In the days following the destruction of the Ferguson QuikTrip mistakenly identified as the store from which Michael Brown shoplifted, this hand-written note -- an early act of site-marking -- found its way onto a few major news sites (and countless personal Twitter and Instagram feeds). Its author was Leonette Hilliard, a long-time Ferguson resident and middle-school English teacher from the Normandy School District. On the morning of Aug. 11, she made her way to the site to express her concern about the previous night's violence: "This is not who we are" she explained in a Post-Dispatch interview. "I wanted just to say something, to do something that was productive."
The note she left was a brief but poignant statement of support. Hilliard made it hastily with a file folder and black marker she happened to have in her car (she was on her way to school, office supplies in tow). She posted it on the side-wall of the QT (the front of the building having been ravaged by fire and vandals), fastening it with rainbow-colored duct tape. If you stood back a ways, you could see that she had positioned the note right on top of a large black graffiti scrawl: "187 county police."
Hilliard addressed the public letter to her "Corporate Neighbor," though she was not speaking only, or even primarily, to QuikTrip executives. "Neighbor" meant QT employees who now had no jobs (one was a former student of hers, she explained to the Post-Dispatch reporter). It meant fellow residents, local business owners and members of the broader St. Louis community. And implicitly, it meant anyone assessing risk in the neighborhood, including future corporate neighbors, and those who will decide the fate of the QT.
From a distance, the note bore a family resemblance to the graffiti all around it. It represented one more layer in a growing palimpsest of Michael Brown-related messages, some of them delivered in the form of violence. But up close it showed a kind of decorum that these messages did not; it had the conciliatory tone of a devoted "customer" who values what the QT was before the "robbery & violence" occurred and hopes it will be rebuilt. And it was pasted over the top of graffiti, as if to make amends.
Should we read Hilliard's note as a reprobation of the looters? Or a correction of dominant media representations of Ferguson? It certainly suggests an intentionally symbolic act. After all, she posted it right on the building, as if to speak soothingly to employees and business owners when they returned to the burned-out store first thing that morning, while talking back to looters and vandals. Hilliard's self-identification as a "customer" signaled "responsible citizen," certainly -- someone who, outraged as she was, chose to channel it into concern for the preservation of relationships with her neighbors and local businesses. Is this merely a gesture of "respectability politics," as some have already contended? Did she mean to invert the logic of looting and vandalism by deferring to corporate authority and affirming the value of private property?
Whatever she consciously intended, the note communicated much more. It confirmed what everyone could already see: that the QT was no longer simply a convenience store, and that the looters and vandals were not the only presence on the scene. In posting it where she did, Hilliard contributed to the outpouring of temporary memorials, protest signage and personal tributes that people carried to the site, and that then were circulated worldwide. She also showed that this unlikely public square -- what one sign declared the "QT People's Park Liberated | 8-10-14" (as mentioned above) -- can support a wide range of messages, not all of which can be interpreted from a distance.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of Roche Madden's Twitter, Local Fox News Reporter, taken 9/15/2014 Photo of note posted by Ferguson resident on the front of the W. Florissant Ave. QuikTrip on August 11, the morning after the store was looted and destroyed by fire.