By Steve Zalusky
Amid the tumult in Ferguson, Missouri that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson last year, one local institution stepped up to provide a refuge for a community torn by social divisions – the Ferguson Public Library.
During the two-month period that encompassed the shooting and the rioting following the announcement that Wilson would not face charges, the library stood apart as an oasis that provided art programming and tutoring for students whose classes were canceled.
A sign posted in the library said it all. It read, “During difficult times, the library is a quiet oasis where we can catch our breath, learn, and think about what to do next. Please help keep our oasis peaceful and serene. Thank you!”
The library also provided some relief from the barrage of negative coverage of the community by the media.
Library Director Scott Bonner, speaking at the American Library Association’s recent Midwinter Meeting in Chicago, said, “The first reporter that walked through the door just told me straight up they’re looking for good stories to tell. You’re it.”
Looking back at the coverage of his library during the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri in late 2014, Scott Bonner told an audience of librarians, “We became the darling of the media,” which painted a “rosy view” of the Ferguson Public Library.
But in a “warts and all” recap of the events for his audience of librarians, some of whom came up to hug him following the talk, he said he has regrets, one of them being closing the library on the first day it was scheduled to be open following the shooting – one of the pretexts being that the Internet connection was down.
He told the audience, “I have to say, that one of my regrets is that I took the easy path on this day.
“If we had been open and the Internet went down on a normal day, we would have stayed open.”
If Bonner feels he took the easy path that day, he followed a decidedly difficult and arduous path throughout those critical months.
He maintains, “I did not handle a crisis.” He just “did the best I could and made the best choices I could.”
Bonner said his decisions were rooted in concepts about the library’s mission and what libraries do.
“We do continuing education. We do cultural literacy. We serve as a meeting place for the community. And I made a choice very early on to define those things as broadly as I reasonably could,” he said.
The library itself is a modest building contained on one level.
“When I was getting advice from other librarians, they would be like, ‘You could do such and such program in the children’s level.’ OK. Oh, I would love to have a children’s level.”
It is located in an area of Ferguson that is majority black and often written off, he said.
Resources were paltry, with Bonner mentioning that his predecessor had watched her budget sliced from $600,000 in 2008 to $400,000 in 2012. The only programming in recent memory was the summer reading club, which was grant funded.
One of the reasons Bonner was hired was his commitment to being a community focused and programming centered librarian.
“I was trying to pull us back from being a book warehouse,” he said.
The events swirling through Ferguson served as an unexpected catalyst for the library’s transition to a programming library. In the wake of the shooting, local schools were closed for a week.
It was that week when a teacher entered the library on Monday morning and asked for some tables in order to hold some tutoring sessions.
The school, which he kept calling “the ad hoc school” was eventually dubbed the School for Peace.
He said he remembers watching the news reports as events took shape and wondering about the outcome.
“In this country, again and again and again, many times a year, we see where an unarmed black man is killed and the result is two days of anger and everyone goes home. I and no one really had any idea this was going to go beyond that,” he said.
So when he came the next morning the library would be open and started opening up the library, an employee said, “You’re not opening the library today are you? That’s crazy. There’s no way you can do that.”
One concern that entered into his decision-making was the geography of the area, with the part of town that was recently developed away from the library and the part of town that hadn’t been developed closer to the library. This indicated that if police drew a line, at some point they would push the crowd toward the library.
Meanwhile, he said, one staff person called in sick, while another called in scared.
Ultimately, he kept the library closed that day.
“I had no idea what the daytime protest would be,” he said. And he worried about tear gas floating across the parking lot.
Indeed, as he suspected, he pushed the crowd toward the library.
One of the members of the audience in Chicago asked if he took part in the protests.
He said he did not participate. However, two members of his staff were active participants.
“I myself could not step out there,” he said, because he was the public face of the library, which has to be neutral involving each person, regardless of politics, social class or race. “So I had to stand back and couldn’t be a protester.”
He said set an unofficial policy fairly early that guided discussions within staff about the events taking place outside the library. It made the front desk off limits. Otherwise, one could have all the conversations they wanted.
“Take it in the back room and talk about it,” he said.
Also, the policy prevented one staff member from forcing others into conversations.
Bonner said he saw two faces of Ferguson. One was Ferguson’s nighttime face, with protesters, police drawing lines in the street, confrontations, tear gas and rubber bullets.
And then there was the daytime face.
“Everyone comes out and cleans the place up. Everyone goes to work. They go walking down the street. They go shopping. Chit-chatting,” he said.
“The first time I saw someone post something saying Ferguson equals Lebanon or Ferguson equals Gaza, I choked. ‘Seriously?’ We’re not a war zone here. But day to day we’re trying to recover. We’re trying to find out what we need to do. How we need to change.”
While Bonner was pondering what he needed to do, in walked Carrie Pace, the art teacher at Ferguson's Walnut Grove Elementary School, whose visit was the spark behind the School for Peace.
“When she comes in, she starts crying before she can start speaking and says,’ I have some teachers. If we can have some tables, we would like to do some tutoring.’”
