There were several extremely tense moments last night at Greater Grace Church at the first Ferguson City Council meeting since the shooting death of Michael Brown one month ago. Police presence in the lobby of the church was heavy as attendees walked through metal detectors. The first time proceedings screeched to a halt amid shouting came after Mayor James Knowles announced that, per normal procedures, each speaker would be allowed three minutes of public comment, but no one on the council would answer questions.
Knowles did, however, receive tepid approval at the first reading of several bills designed to reform parts of the municipal code that, in the wake of the shooting, have been highlighted as unfair to the city's minorities and working poor. But as the public comment period began (the "fill out a comment card" system falling apart almost immediately), it was clear many in the audience felt the new bills were just platitudes.
"We're not going to let you go back to business as usual," said local activist Ashley Yates. "We're going to hold you accountable. How many police officers have been let go? We're gonna make sure they all get let go."
The bills read last night would repeal an automatic fee for having a vehicle towed, toss out certain fees for municipal court cases, limit to 15 percent the amount of money the city's general fund can receive from court fines and make a failure to appear in municipal court no longer a separate offense. Knowles also announced a bill for the formation of a citizen review board as well as an outstanding warrant recall program set for September 15 to October 15. Much of what Knowles said on these items was read from the same statement announcing the changes from the day prior -- read more about that here.
If the changes to the city law were meant as an apology, it was clearly too late for Terri Franks, the mother of twin seventeen-year-old boys who she says have been constantly pulled over since they got their licenses a year ago, swamping her with court fees.
"You make your money off of our backs," she said. "I'm constantly coming to court for something as frivolous as a blinker not being on."
Michael-John Voss, an attorney with the ArchCity Defenders, told Daily RFT that the changes the city is making are "great," though they stopped far short of what he and his colleagues are asking the city to do: Grant total amnesty to Ferguson residents with nonviolent warrants and fines sitting on their records, these being mainly for traffic offenses.
"You can see the anger and resentment here," said Voss. "[The city] has to divide the administration of justice from the desire to raise revenue...there has to be a real commitment to show it's not about the money."
Another major flare-up occurred after Pastor Carlton Lee, a representative of Michael Brown's family, came to deliver a message from them.
"Why hasn't Officer Darren Wilson been arrested? We will wait for the answer right now. We'll wait for it," he said, mocking the council's silence.
"We have no jurisdiction to make that arrest, so I cannot answer that question," Knowles said finally.
Next someone shouted whether or not Wilson was still being paid, and -- when Knowles clammed up -- two women rushed the stage screaming at the council and seemingly in tears. They had to be pushed back and calmed by other members of the crowd.
Anthony Gray, part of the team representing the Brown family, stood with Lee on the side of the room.
"We're asking for the arrest today," Gray told Daily RFT. "Darren Wilson gets to sit back, peaceful and private."
Gray said the renewed call for the arrest comes from the revelation that two construction workers from outside the community witnessed the shooting and said Brown had his hands up. Gray said their seeming impartiality and the fact that they corroborate many of the other witness statements should be enough for an arrest.
"They have absolutely no connection to Canfield, Michael Brown or Ferguson," said Lee.
As for how the family itself is faring, Gray said, "Life is getting more and more out of sorts."
The meeting stretched on for three angry hours as attendees called for the entire council to step down; for the chief of the Ferguson police, Thomas Jackson, to be fired; and for more help in general for the people in Ferguson when it comes to jobs, education and business opportunities. Eventually, the church's pastor informed the crowd that he had to close the meeting at 10 p.m., setting off further outcry. Though the last stragglers rushed up to the stage, they eventually calmed down and dispersed.
Despite the bitter tone of almost every speaker, Ferguson committeewoman Patricia Bynes told Daily RFT she didn't think the evening had been fruitless.
"There are some people who wanted to be heard by the council because they feel like they've been hiding from them," she said.
However, she acknowledged that not answering questions and including some regular city business on the agenda must have appeared ridiculous to those in the audience unfamiliar with normal city-council procedures.
"There's a disconnect because city business had to be done," she said.
Outside in the rain-soaked parking lot, some young people lingered to shout taunts at departing law-enforcement officers, before themselves disappearing into the night.
Email the author at Jessica.Lussenhop@RiverfrontTimes.com.