Students in Ferguson, Missouri, hope for peace as grand jury decides fate of policeman who shot unarmed teen

Students in Ferguson, Missouri, hope for peace as grand jury decides fate of policeman who shot unarmed teen

Michael Brown, 18, was shot dead by a policeman on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri in the United States. His death sparked riots as black people highlighted the injustice of police actions. Brown was unarmed, his killer was white. As America waits, on edge, to hear if the policeman will be charged, teens tell how they have been affected by this turmoil

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Ngone Seck talks about how the riots have affected her.
Ngone Seck talks about how the riots have affected her.
Photo: Washington Post

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Police confront demonstrators protesting the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown outside the police station on November 19.
Police confront demonstrators protesting the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown outside the police station on November 19.
Photo: Agence France-Presse

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Police rush in to break up protesters outside the Ferguson Police Station in Ferguson, on November 20 as they await the grand jury's verdict.
Police rush in to break up protesters outside the Ferguson Police Station in Ferguson, on November 20 as they await the grand jury's verdict.
Photo: EPA

Everyone has a Michael Brown story, and Ngone Seck is telling hers as she sits with several friends at RiverviewGardensHigh School, where she's a in her first year.

On August 9, the last Saturday before school was to start, she and her father left their home in the Canfield Green flats to pick up a friend. And it was in that moment that everything changed.

Angry residents were pouring onto the street. An unarmed black 18-year-old had just been killed by a white police officer and as the crowd was continuing to grow, more police were showing up.

A bit of background

The teenager was Michael Brown. The police officer was Darren Wilson, 28. Everyone has an opinion on what happened that night. But, what we know is that Brown and a friend were walking down the road. Wilson was in a police car. He ordered the pair to walk on the pavement.

There was a struggle between Brown and Wilson, through the window of the car, and a shot was fired inside the police car. Brown and his friend ran away. Wilson chased Brown and shot him six time. Many people say that when he was shot, Brown had raised his hands and was surrendering to Wilson.

From that moment on everything changed in Ferguson . . .

"His stepdad stopped our car," Ngone, 15, recalls. "And he had a cardboard sign that said that someone had executed his son."

Constant protests, constant fear

Riverview Gardens sits just outside this small suburb, but many Ferguson teenagers are enrolled here, including a number who live in the Canfield Green complex.

They have spent three long months living in the aftermath of the shooting - the civil unrest and rioting, a militarised police response that shocked the country, and school delays. The protests haven't stopped, the conversation is constant, and uncertainty covers the metro area like a second skin.

That massive unrest may erupt again soon has students even more anxious, frustrated and emotionally exhausted.

A grand jury is expected to announce soon whether it believes the shooting was unjustified or whether the officer, Darren Wilson, was threatened and simply doing what he was trained to do if he feared for his life. Few here seem to believe he will face criminal charges and are preparing for another social explosion.

Kaylen Lucas, 16, sums it up.

"We come to school every day and at least someone says: I didn't think we were going to have school today," said the second year student. "It’s really stressful, everybody is talking about getting all of our work done before the schools get shut down if there are riots."

The others nod in agreement. Besides Ngone and Kaylen, there is Alexis Adams, Cassandra Bell and Kenyon Moore, the only boy. They are band mates and friends, brought together this year because of their passion for music, and who've stayed together through a term that they will always remember - if for too many of the wrong reasons.

These are tense times for students all over the greater St Louis area. Schools have been promised they will be warned about the timing of a grand jury announcement. Some districts have given out homework packets in case of closings. Now it's just the waiting.

The anxiety even reaches across the Mississippi. Last week at a forum in East St Louis, Illinois, a minister asked how many of the young people present feared that they could die like Brown, dozen of hands flew up.

But nowhere is the intensity as real as it is at RiversideGardens, where Brown was once a student before he transferred.

Boarded building and helicopters

The protests have been in their neighbourhoods, the boarded buildings line the streets, and sleep can still be elusive - the shouting of protesters, the noise of helicopters, and sometimes it's simply the worrying about what may come.

Ngone and her friends are desperately hoping for everyone to be wrong about that. They want it all to be over, really.

Because it truly is awful when someone so close to their age is killed, it’s especially unsettling when its a police-involved shooting, and this horrible thing has taken over all aspects of their lives.

