It’s been more than two years since the nation looked to him to bring peace to Ferguson.
On Sunday evening, the man who was tasked with bringing the community together after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown told a group of metro-east residents that he didn’t have a plan at first.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s appointment of Capt. Ron Johnson, of the Missouri Highway Patrol, as Commander of Ferguson Operations was a surprise, Johnson said.
“But I can tell you at that moment when the governor told me that he was going to put me in charge, I had a goal. ... And that goal was that there would be no blood on my hands at the end of my leadership role,” Johnson said.
He was appointed on Aug. 14, 2014. That was five days after Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson. Brown had just been involved in a theft at a convenience store; Johnson said he took some cigars. Wilson has said that Brown went for his gun during their confrontation.
Some protests in Ferguson grew violent in the days following the shooting, which is when the Missouri Highway Patrol took control of security there, relieving St. Louis County and local police of their law-enforcement authority. Johnson, a lifelong resident of the St. Louis area, marched with protesters that night — He said it was his only plan.
Johnson traveled to Belleville to speak during Racial Harmony’s recognition dinner for its 2016 ELITE winners. ELITE stands for Extraordinary Leaders Impacting Today’s Environment.
“Many of you are going to receive awards tonight,” Johnson said to the audience, “and some of you are going to say ‘I haven’t done much’ or ‘I (don’t) deserve it; I’m just being me.’ ... You may not always get the credit. You may not always know what you accomplish, but I can tell you that we are going to be better. But it is going to take us all.”
Johnson said leading can be difficult, especially when there’s no plan, because that’s when fear of the unknown can creep in.
“As leaders, when we’re in that cloud of smoke, and we do not know where we want to go, we can’t see our path, there is no book that tells us how to lead, we must depend on that moral compass that we have,” he said.
For Johnson, that compass is his faith. “It tells me that I’m strong enough even if I can’t see what lies ahead,” he said.
Johnson is Baptist, but said his wife and two children are Catholic. While working in Ferguson, Johnson said he carried rosary beads that one of his children brought home from Catholic school. Even after the rosary crumbled in his pocket, Johnson said he put the pieces into a plastic bag to carry with him.
“I can tell you I don’t know what the rosary means,” Johnson said. “I don’t know the true meaning of it, but I know it’s about faith. I know it gives you strength, and that’s what it gave to me.”
Two days after Johnson was appointed, Gov. Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson the first time. The second time came ahead of a decision from a grand jury.
The grand jury ultimately decided not to indict Wilson. The U.S. Justice Department also did not prosecute Wilson in Brown’s death, but it did release a report that faulted the city and its law enforcement for racial bias.
Ferguson was not alone in its protest. Communities across the nation spoke out, demonstrated, marched, and the Black Lives Matter movement was born.
Johnson said one thing he learned from Ferguson is that a leader has failed if a situation stays the same or simply goes back to the way things were before.
“Your leadership should make something better,” he said.
Racial Harmony President Donna Moody said Johnson’s message is the Belleville group’s goal: bringing people together and “looking at the positive sides of things that can be horrific.”
“I just knew that he had to be with us today,” Moody said.
The following are the community members recognized during the 2016 Racial Harmony ELITE Awards Dinner.
- Forrest Bevineau, Sr.
- Maxine Birdsong
- Annette Eckert
- Stanley Franklin
- Martin Gulley
- Dimitri Heaggans
- Eileen Hoag
- Susan Homes
- Devon Horton
- Aretha Lumas
- Carole Piontkowsky
- Jane Pusa
- Mackenzie “Kenzie” Scott
- Johnny Ware
- Katherine Witzig