Advice for a town torn asunder from mayors who have been there.
Just over two weeks have passed since an 18-year-old man was gunned down by a police officer in the northern suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. After all the protests and unrest, the streets are finally beginning to clear, national media are packing up their bags and cameras—and Ferguson, it seems, will finally get some peace.
But as most of the cameras clear away, and the activists and the talking heads pack their bags, they leave behind a broken city with deep-set problems and simmering anger. Two mayors who have dealt with fallout from tragedies in their own cities spoke to National Journal about how they helped their communities to recover, offering Ferguson a roadmap to recovery.
"There's still going to be a lot of pain and a lot of frustration and numerous questions that the citizens are going to be asking. And they aren't going to go away until there's an effort to reach out and try to answer those questions," Aurora, Colorado, Mayor Steve Hogan said.
After the cameras cleared out of his town following a mass shooting that tore Aurora apart two years ago, Hogan says, the community needed to process what had happened. That's when, he said, he really need to step up and help his city talk through it. "I think the reaching out part is different in every community, but it has to happen."
After the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and the subsequent riots, new mayor Richard Riordan said one of the most important things he did was to make a concerted effort to reach out to leaders in the city's African-American community. "One of the things I learned as mayor was to make friends with the top leaders in the inner city, particularly the pastors," he said. "I think the whites there [in Ferguson]—there and in the rest of St. Louis—the white business people have to get involved with the black leaders and meet with them regularly."
But in the immediate aftermath, the most important thing is to make clear who is in charge, both mayors say. "If you don't have that, it can only turn bad," Hogan says, now two years out from the mass-shooting at a movie theater that killed 12 people. "It's not the part of the job that an elected official ever thinks about until it happens, but somebody's got to do it."
Right now, Ferguson doesn't appear to have a central authority, said Riordan, who became mayor of Los Angeles in 1993, after the riots. With so many law enforcement agencies and authorities from the state, city, county and federal government working within Ferguson, it hasn't always been clear who is in charge. That's going to be a key fix the city needs to make, Riordan said.
"A lot of people are just a little reluctant to do the leadership," he said. Following the beating of Rodney King and the riots in his city, Riordan worked together with the community to form what they called the "Committee of 100," a collection of business and community leaders from across the city's demographic makeup. They met regularly to discuss ongoing issues in the community.
Riordan also warns that the lack of leadership is giving Ferguson a "terrible time" with the press. "If you're a leader, what you want to do is get together with all of the other leaders, whether its the FBI, the mayor of St. Louis, the governor of the state, the chief of police, you should get together and you should all agree on who's going to talk to the press. You have to be aware of the media reactions," he said. "And secondly you should keep your mouth shut until you have all the facts."
It's no easy thing to see your town inundated with reporters who don't know its history, who conflate the entire town and its residents with one particular and negative moment in time. Having your city's name used nationally as a synonym for tragedy isn't any easier.
"Maybe [the press] don't know the background of Ferguson, maybe they didn't know the background of Aurora. But that isn't their job," Aurora's Hogan said. "So what comes next is an effort over time to make sure that the view six months from now, a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now changes and doesn't remain on that one terrible, horrible incident."
And when one city's dark side becomes a national focus, a frenzied press can over-emphasize the negatives. "The national media tore L.A. apart after those riots and at the same time there was a monetary recession and all the national media sold L.A. as a city that's never going to come back," Riordan said. "But it magically came back. And I felt good."
But maintaining and repairing Ferguson's national image should not be the focus now. Hogan said that trying to protect the city's reputation in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like the shooting in Aurora, or the shooting and protests in Ferguson is "not only inappropriate, it's wrong."
"The victims and their families, they don't care about the reputation of the city. The first responders who had to take care of whatever happened, they don't care about the reputation of the city," he added. "You have to lead with your heart and your soul and your feelings, but do it in a strong, direct, in-control way. Then over time, you can start to address the psyche of the community."
That process takes much longer. It's been 23 years since officers in Los Angeles beat Rodney King nearly to death. Hogan said that he expected it would be 10 or 15 years before he could truly say that Aurora had "come back" from the shooting. "I mean, people still talk about Columbine and that was 15 years ago," he said.
"Aurora is always going to be mentioned in the context of someone else's tragedy," Hogan said. "But if we do our jobs right over those 10 or 15 years, first of all, there will be plenty of opportunities to have Aurora be identified in a different way, in a positive way over that time."
They're making progress, a little bit at a time, and that's all that matters to Hogan. "Certainly, for the families of those who died, it's never going to get better," he said. But more and more he sees his city coming back. 20,000 people have moved to the city in the last two years, and more and more people are going to see movies at the same Century 16 Megaplex where a dozen people lost their lives. Now, even the families of those who were killed participate more in community activities, Hogan said.
Like Ferguson, Aurora is still going through the legal process. Movie theater shooter James Holmes is scheduled to go to trial at the end of this year, and in Ferguson, a grand jury is expected to hear evidence surrounding Michael Brown's killing through late fall. More legal battles could be on the horizon for Ferguson. That kind of a lengthy process "results in front-page headlines at times," Hogan says.
But even that gets easier over time. "There aren't as many reactions to those headlines as there were in the first year. And by 'reactions' I mean people calling for mental health services," Hogan says. Aurora opened up what they're calling the "Resilience Center" in the aftermath of the tragedy, offering free counseling and an open space for all kinds of activities, open 24 hours a day.
Los Angeles had a very different path to restoration. More than a year after King was beaten, the officers responsible were acquitted, leading to riots and looting all over the city. Sixty-three people were killed and thousands were injured before the unrest settled down.
Unfortunately, Riordan says, it took another tragedy for Los Angeles to truly begin to heal. The Northridge earthquake in January, 1994—just a year and a half after King's beating kicked off the L.A. riots—tore the city apart in a more literal sense. The devastation, Riordan says, really brought the city together. "I instructed the people of LA: help your neighbor, help yourself, do not worry about city laws or regulations or anything, just get things done," Riordan says.
But there were still deep wounds in Los Angeles, some that still exist today. Riordan, who took office a year after the riots, says that he was instrumental in ousting then-chief of police Willie Williams, the first African American to hold that position. Williams had failed to come through on promises to revamp the force in the aftermath of the King beating.
And Riordan, who is white, continued his outreach to the African-American community. "When I came into office the first day, a bunch of the African-American leaders asked to meet with me, which I did. I remember holding hands in a circle with them and saying prayers," he said.
"That helped. But nothing was magical on its own," Riordan added.
Ferguson is going to need time to come back. By maintaining an open dialogue within the community, offering leadership and creating the space and services for its citizens to heal, officials can begin to restore the city. But that's not going to happen overnight.
Hogan gave the same advice to Ferguson that he gives his own citizens. "We cannot forget and we cannot ignore what happened," Hogan said. "But we do not have to be obsessed by it and we do have to move on."
This post originally appeared in National Journal, an Atlantic partner site.
More from National Journal: