Working in a Protest Zone

By Peter Downs, Editor, St. Louis CNR Magazine


In late 2013, a municipality in north St. Louis County contracted
with Pinnacle Contracting, Inc., for construction services. The job, two
building renovations and a building expansion, began as typical municipal work,
but underwent a jarring change the following August.


The municipality was Ferguson. The $5 million job included
renovating the city’s police station at 222 South Florissant Road and expanding
it almost 30 percent to 23,900 square feet. Protesters frequently targeted the
police station in the months after a white police officer shot and killed an
18-year-old black resident named Michael Brown.


“Our last few months at Ferguson were a surreal contrast between
business as usual during daytime work hours and the chaos that sometimes took
place at night,” said Robert Lundberg, project manager for Pinnacle.


On most days between the shooting on August 9 and the announcement
on November 24 that a county grand jury declined to indict the police officer
of any crime, protesters maintained a peaceful vigil across the street from the
police station. Miles away, however, angry night-time protests, clashes with
police, and the deployment of National Guard troops received national and
international attention.


Vendors based outside St. Louis called Pinnacle worried it might
be too dangerous for their drivers to deliver supplies and products to the job.
“We assured them it would be safe to deliver materials,” Lundberg said.


“There were only a handful of days that Ferguson asked us not to
work due to unrest. When we returned, they thanked us profusely for being
there,” Lundberg said. “Police and public works officials were extremely
professional in their dealings with us despite the added stress they were
under,” he added.


Aware that many people were avoiding Ferguson during the prolonged
period of protests, and that local businesses were hurting because of it,
Pinnacle workers made a point of supporting local businesses.


“We patronized local restaurants for lunch and the people that
worked there were glad to have us,” Lundberg said. “Cathy’s Kitchen employees
were particularly gracious.”


On the evening of the announcement of the grand jury’s decision, a
large crowd gathered in the neighborhood of the police station. Following the
announcement, some in the crowd turned violent. They vandalized stores and set
buildings on fire.


“It was heart-breaking for us to learn that Cathy’s Kitchen was
one of the businesses vandalized on the night of November 24,” Lundberg said.


“All of us at Pinnacle remain deeply saddened by the events that
took place in response to the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case,
but we are proud of the role we played in expanding and repurposing structures
intended to better the lives of everyone living in Ferguson,” he said.


Healing a protest zone


In the wake of the rioting, Governor Jay Nixon appointed a
commission to investigate the root causes of the troubles in Ferguson and make
recommendations on how the region can recover and become stronger and fairer
for everyone. As the Ferguson Commission phrases it on their official web site,
their charge “is to help chart a new path toward healing and positive change
for the residents of the St. Louis region.”


Scott Negwer, a construction-industry professional who has been
president of Ferguson-based Negwer Materials since 1995, is a member of the
16-person Ferguson Commission. In the period between the shooting and the grand
jury announcement, Negwer subsidized the efforts of the I Love Ferguson
Committee to support local businesses and get people to shop in Ferguson
despite the images seen on the news.


In a statement released by Gov. Nixon’s office, Negwer said he
wanted to be part of the Ferguson Commission, because he and his father were
born and raised in Ferguson and the company his grandfather started is still
headquartered there.


“As business owner and citizen, I am very committed to Ferguson
and the entire North County community,” he stated. “My main reason for wanting
to be involved is this is a passion of mine on many fronts. I am passionate
about education. I am passionate about enabling those who are disadvantaged to
succeed, and I am passionate about the well-being of North County.”


Negwer was a frequent contributor to the Republican Party and
former Republican Senator Kit Bond.