The crucible of Ferguson — and a family it changed

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FERGUSON, Missouri (CNN) — For a while, Stefannie Wheat wished she could turn back the clock to a time before the hot August afternoon when Michael Brown’s body fell limp on Canfield Road.

She grew frustrated and angry that her life was upended by the shooting death of a young black man at the hands of a white police officer — and by everything that transpired in the aftermath.

The demonstrations, the looting, the violence. The verbal venom hurled at her family and the way matters of race suddenly became front and center.

Wheat faced confrontations with protesters who saw her as another white woman who didn’t understand. Never mind that she has been married to a black man for 18 years and that they adopted a black child.

They took shots at her husband Ken, too — calling him a sellout, a black man siding with the white community, partly because the Wheats are good friends with Ferguson Mayor James Knowles.

The couple had tried to raise their son Christopher in a home where race was invisible.

“Ken and I don’t discuss race with Christopher,” Stefannie says. “We discuss character.”

They largely succeeded in their plan. Until everything changed.

Now as a new year begins, Stefannie realizes life in Ferguson can never be the same. And that she has been changed, too.

“I didn’t have a choice,” she says one afternoon over a lunch of shrimp and pasta she prepared at her home just two blocks from the Ferguson Police Department, the staging ground for demonstrations.

Behind her, the window pane in her back door is busted — broken by an intruder caught on the Wheats’ newly installed surveillance camera. Stefannie covered the shattered glass with plywood and painted it to look like a ribbon-tied Christmas gift.

She suspects the intruder was someone linked to protesters who taunted her before. She cannot forgive such acts of violation but has also come to accept that perhaps the frustrations of Ferguson’s majority black community have long simmered beneath the surface.

“We became blind to what was happening around us,” she says.

A conversation with a friend made her rethink her frame of reference. So did watching her 10-year-old son deal with the ugly ways race can be made an issue.

A boy at school asked him: “Why is your mother white?”

“What does it matter?” Christopher responded. “A mom is a mom no matter what color they are. Why is your mom black?”

Stefannie was proud of her son’s answer. But she has also come to realize that she can’t shield him from racial prejudice.

“We’ve lived in our own circle for so long that we’ve forgotten it exists,” she says. “There’s apparently an underlying need for change in Ferguson.

“I don’t want to go back to the normal we knew.”

Preparing for the worst

Hours before a grand jury would reveal its decision in the Michael Brown case, Stefannie almost hit a pedestrian on her way home from work. She’d been anxious ever since she learned that the announcement was going to be made at 8 p.m. on Monday, November 24. She felt like a soldier stepping onto the battlefield.

More than three months had passed since the shooting. If the grand jury opted not to indict police Officer Darren Wilson, the fear was that Ferguson would again ignite with protests.

The couple packed survival bags that included enough clothes and medications for three days. They discussed an emergency plan with Christopher and wrote down four contact numbers just in case he got separated from his parents in a melee.

Stefannie kept thinking back to 1982 when her family had to abandon their home in Times Beach after the town, contaminated with dioxin, flooded and was deemed uninhabitable.

She wondered if Christopher would one day store Ferguson in his memory the same way, in a compartment of unpleasantries.

But she need not have worried. Her son packed his new favorite item of clothing: a bright Christmas t-shirt with the words “I Love Ferguson.”

“We are the Wheat family,” he told his mother, “and we are Ferguson strong.”

Stefannie smiled. But inside, she worried for Christopher’s safety. Not just on that night but beyond. One day soon he would be a young black man, like Michael Brown, and perhaps be affected by the color of his skin.

Stefannie, 45, grew up in all-white Eureka, Missouri, and didn’t know anyone who was black until integration arrived and black students were bused to her high school in the early 1980s. But Ken, 47, felt the sting of racial prejudice and discrimination. He would do well in phone interviews for jobs but there was no return call once an employer saw that he was black.

They’d married in 1997 and chose to move to Ferguson because they saw it as more racially tolerant than many other parts of St. Louis.

She found it difficult to understand how Ferguson had now become synonymous with racial tension in America.

She fried potatoes for dinner that night — comfort food, she thought, would do them well. Then, a half-hour before the courthouse announcement, she turned on the television. A local station was counting down the time to the decision as though it were New Year’s Eve and everyone was glued to their screens, waiting for the crystal ball to drop. Only it felt more like a ticking bomb.

Stefannie could hear the protesters gathering on South Florissant Road, around the historic lamp posts decorated with holiday greens and reds and under the lit up “Seasons Greetings” banner.

People were restless. She wondered: Would the crowd explode?

She took solace in Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s declaration of a state of emergency. He had mobilized the National Guard and she felt safer knowing soldiers were on hand to stave off violence. She could hear the whirring of helicopters hovering in the sky.

She thought it was surreal watching it unfold on television when it was happening just around the corner. But she and Ken dared not leave their house.

“It’s 7:59,” yelled Christopher from his room. His parents thought — foolishly — that he wasn’t paying attention.

The clock struck 8 and prosecuting attorney Robert McCollough began his news conference. Stefannie went outside and removed the “I Love Ferguson” sign from the front yard. She didn’t want to be a target. She left their American flag to flutter in the bitter cold.

Inside, Ken unlocked the gun case — they had recently purchased a firearm for the first time in their lives — and checked to make sure the freshly installed surveillance camera was working.

As McCollough spoke, the Wheats’ phone started ringing. Friends and family wanted to check on them. Christopher came into the living room to watch.

“It’s too late to hide this from him,” Stefannie thought. “Now we are forced to explain it.”

She was relieved when he opted to go back to his room to play with his iPad.

