the light is being shined pretty strongly in a way that people can’t ignore anymore.”

She also believes that law enforcement must build trust with the communities they serve, which sometimes entails a role as de facto social workers.

 “Police have to learn issues differently than they have,” she said. “They have to probably take on an obligation to do even more social work than they already do.”

Unfortunately, she said bad news like the growing murder rate gets more attention than positive developments so the public doesn’t always know when good things are happening.

“I think people are looking for things that are optimistic,” Aroesty said. “I don’t think they’ve found enough things that are optimistic.”

As a coordinating chaplain for the St. Louis County Police Chaplaincy Program, Rabbi Mark Shook has worked with law enforcement for more than three decades.

Like NHBZ’s Smason, he felt there had been a rush to judge the officer during the Ferguson shooting.

“It will be interesting to see how events continue to be reported and…as we observe this anniversary whether people are more careful about accepting things which are put out on social media or are we more cautious and more skeptical and try to get the story right, try to get the story accurate,” said the Temple Israel rabbi emeritus.

He said it is still too early to know but hopes the community will remain positive as this month’s anniversary passes.

“If they take the opportunity to highlight the progress that’s been made and the reconstruction of Ferguson and the changes that have been made structurally in the municipal court system, things like that, then maybe things will be moving in the right direction,” he said.

The power of conversation

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss at Bais Abraham Congregation said she thinks that people are finally talking about issues that have long plagued the community.

“I think that’s a very important first step,” Neiss said. “The challenge is to make sure that doesn’t become our last step.”

Still, she said she didn’t really know if this meant things had improved. Things have changed but she is concerned that the degree of movement hasn’t been substantial enough.

 “Part of the question that we have to ask ourselves is if we had the same set of circumstances again this year, what would be different than last year?” she said.  “It just strikes me that I’m not sure that any of us — those of us who have been bystanders, those who are more actively involved — is really equipped to handle any level of the situation differently than they had been before.”

At Kol Rinah, Rabbi Noah Arnow said he’s at least glad to hear a conversation taking place.

“A year ago, race was not only difficult to talk about but a taboo topic,” said Arnow who participated in some activities related to the Ferguson protest movement and has a “Black Lives Matter” sign in his yard. “The taboo is gone and we are making progress in being able to talk about race in a constructive way in the Jewish community, in St. Louis and around the country.”

However, he still feels the community has a long way to go.

“Not enough talking has happened and not enough has actually changed in the world,” he said. “I think the conversations are still starting and getting going. It takes awhile for those to germinate.”

He feels policy changes will be necessary but they will have to spring from a different kind of change.

“Part of the solution to the problems that Ferguson pointed to are based in people’s hearts and minds and that will take years and decades and generations of conversations and acculturation to change (and) take root,” he said.

Of course, he points out that ultimately, the Jewish community isn’t the central figure in the debate.

“To really think about how things have changed, a white rabbi is the wrong person to ask,” Arnow said.