The Longest Silence

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Ferguson City Council, September 13, 2022

Those of us who regularly watch city council meetings know that normally, when a motion is made, a second follows swiftly, often with multiple members calling out a second at the same time. It is the most rare of moments when the chair calls for a second, and is met with silence. This rarity arises from the fact that in failing to gain a second, not only have the mover’s colleagues indicated that they will not support the motion, but in fact have deemed it unworthy even of consideration.

This was the situation at last night’s council meeting, when the council considered for a second time the renewal of the liquor license for Elite Market. This market, according to accounts from the police and eyewitnesses, has been the site of a great deal of criminal trouble. As a result of this trouble, councilor Noah, who represents the ward in which the store is located, successfully blocked the renewal. In response, the store filed a lawsuit against the city, and their attorney accused Ferguson of being motivated by anti-Muslim bias.

Last night, Ferguson city attorney Apollo Carey presented the council with a settlement agreement which he negotiated with the store. The agreement required the store to provide security for 60 days, install “adequate lighting” and video cameras, and take “reasonable steps to prevent loitering.” Council members expressed concern about the vagueness of the agreement, and the fact that brief, incremental changes were insufficient to remedy the long term harm of the establishment.

After lengthy discussion, councilor Toni Burrow moved to accept the agreement and renew the liquor license. And there began the longest silence, as Mayor Jones repeatedly asked for a second, and was met with silence. Of the remaining five members of council, not one found this proposal worthy of further consideration, much less passage.

We applaud council’s action here, as they have finally found the backbone to consider the public interest in the awarding of liquor licenses. For far too long, seedy liquor stores have brought out the worst in our community. Interestingly, there are other stores in the area which sell the same products, but which manage to do so without becoming havens for all manner of unlawful conduct. And of course, there are lots of places where a thirsty customer can buy a drink.

But we would be remiss if we failed to point out another long silence. Our city has turned a blind eye to these establishments since long before any of today’s council members was elected. In 2008, a group of residents who cleaned litter from Airport Road every week asked the city to intervene at R&R Package Liquor, and found naught but deaf ears. In 2014, angered by video coverage of Mike Brown at the Ferguson Market shortly before the altercation which would result in his death, protesters asked council to close “Ferguson Market, Drugs and Liquor.” They were also met with deaf ears and silence.

City manager Eric Osterberg has provided a new perspective on these businesses. In two instances, he invoked ordinances which grant the city manager the privilege of reviewing, suspending, or revoking liquor and business licenses. One business, the aforementioned R&R Package Liquor, made improvements requested by the city, and were released from probation early. The status of the other business, Cousin’s Market, remains in flux. But as many have pointed out, the renewal of a liquor license is a discretionary act on the part of council. Nobody has a right to a liquor license. We are grateful to counselor Noah for raising the issue, and to the large majority of councilors who used that discretion to protect our community. And to those who want a beer, we point out that it is available for sale at two other nearby establishments, each about a block from Elite Market.