At 8:27, the Wheats learned that Wilson would not face any charges. McCollough read out the details of what the state says happened on August 9.

That day, Stefannie was at a car show with Christopher. Within minutes, photos and videos of Michael Brown filled her Facebook timeline.

Now, the rage over his killing was consuming the protesters all over again. “No justice! No peace!” they chanted.

They set police cars afire. They smashed store windows.

Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. The National Guard never came.

Stefannie learned from the news that the Little Caesar’s pizza place was burned to the ground. So was the storage facility on West Florissant Avenue. She wondered how many people had taken their valuables there for safekeeping only to have it all destroyed.

“We will rebuild,” she told herself.

Minutes felt like hours to the Wheats. A little after midnight, things had calmed down enough by their house and they decided to go to bed.

“Why, tonight is just like any other night,” Christopher declared as he climbed into bed with his parents. He wanted to make his mom feel better. But Stefannie knew he was scared.

Leaders ‘left our city to burn’

The next day, the family awoke to the destruction. They made their way to South Florissant Road and joined other volunteers to clean up the damage.

Christopher felt bad for Michael Brown’s parents but could not understand the violent nature of some of the protesters. He helped his father sell “I Love Ferguson” merchandise to raise money for businesses that suffered.

Over the next few weeks, Ferguson’s residents made art of the plywood on the buildings. They painted murals of peace, wrote messages of love and invoked their despair. They turned charred eyesores into beauty.

“The rioters and looters sought to destroy our city,” Stefannie says. “What they did instead was confirm our solidarity.”

She thought of how business owners must be suffering as she drove down South Florissant Road and West Florissant Avenue.

She was upset, too, because she believed state and federal authorities failed Ferguson.

“We’ve all been on this emotional roller coaster,” she says. “Governor Nixon and Attorney General (Eric) Holder promised protection through the National Guard but ignored our calls for help on the night of the grand jury decision. They left our city to burn.”‘

She couldn’t understand how any act of violence could result in positive change. Sometimes, she seethed inside — enough to make her want to pick up a baseball bat and beat any protester who confronted her. She wanted to bash the windshields of their cars.

One day, she was on the verge of doing just that when Christopher stopped her. He needed his mom, he told her.

Everyone has a place on earth, he said. Some for good, some bad. The Wheat family, he said, needed to stay positive.

“Look at the bright side, Mom,” he said. “You adopted me and now I get to live in Ferguson, make history and one day, my kids will read about this.”

Stefannie asked him about the protesters’ claims that racism thrived in Ferguson.

“I didn’t even know racial tension existed until now,” Christopher said to her. “I don’t get it, Mom. You’re white and I love you.”

A different perspective

The winter rain is unrelenting, as though Ferguson is drowning in its own tears.

It’s late December, and on West Florissant Avenue, where the charred remains of buildings give off an apocalyptic vibe, business owners are trying to raise money to recuperate from heavy losses.

Concrete jersey barriers still block the entrance to the Ferguson Police Department as they did the night of the grand jury decision. But the parking lot across the street, once teeming with protesters and media, lies vacant except for a solitary Toyota in front of the Subway sandwich shop. Some nearby eateries are starting to dismantle the protective plywood.

Slowly, Ferguson residents are attempting to return to a daily routine.

Frustrated that her life was being shaped by events that she could not control, Stefannie recently vented to a friend who is African-American. This was the closest to war she had ever come, she felt.

Her friend did not condone the looting, vandalism and arson and even apologized for them. But he also told her this:

“You’ve basically dealt with this since August. Imagine how some feel, having been judged their entire lives for something they also cannot control.”

His words were like a needle bursting a balloon. She realized she had been blind to his perspective.

In private online forums about Michael Brown’s case, she saw the racism that still exists. Someone had posted a photo of apes with a caption that read: “Ferguson protesters.”

In early December, she saw on the news that a group of protesters had set out to walk the 120 miles from the spot where Brown died to the state Capitol in Jefferson City.

Along the way, in the town of Rosebud, residents greeted protesters with fried chicken, watermelon and Confederate flags. They yelled racial epithets, and a bullet hit a bus that was driving alongside the marchers.

Stefannie was taken aback. They were just as bad as the protesters who had looted and vandalized.

“I have zero patience for racism, no matter who it comes from,” she says.

As the days wore on, the spotlight shifted from Ferguson to New York, where a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in the killing of a black man, Eric Garner.

Ferguson residents thought perhaps they could get back to the lives they were living before. Then came the shooting in neighboring Berkeley of another black 18-year-old.

Police say a surveillance video shows Antonio Martin pointed his gun at a police officer and the killing was justified. But it didn’t matter. Protesters clashed with police, and Ferguson residents like the Wheats remain on edge, fearful that anger can at any moment turn to aggression again.

“I get that people have grievances,” she says, “but don’t take it out on us.”

She and Ken also believe it’s not enough for people to protest. They want everyone to work together to fix the things that are wrong.

A few weeks ago, the Wheats took Christopher to Ferguson’s Christmas tree lighting. It was an annual community event that they never miss.

Ken was wearing his “I Love Ferguson” T-shirt.

“Do you want to buy a shirt?” he asked the protesters.

“I have some dirty underwear for sale,” came the response from one.

They questioned Ken’s “blackness” and called him crass names like “house n—-r.”

Christopher heard it all.

Stefannie wanted to shout out loud: “This is not a war between the races!”

Instead, she led her husband to a spot between the protesters and the “I Love Ferguson” booth — and kissed him.

It was her way of telling the world that Ferguson, known as the “hidden gem” of Missouri’s North County, could rise from the ashes and shine brighter than ever.

By Moni Basu

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