Kendan Elliott was on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri, in November 2014 when a grand jury announced it would not indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teenager, in a controversial episode that continues to have lingering effects. Before the ensuing civil unrest and after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, one aspect of the ordeal particularly resonated with Elliott.
“The thing that stands out most is talking with young African-American males, and really just capturing the look on their faces and the feeling of ‘why are they doing this to us?’ ” said Elliott, who works for a local nonprofit child services agency, Youth In Need, that serves the greater St. Louis area that includes Ferguson. “There was just this feeling that the people in the community, that everyone, has turned against them and they don’t know where to go with that disappointment and anger. You could see the hurt and the anger on their faces.”
That sentiment was apparently not lost on the DOJ, which two weeks ago proposed a multitiered consent decree that would in part force law enforcement in Ferguson to participate in certain city programs, such as the Ferguson Youth Initiative (FYI), to help foster positive youth-police relations — something local youth advocates say Ferguson teens have long requested to create and strengthen a bond between the two groups.
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After the six-member Ferguson city council last summer rejected the first draft of a consent decree with the DOJ, it is set to vote Tuesday night on whether to accept terms of the proposal’s latest incarnation. The decree would bring attention to underfunded youth programs, which officials say are sorely needed. But since Ferguson and its police department were found to be rife with corruption, local youth group leaders doubt any interaction with law enforcement, even if positive, can effectively mend racial animosity and shady municipal tactics that federal authorities say disproportionately targeted the city’s black youths.
“It’s going to take a long time and a lot of effort, not just words,” Elliott added. “There’s gotta be meaningful work done in the community to bridge things.”
Ferguson, a city with an African-American population of more than 67 percent, for years would routinely ticket and fine its residents, including teenagers, for offenses such as traffic violations and jaywalking. When they couldn’t afford to pay the associated fines and court fees, warrants for their arrests were issued, resulting in a local court system lopsidedly logjammed with black and brown faces. The city’s police force at the time of Brown’s shooting had 56 officers, three of whom were black. The intentional, concerted practice of racial profiling by both local government and its police force netted the city millions of ill-gotten dollars.
After Brown was killed, FYI, a nonprofit organization founded in 2010, began a program that allowed for teens to work off their misdemeanor offenses with charity work.
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Some teens in Ferguson have been advocating for better relations with police since the Brown shooting, holding a summit in November 2014 with the Ferguson Youth Initiative to explore ways to come together. The teens said they wanted to have more meetings with police officers, like sensitivity classes to discuss concepts such as stereotypes.
“That includes listening circles, social outings, dinners out; anything to basically remove the stigmas on both regards,” said Dwayne T. James, an FYI board member and one of three black Ferguson City council members. He said those stigmas need to change into the idea that “teenagers are people and so are police officers, they’re people as well.”
While the events in Ferguson surrounded the death of a teenager, it was community leaders and other adults who were frequently seen in the media coverage, resulting in young people feeling they didn’t have a venue to express their opinions about police, said Jacquelyn Lewis-Harris, a board member of FYI as well as director of Connecting Human Origin and Cultural Diversity at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
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Lewis-Harris, who is also an associate professor at the university’s College of Education and Department of Anthropology, said the opinion many of FYI’s teens have is “the police don’t really know us as people and we don’t really know police as people, and maybe if we got together at social events, or get together in sensitivity sessions where we can do role-playing, we can break down some barriers.”
Officers have previously been involved with the FYI, but on an individual basis, not on a group level, according to board member and Ferguson resident Anna Ravindranath. Both Ravindranath and Lewis-Harris said there hasn’t been a concerted effort on the behalf of the police department as a whole to regularly meet with Ferguson’s young people.
“A lot of youth don’t interact with police officers unless they’re being told to do something or not do something,” Ravindranath said. The Ferguson Police Department did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
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The DOJ expressly naming FYI in the decree will hopefully enable its members to write for bigger grants for more programming, as the group does not receive public funding, Lewis-Harris said. Being identified publicly like that should also make its brand name better known and allow the board to approach potential sources of funding more confidently, Ravindranath said.
But whether it leads to an increased number of meetings between youth and police is iffy at best, said Lewis-Harris, who is not optimistic on that front. FYI has had various police officers as well as adult city residents attend its events, but the group always wants more. With a proposed mandate from the DOJ, those meetings may happen more frequently, James, the council member, said.
“The past year and a half we’ve been talking about youth and giving focus to youth, so every report, every article, every decree, every video out there is saying that there is youth out there that needs to be listened to,” he said.