They gathered overnight in the driving rain on the sidewalk outside the Police Department, where angry protesters have marched for months. But this time the shirts, buttons and signs carried a different message: "I Love Ferguson.”
There would be no clashes with police tonight, no raucous street protests by the crowd of older white residents. Many of them had volunteered at the “I Love Ferguson” storefront across the street, a nonprofit started to counter the spirit of division and criticism that followed the Aug. 9 death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American shot by a white police officer.
Those gathered late Friday said they support local police -- to a point. They also see the need to improve policing after a scathing Justice Department report earlier this month that found police routinely violated the rights of African Americans.
“We love this community, and we will do what it takes to make the changes,” said Susan Ankenbrand, a former City Council member and 40-year resident who organized the gathering. “We care deeply about all the residents, not just the white residents. We need to make sure we’re addressing the needs of all the residents, more inclusive.”
Some members of the group, like Sandy Sansevere, live in historic homes in Old Ferguson East, a world away from the Canfield Green apartment complex on the other side of town where Brown was shot after a confrontation with Officer Darren Wilson.
Police did not appear at first on Friday night, as they had the night before when a commander mixed with protesters. When a St. Louis County officer showed up in the rain, Sansevere shook his hand and thanked him. The mayor passed by a bit later and praised the gathering, which included his father.
“Some of us just don’t get it,” Sansevere, 55, said as she stood under an umbrella in an “I love Ferguson” sweat shirt holding a sign she had made featuring a quote from Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity: “For a community to be whole and healthy, it must be based on people’s love and concern for each other.”
“The problems may have been there, but they were new to me,” agreed Mike Brandon, 45, a local contractor whose business and psyche suffered as protests stretched on over the months.
“A lot of this just destroyed me,” he said.
Brandon filled his down time by painting inspiring messages on the plywood covering downtown storefronts shattered by looters after a grand jury refused to indict Wilson in November. Brandon loves town events, including the farmers market set to reopen this spring, and wants to see them drawing a diverse crowd like they used to before Brown’s shooting divided the city.
“We want our people back. We want everybody to come back and be a part of it,” Brandon said. “We would like to change. We want to improve, to be able to help what other people feel is the problem, because we didn’t see it.”
Follow @mollyhf for news from Ferguson and across the nation.