“It's not right that the police
respond to me in this way”
Francesca Griffin, Ferguson Activist
It was the fear Francesca Griffin saw in her seven-year-old daughter’s eyes that angered her.
Griffin brought her three children and other family members to a vigil for Michael Brown the day after he was killed by a white police officer.
“I felt for Mike Brown’s mother,” said Griffin. “As a mother I related to her. I have kids. My kids are large. My kids are black,” she said.
After the vigil, a group agreed to march up West Florissant Avenue and hold a sit-down protest.
Marchers along West Florissant Avenue, August: 2014: Photo AP
“My kids and I, we started marching with the crowd, and the unity I felt and the passion I felt, it was like it was the first time I had felt that being in Ferguson,” said Griffin. She had never been involved with protests before. Born and raised in St. Louis City, she moved her family to nearby Ferguson in 2005, lured by lower real estate prices and the opportunity to own a home.
As the crowd approached the McDonald's on West Florissant, she says there was a line of Ferguson police officers in full riot gear waiting for them.
“Immediately, you saw all the women and children, they went to the side. And all the young guys and teenagers, they just stood up and, like, they held their ground,” said Griffin.
Griffin moved her children to the side of a nearby barber shop. She then went back into the street to find a young cousin still in the crowd. That’s when she saw the police line open up and, she said, a patrol car started driving straight at the protesters. The crowd jumped out of the way of the car. Then some protesters picked up what they could find on the ground and started throwing it at the officers.
When the police began to advance on the crowd, Griffin grabbed her daughter by the hand and started running.
“The fear in my daughter’s eyes, she literally broke from my hands and ran off because she was so scared,” said Griffin. “I was like I couldn’t protect her. And in her mind, in her reality, no matter what I said to her, she thought the police were trying to shoot her."
It was the start of several nights of unrest in Ferguson. Deeply angered, Griffin said it was a life changing experience. She had always taught her children that if they were in trouble, run to a police officer. For her, now, the trouble was the police.
“If it wasn’t for the police officers responding the way they did, like, it wouldn’t have happened I believe," she said.
Police arrest protester to disperse crowd, August 2014: Photo AP
Griffin said the only way to fix the situation was to get involved. So she and her daughter started attending protests across from the police station on a regular basis.
One night at another protest, while standing next to the Ferguson police chief, she was arrested for “failure to comply” with a police officer’s orders, a broadly definable offense that carries a sentence of up to a year in jail. She says she was assaulted by a police officer.
Griffin declined to talk with us about the details of what happened that night because the case is still open. Her first trial ended in a hung jury and city prosecutors are moving forward with a second trial, scheduled for March 2017.
The first trial centered on whether an officer had ordered her to drop her keys, and whether it was permissible for her to put them in her bra.
During successive nights of turmoil, dozens of Ferguson citizens were charged with “failing to comply.”
Police arrest protester to disperse crowd, August 2014:Photo AP
But even after a highly critical Justice Department report that singled out Ferguson police for routinely abusing the “failure to comply” charge, and an agreement mandating police and court reforms, private lawyers hired by the city to prosecute the cases refused to back down - even in cases the Justice Department cited in its report as violating the constitutional rights of citizens.
Ferguson’s chief prosecutor Stephanie Karr defended moving forward to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Violations of law are contrary to the public health, safety and welfare. Therefore the public interest is served by taking action to prevent further violations of the law by making offenders accountable,” Karr wrote in an email.
Memorial at the spot where Michael Brown was killed: Photo AP
After Michael Brown’s death and the Justice Department investigation, many senior Ferguson officials resigned, including the city manager, court clerk. police chief, municipal judge and about a dozen police officers. But Karr, even though she was singled out in the Justice Department report, stayed on.
Critics began to question why the city was paying out thousands of dollars in legal fees for questionable cases when Ferguson was millions of dollars in debt. The cases are now being heard before a circuit court judge and many have been thrown out.
According to the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator, in a 14-month period that ended last February, Ferguson prosecutors lost 40 percent of their cases, the highest rate among similarly sized municipalities in Missouri.
“What has happened is people have moved up to the circuit court,” said recently appointed Ferguson city manager DeCarlon Seewood. “So the process takes longer and is more arduous because it has moved up to a higher level. And so I think that we have only a handful of those cases left,” he told VOA.
Seewood is working diligently to try to bring the city budget under control, but was quoted in local media as stating it would be unethical for him to interfere in the city’s prosecutorial matters.
After months of criticism in the media and protests during city council meetings and at her home - with protesters holding signs with the word “Karruption,” - Stephanie Karr offered to resign in late May. She remains in her post until a new prosecutor is found.
Francesca Griffin says it is one of a few hard-fought changes in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. But in all of the turmoil of the past two years, the change she holds most dear is the one she sees in her daughter.
“She went from being scared,” she said, “to 'I have a right to do this. I have a right to protest, to speak up. And it’s not right that the police respond to me in this way.'”