FERGUSON, Mo.—Once when Sandy Sunsevere’s dog Butter went for an unsanctioned trip around the neighborhood, it wasn’t animal control that captured the animal. It was the Ferguson Police Department.
“The police officer pulled his car up to my house and said, ‘I think I have Butter in the back seat,'” recalls Sunsevere, 55, who has lived in this typically quiet suburb of St. Louis for 27 years. “I just thought to myself, ‘Now how did he manage to get out?'”
The small act of thoughtfulness saved her a possible fine from animal control of at least $100. It wasn’t the only time the local police went out of their way to do their jobs. Last year, when thieves unsuccessfully tried to break into her home and managed to only make off with a new snow shovel from the front porch, it was the police who helped her recover the tool.
“They had snow shovels lined up [that had been stolen] and I had to identify mine.”
Just those recent experiences with some of the Ferguson police are reason enough for Sunsevere to be a fierce advocate for the rights of officers who have been lambasted in recent months. They’ve been under national scrutiny following the fallout from the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson in August.
Though she has never met Wilson, who has been with the Ferguson Police Department for about six years, Sunsevere now volunteers as a manager at the I Love Ferguson gift shop, just a stone’s throw from the police station.
She said on Monday at the shop that the behavior from protesters she’s witnessed in the aftermath of the shooting and subsequent protests has been upsetting.
“They yelled at the policemen, they threw bricks, they threw urine,” she said of the tension over the summer. “You don’t have to curse. You don’t have to belittle people.” Police have been harshly criticized themselves for hurling insults and smoke grenades at protesters and journalists. They have since undergone a mandatory training on civil rights and community relations, according to officials.
There have been no other reported complaints over police conduct. In fact, just ahead of the grand jury announcement that’s expected within days, police have been remarkably restrained as a handful of protesters have staged actions including blocking traffic and marching on the St. Louis County Police Department.
At the I Love Ferguson shop, which donates its proceeds to help Ferguson businesses recover from damage done by rioting and looting, Sunsevere said she’s continued to see protesters block the streets and disrespect the rights of residents. Vendors who run a weekend market near the store have also had to deal with protesters who have used a parking lot next door as a staging ground, and a local festival was canceled over fears of unrest.
“I call it domestic terrorism,” she said, adding that things have gone on this way for so long now that she “hates hearing sirens.” But Sunsevere also finds the claims of institutionalized racism protesters are making ring somewhat hollow.
“If there was a race issue, why wasn’t it brought to our attention earlier?” she asked. Sunsevere is white. Others have echoed similar sentiments. The town’s mayor, James Knowles, said in an Al-Jazeera interview on Monday that he regretted saying that there is no racial divide in America, though he said race relations in Ferguson were positive before the Brown shooting.
In Sunsevere’s estimation, the activists who have come into the community since August to focus on positive ways to bring about change are on the right track. Of those protesting in the streets she thinks they’d be better off to “take all your energy and do something good with it.”
A Canceled Birthday
Dorothy Kaiser, 80, who also volunteers at the I Love Ferguson store, also decries the numerous disruptions that she said have come to make her feel like a prisoner in her own hometown of 78 years.
“It’s a cool, cool bedroom community,” she said. “We have many houses here that are over 100 years old. But I had to cancel my 80th birthday party because of what’s been going on.”
Though Kaiser is clearly a proud resident who has chosen to stay in Ferguson over a long lifetime, she resents the pervasively negative image that has been painted in the past few months.
“It made us look like a ghetto town, and we’re not a ghetto town.” Kaiser is white.
Clearly still shaken by the recent trauma and anticipation over what might happen when a grand jury announces its decision about whether or not to indict Officer Wilson for shooting Brown, Kaiser’s first thought is for everyone else’s safety.
“I pray there is not going to be [violence]. I’m concerned there’s going to be people who are going to be hurt.”
Yet as is often the case with wisdom gained by living a long life, Kaiser is pragmatic in considering who was really right or wrong: Wilson or Brown.
“What took place only those two people will ever know for positive.”