A radical library for a radical time
A revamped library for Ferguson, Missouri
Ferguson’s Municipal Public Library weathered the streets swelled with protesters and officers alike. The death of Michael Brown tipped the scales in the town 10 miles from St. Louis, skulking the lid off decades of questionable practices from city and state administrators. What erupted was an outpouring of outrage and fright, as residents marched, pleaded, and demanded justice be done in the case of officer Darren Wilson. Through it all, the library stayed open, serving as neutral ground for people’s children and for knowledge—remaining open when most were closed that fateful week in August 2014.
People instinctively felt the need to donate. The library acting as a stent for a city having a heart attack in America’s living room. As the protests went on, the library’s donations ballooned. All told, over 12,000 people gave their hard-earned money. Now they’ve hit $450,000, a number that director Scott Bonner exclaims “was more than our yearly budget!”
The library has put the money to good use. They’ve increased their programming budget more than tenfold, which has lead to more responsive programs for residents under new hire Amy Randazzo. Donations have also allowed them to innovate. Last year, StoryCorps and the library teamed up to record the unedited voices of Ferguson residents—an archive that holds the raw thoughts and reactions of folks unfiltered through a media narrative.
Ferguson still has a way to go. A scathing Department of Justice report dropped bombshell accusations regarding evidence of widespread economic policing in the city as well as a rampant campaign of racial profiling. “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” stated the inquiry. And, on another occasion, “African American’s face disparate impact in nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system.”
After the report, the DOJ and Ferguson officials spent a year trying to hash out the details of their reform. But just this past February, the Ferguson City council voted 6-0 on the measure, forcing the Department of Justice to file a civil suit against the city. According to the The New York Times, Mayor James Knowles III cited expense as the cause of the down vote, stating, “It will cost more to implement the agreement than it will be to fight a lawsuit.” Adding, “There’s no point in agreeing to something we can’t afford.”
Still, the library’s work serves as an example of what can go right in Ferguson when both money and intent align.