MU students speak on Ferguson community, ongoing unrest

Thursday, August 14, 2014 | 11:41 p.m. CDT; updated 6:19 a.m. CDT, Friday, August 15, 2014

COLUMBIA — Aaron Duncan used to play in the streets of Ferguson with other kids from his neighborhood. It was a decent, normal place to live. His class would sometimes go on field trips to Whistle Stop, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. He looked up to the two police officers who taught D.A.R.E. classes at his elementary school and wondered to himself whether he might make a good cop some day.

He said he started being racially profiled as a teenager. His desire to be a cop went away.

Duncan is a computer science and information technology major, and he lived in Ferguson until he was 13. He is among the current MU students who grew up in or near Ferguson who expressed sadness and anger about the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot multiple times by a Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9. Demonstrations and gatherings, some peaceful and some violent, have been fixtures in the area since Brown's death.

Duncan said he was once racially profiled outside a QuikTrip — the same QuikTrip that burned on Aug. 10, the night after Brown's death.

He and a cousin bought hot dogs from the store and ate them in a car parked out front. As they ate, a patrol car with flashing police lights pulled up behind them.

An officer got out of the car and told Duncan he fit the description of somebody who had been trespassing on QuikTrip property. Although they weren't arrested, Duncan and his cousin had to show their driver-'s licenses and tell the officer there weren't any guns or drugs in the car.

Duncan said being singled because of race could be difficult to understand for those who haven't had that experience.

"As young black males we really have to be aware of our surroundings at all times and careful of every little decision we make," Duncan wrote in an email. "It's literally like walking on egg shells every time you are out in public, and there is really not much we can do about it because most of the time its based off skin color."

Brown's death hit Duncan especially hard because his cousin was shot to death when he was around Brown's age.

"It's always sad to lose a family member, and I know how it feels firsthand to lose a family member to gun violence," Duncan said.

Ferguson is a city of about 21,000 in north St. Louis county. According to the 2010 census, about 67 percent of its population are black and about 29 percent are white, including the mayor, the police chief and all but one member of the Ferguson-Florissant School Board.

Only three of the 53 Ferguson police officers are black, according to The Associated Press. Blacks accounted for about 86 percent of traffic stops and about 93 percent of arrests resulting from traffic stops in 2013, according to state documents.

Quincy Berry, an MU sophomore pursuing a degree in nursing, is from Florissant, just a few miles from Ferguson, and went to Hazelwood Central High School. She said she went to the Canfield Green apartment complex on Aug. 9 with friends who knew Brown.

"I've never felt that way," Berry said. "You could feel the hurt of the people."

Berry said there were candles placed near a telephone pole in the 2900 block of Canfield Drive, where Brown was killed. She thought the tension she sensed all around her was because Brown "had potential. He had a future."

Xavier Williams, an MU sophomore majoring in computer science, said he considers the area of Ferguson and Florissant his home. His grandparents live within a mile of where Brown was killed, and he considers Family of Faith Missionary Baptist Church at 9105 W. Florissant Ave. his place of worship. He said his father, who was at the church on Aug. 9, heard the gunshots that took Brown's life.

Williams said he thought about joining the peaceful protests, but he does not support the riots and looting.

"I understand the frustration and anger of my people, but we have to find better ways to convey this message to those outside of the community," Williams wrote in an email. "From the outside looking in it makes us black people seem violent and ignorant, feeding into the negative stereotypes surrounding North County."

Williams said while a police presence was probably necessary, "militarization and excessive force" only served to increase the tension between the police and "extremely skeptical" citizens.

Molly Gaia, a Hazelwood Central graduate and an MU senior majoring in communications, said Ferguson was a normal hangout for her and her friends, a place of great local businesses and kind people.

"The things happening here are unjust," Gaia wrote in an email. "Peaceful protesters are being threatened by a militarized police force. Tear gas and rubber bullets are being thrown at them (for) 'unlawful gathering.'"

Stephanie Baker, an MU education major from Florissant who attended Hazelwood West, said she thought the amount of violence had been "enormously downplayed in the media."

Baker said her high school journalism teacher was participating in a demonstration on Aug. 10, the mood of which changed from peaceful to violent when night fell. As the teacher walked past the QuikTrip, he was hit in the head by a brick and his cell phone was stolen out of his hand.

Despite what many people are saying, Baker said she doesn't think the demonstrations were the result of racial tension.

"My high school was very diverse and we were like a family," Baker wrote. "There weren't racial problems that I saw."

Duncan disagrees. He says his experiences in Ferguson and Florissant have taught him that forms of racism still exist in 2014.

"When I was growing up, you would call the police if you needed protection, but in this case, the police was who (Brown) needed the protection from, so it's like who do you call to protect you from the police?" Duncan said.

Supervising editor is Landon Woodroof.

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