Bonner said that even before she finished the sentence, “I jumped up and said we have an auditorium. We have a little conference room.”
That first day, the school was a small affair, only between 10 and 20 children. Teachers were holding signs on the streets, alerting parents that school was in session and inviting them to bring their children.
It not only attracted parents and children; it drew the media as well.
“There hasn’t been a really good story yet (at this time). The media’s pitch has all been about the bad. About the tragedy of Mike Brown’s killing. About the protests. About the police lines. About tear gas. And the first reporter that walked through the door just told me straight up they’re looking for good stories to tell. You’re it. So we got swamped by media.
“And so when the media came looking for a good story, I said, ‘There’s your good story.’”
Bonner said the library worked quickly to involve a number of organizations.
“The first thing we did was arrange for food, because a lot of the kids, the only food they get to eat is what they get at school,” he said.
Operation Food Search stepped in and provided breakfast, lunch and snacks.
By the end of the week, the program had expanded to include about 200 children, and the library relied on First Baptist Church to provide overflow space.
Besides Carrie Pace, Bonner had another visitor at the library.
“I noticed there were a couple of people who were very well dressed who kept looking at our blank spaces on our walls,” he said.
It turned out that they were interested in presenting a two-month art show among 14 venues, including Washington University.
The focus of the Ferguson library’s art show would be a response to the events in Ferguson.
Before he said yes, he said, “I want strong statements and I want things that are challenging, but I want them to be insightful with s and not insightful with c.”
For Bonner, the art display dovetailed with the library’s mission to foster cultural literacy.
“What library wouldn’t jump at the chance to have a big art show?” he said.
However, he later found that the title of the show was “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot – Artists Respond.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That was the obvious phrase to pull from what happened. And that’s exactly what I would name it.”
But in Ferguson, while the title received accolades from many people, several people in particular arrived at his library “mad as Hell,” including members of the establishment of “what people might derisively call old white Ferguson. Some of them organized an email and Facebook campaign to oppose the display.
They asked, he said, “Why is the library becoming a political institution? Why do you hate police? Why are you trying to tear down our community? That kind of stuff.”
He said he just tried to be completely open and honest about what happened.
“I didn’t try to be politic at all,” saying, “This is our position. This is why we did it. And I’m sorry that you’re unhappy.
“And all of them left the library saying something like, ‘You’re wrong. You’re still wrong. You’re totally wrong, but I get why you did it.’”
By Nov. 24, the announcement about the grand jury decision arrived.
“Finally there is an official warning at four o clock on Monday. We get word that at eight o clock that night, they’re going to announce.
“Could you pick a worse time?”
Bonner said he had been worried about one thing in particular – someone trying to burn down the library.
Weeks before the announcement, he called the major players, such as the leaders of the School for Peace, to arrange a conference call to develop a plan. The plan called for a School for Peace to be convened if the schools were closed.
The night of the 24th, the library stayed open until 8 p.m., the normal closing time.
“There wasn’t a patron in the place after 7,” he said. “And when we closed that night, again because of my crazy fear of fire, I stayed there with Coca-Cola and chips and my security monitor and a computer, watching the coverage and listening for the sound of breaking glass.”
He wound up staying until 10:30 p.m. During that time, he said, groups of four or five people came by the front door of the library and tried to enter, banging on the glass doors.
After he spotted someone with a fire extinguisher in one hand, Bonner recalls saying, “No, no, not here. Please, no. Please, no.”
Finally, someone hurled a heavy glass bottle at the front door. It wound up smashing against the metal door handle, just missing shattering the glass.
“That scared the bejesus out of me. And I realized that I was a fool (in staying),” he said, to the laughter of the audience.
He said he knew that things were going to “go south,” when he heard news reports that shots were fired.
“I thought, ‘OK, We’re done.’
“I had been saying during emergency procedures trainings for years that people are more important than things, and that’s when I realized that I am people.”
He put on his coat and backpack and walked to his truck, which was parked in a grocery store lot, and went home.
The next day, the library was open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and hosted a School for Peace until 3:30 p.m.
“At this point, everybody knows that there are going to be more things burning down,” he said. “And it’s probably going to start right after dark.”
As he concluded his talk, Bonner insisted that he was just following the library’s mandate.
“Every time I have had the opportunity, I have tried to tell the media that we are just a normal library,” he said. “This is what libraries do.”
He also advised the audience, “Be true to yourself. Be true to your profession. In other words, just be a normal library. And if you’re in the middle of a mess, just be a library.”
He said remember the library’s mission – “cultural literacy, continuing education” and serving the community.
Doing this, he said, will ensure that libraries endure.
“As long as we remind people what we do, what our mission is, we will be here for a good long time.”
Bonner said that even as the library has done its part to be a unifying force, the situation in Ferguson has left its mark on the library
“There are some staff members who don’t like each other anymore,” he said. “And that’s largely because of those early conversations,” among staff members.
And there is a still a lot of anxiety as well, But he said, “I think a lot of our staff members appreciate this very community focused approach we have taken.
“So it’s complicated. There is nothing in that town that isn’t complicated,” he said.