And there's this: They've all been working their butts off preparing for a concert. And if things blow up again, it will be one more cancellation, one more disappointment.

Ngone's first year wasn’t supposed to go this way.

She loves school, was so excited about starting, then it was delayed. Her aunt’s beauty supply shop, which sits just up the street on W. Florissant, was looted. And her parents, immigrants who speak little English, keep threatening to pull her from school. The family will move away, they say, at least until everything has blown over.

"I barely made it to school, my parents were really scared," Ngone said. "Especially because it was right in front of our house and the rioting was happening right there."

Then school band performances and practices were cancelled, along with sports clubs and other activities.

Events cancelled

That was especially frustrating for her friend Alexis, a studious 17-year-old senior trying to plan for college next year. It's been hard to keep up with band, tennis and National Honor Society meeting, when they were all getting scraped.

"I try to keep my mind off of it," says Alexis, who lives in a nearby neighbourhood.

Keeping things calm

Many of their teachers, the students say, have worked to diffuse conversations about the shooting. Their unachievable goal has been to keep the young, easily distracted minds focused on school.

Natasha Dupee has struggled to find the right ways to allow productive classroom conversations about the shootings.

"I've had comments that ranged from 'I’m not going to be the next Mike Brown' to outrage at the looting and violence," Dupee says. "Even for the students not directly affected or who are more removed from the shooting, they all feel like this is something deeply affecting their community."

And she worries about the kids’ safety.

The third-year science and women's studies teacher was driving near Canfield on that Saturday, when she heard about a fatal shooting. She panicked.

"My heart immediately went to 'where are my students?" recalls Dupee, 24.

She started texting students to try to find out who had been killed. By Sunday evening, she had reached all but one girl in her classes.

Family ties

A week or so after classes began, she finally heard from the student.

"Mike Brown was my cousin," the girl told Dupee.

Principal Darius Kirk remembers hearing a chorus of police sirens on the day of the shooting, then getting a barrage of texts from students saying a former student had been shot and killed by police and that he should come as quickly as possible.

Then, he started receiving texts saying he should stay away because masses of police had arrived and were pointing guns at everyone.

His focus, he said, for both staff and students has been to get them to understand the difference between reacting and responding. Reacting, he said, is a knee-jerk approach without thinking. Responding is thinking first then acting.

Constitutional rights

Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, has visited to talk about his work, and Kirk says he has also had lawyers come to help students understand their constitutional rights. The school's art class has been working on a mural of Brown.

It was around October students and staff say when things seemed to begin to settle down. After school activities resumed, and even the homecoming dance was a success.

That night Cassandra, 15, wore a knee-length mint and black dress. A quiet girl, she had been frustrated all year by the anger and protests that have engulfed her community. She thinks something needs to be done about the relationship between residents and the police, but there has been a tonne of talk,and it doesn't seem like anything is getting better.

She remembers when she and some of her cousins were followed by a police officer who was working security at a local clothing store.

"It made me really upset," she said. "Was it because we are black?"

But homecoming was like it was supposed to be, the way the rest of the year was supposed to be. The friends went as a group instead of finding dates. They got upset with the DJ - he wouldn't play Hot Boy, a summer hit. They teased Ngone, who shied away from the dance floor, and they scooped up second (and third) pieces of cake from the refreshment table.

Lately, it's slipped back to the way it was at the start of the school year.

The chatter in the yellow and blue hallways between classes is dominated by speculation and worry.

Rehearse and hope

Ngone and her friends have thrown themselves into band practice. They've been furiously preparing, showing up on weekends for extra rehearsals, and selling the US$10 tickets to family, friends, whoever will buy. It's their first headline show in the Sheldon Concert Hall, a major venue.

The programme is on Sunday. They know that any day now their efforts could be washed away. But that's beyond their control, so they rehearse and hope.

Kenyon, who plays the trombone, refuses to entertain the looming possibility.

He sinks deeper into his chair, prattling on about how nervous he is about the performance, about how much he wants things to go off well.

If they could, they would turn back the clock to August 8, for the chance that things could take a different, better turn.

"We’ve been practicing every day," he says about the concert. "There are going to be so many people."

Note: A few days after the shooting a video was released by the police which showed Brown robbing a shop just minutes before he was shot. Police were heavily criticised for showing the video as it would seem to be an excuse for Wilson's actions, but as yet we don't know if Wilson knew of the robbery.

 

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