On August 9 in Ferguson, Mo., 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by local police officer Darren Wilson, spurring residents to mass displays of protest. Local and state police are attempting to control the situation, but their militarized response tactics—including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets—have served to inflame rather than to calm.
But tragedy and unrest are not the whole picture in Ferguson. Residents are also mobilizing to support each other in a variety of ways—including by organizing safe spaces where they can gather to talk about what they’ve been feeling over the past few weeks.
It was the first public gathering since Michael Brown's death. "There was a human need to connect."
Believing that the community needed a safe outlet to deal with the emotions of Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent police response to demonstrations, Molly Rockamann organized what she calls a “listening project”—a space for people to gather, talk, and be heard.
Rockamann is founding director at nearby EarthDance Farms, and runs a booth at the Ferguson farmers market most weekends. She felt that the market would be a good place to hold the project.
So she sent out an invitation via email and Facebook to thousands of people in Ferguson and the surrounding area, asking them to come to the market and participate. Meanwhile, she found two social workers who agreed to facilitate the listening project.
Other than the demonstrations, the farmers market on Saturday, August 16, was the first public gathering since Michael Brown's death, and "there was a human need to connect," Rockamann said. "I wanted there to be some sort of acknowledgement of what had happened."
The project itself was simple. With the help of volunteers who work at the market, the social workers set up a few chairs inside pop-up tents and made signs to let people know that they could come in and talk. The volunteers also made signs offering free hugs.
Margaret Howard, one of the social workers, said the goal was to "provide a space for listening, so people could say whatever they needed to say."
“A lot of people felt that the police response stopped them from expressing themselves, which exacerbated the trauma of Michael’s death,” Howard said. Even if they didn't actually come into the tent and talk, she said, it was important for people to know that a space existed where they could go and be heard.
Listening and healing
From 8 a.m. to noon, Howard saw a steady stream of people coming in to talk. “I was rarely alone in the tent.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common emotion expressed was grief. “What I saw on everyone's faces was a lot of sadness,” she said. “Under that was anger and weariness.”
“People would come in tense or reticent,” she said. “At the end some would shed tears, give a sigh of relief, say thank you.” Because time was so limited, Howard added, the listening project wasn't real therapy. She didn't say much, just listened and validated what people were feeling.
The emotions of the crowd were complex, Rockamann said. “There was frustration, there was sadness, there was anger, there was hope, there were prayers for healing. ... I think people were really eager to just be there and be embraced by the community.”
What struck her the most, though, was “how much people were responding to the free hugs signs.”
Rockamann said she will keep the listening project going every week that she can continue to get volunteers. Therapists from Provident, a Ferguson-based counseling service, will volunteer as facilitators in the coming weeks. And at the nearby Florissant Valley Community College, a group of students and volunteers are starting a listening project of their own.
The listening project at the farmers market is just one example of how the residents of Ferguson and nearby places are dealing with Michael Brown’s death and the police response in a constructive, compassionate way.
For Rockamann, the listening project raises questions about mainstream media coverage of the aftermath of Brown’s death.
“There’s not nearly enough attention going to all the peaceful demonstrations,” she said, pointing out that protests she’s participated in have been deeply peaceful.
But the bigger problem is that “[the media] are painting with a broad brush the different players involved, assuming that if you’re white, you think one way; if you’re black, you think another way; if you’re police, you think another way,” she said.
“There’s such diversity of opinion that can’t be conveyed in a 30-second sound bite.”
Correction: This article originally stated that Michael Brown was killed on August 8. The actual date was August 9, 2014.