“As a community we are more
divided than we were twenty
months ago”

Emily Davis, Ferguson Collaborative

When Emily Davis handed a can of gasoline that her son had found to a police officer, she had no idea what she was getting into. Davis, a friend and their two 8-year-old sons were volunteering to clean up after the riots along West Florissant Avenue in November, 2014.

Twenty-five buildings in the Ferguson area had been torched in the violence that erupted after a grand jury declined to prosecute police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Emily Davis and friend help clean along West Florissant, November 2014: Photo AP

Emily Davis and friend help clean along West Florissant, November 2014: Photo AP

“The first police officer we tried, she blew us off and wasn’t very friendly,” Davis told us. “About ten minutes later, she decided she should have done something about it and then she came back and got my name and information."

Davis thought nothing of it until, a month later, two police officers knocked at her door.

“They said, 'Does Emily Davis live here?' And I said, 'Yes, it is me.' And they said 'No, we are looking for Emily Davis.' And I am like, 'I am Emily Davis. I live here,'” she said.

She says the officers seemed totally confused and began sifting through their paperwork. Finally, they decided it was the wrong house and started to walk away.

“Is this about a gas can?” Davis asked.

The officers turned around and asked how she knew. She told them her son found it - and the officers asked to speak with him. When they found out he was 8, they again thought they were at the wrong house and, Davis said, that they thought the right address was on the other side of West Florissant, a predominantly African American neighborhood.

“They were not expecting me to be white,” said Davis. “The thing that was alarming the most was that they wanted to do a DNA swab so that they could rule people in or out.”

Emily Davis, Ferguson Colaborative: Photo AP

Emily Davis, Ferguson Colaborative: Photo AP

The officers did not ask to swab Davis or her son. She told VOA she was thinking of an African American friend who lived on the other end of Florissant and had two sons, both in their late teens.

“If I had been her, and my boys decided to leave when they [the police] showed up, this could have gone down very differently,” she said.

Davis described the whole incident as “eye opening” and symptomatic of the kind of racial bias outlined in the Justice Department’s investigation of the Ferguson police department.

After then-Attorney General Eric Holder visited Ferguson and talked with members of the community, the Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation into the police department and the municipal court.

In a report released in March, 2015, the DOJ found the police department systematically conducted stops without reasonable suspicion, made arrests without probable cause, and often used excessive force.

The report found the Ferguson municipal court focused more on revenue than public safety, violating the due process and equal protection requirements of the constitution. The report also stated that these violations disproportionately impacted the African American community in Ferguson.

Davis says most people in Ferguson knew the police department had a certain reputation when it came to African Americans, but were shocked at the extent of the findings.

“I didn’t understand how significant it [racial bias] was. And once I and many people in Ferguson – white people – discovered the truth, because we haven’t been paying attention the way we should have been," Davis said, "I felt like it was time to speak up for the change that we wanted to see.”

Citizens attend city council meeting: Photo AP

Citizens attend city council meeting: Photo AP

The Justice Department began negotiations with the city to force changes within the police department and municipal court. In January of 2016, a 127-page draft agreement was released that touched on everything from police training and use-of-force policies, to wearing body cameras.

It also mandated an overhaul of the municipal court system, including hiring an independent monitor to oversee the changes.

Emily Davis is part of the Ferguson Collaborative, a group of concerned citizens who have been following the debate over the agreement – and she spoke before the city council in its favor.

Citizens at city council meeting: Photo AP

Citizens at city council meeting: Photo AP

The city council initially rejected the agreement arguing it was too costly. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles then gave several interviews with the media where he questioned the DOJ’s findings that police violated citizens’ civil rights.

The Justice Department immediately filed a lawsuit against the city, adding more pressure. The city council made plans to vote again and, with the help of a recently-appointed member who favored the agreement, it passed in March of this year.

Emily Davis says many obstacles still remain. She talks regularly with city council members and says she is sometimes amazed at their lack of engagement in implementing the plan.

“I had this conversation with a city council member the other day where I kept saying, 'Well, this happened and that happened and then what about this piece.' And the city council person kept saying, 'Well I wasn’t there for that – I didn’t know about that,'" Davis said. "And I am thinking, 'If you haven’t been paying attention to that, why did you think it was your job to become a decision-maker in the community?'”

Davis says the biggest obstacle to progress is that some white people in the community are still not willing to accept either that there is a racial divide and or that the findings in the DOJ report are true.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles speaking at city council meeting: Photo AP

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles speaking at city council meeting: Photo AP

“I actually feel like as a community we are more divided than we were 20 months ago,” she told us. “When the mayor continues to engage in a narrative that 'This is not true, this did not happen, the Department of Justice is just out to get us, they are the bad guys and we are not,' that just widens the gap in a lot of ways.”

Voices from Ferguson