By Carey Gillam
FERGUSON, Mo (Reuters) - It is hard to find much healing in Ferguson, Missouri.
More than four months after a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager and sparked nationwide demonstrations over the way police in the United States interact with the black community, anger still simmers in the city of 21,000 mostly black residents.
Officials in Ferguson, Missouri, and the larger St. Louis area want to move from protests to peace, promising programs to build alliances between blacks and whites, and between police and those they are sworn to protect.
"Ferguson is really trying to move forward," Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said in an interview. "We're very open. We're listening and making proactive changes."
Still, hundreds of people who participated in the protests face criminal charges or fines. Protest leaders and a team of lawyers want charges dismissed for many of the roughly 500 people arrested in the St. Louis area since Michael Brown's Aug. 9 shooting by police officer Darren Wilson. A grand jury declined to indict Wilson in November in the teenager's death.
"They should wipe the slate clean. All of these charges are a tactic to intimidate... to complicate our lives," said Derek Laney, an activist with Hands Up United, which has organized demonstrations.
A group called Jail Support has raised more than $120,000 to post bonds and pay defense attorneys to represent the protesters in court. And a non-profit group called Plea for Justice was incorporated this month in St. Louis to pursue litigation for protesters and others in the area.
Further adding to tensions, the Missouri arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the Ferguson-Florissant School District on Thursday, alleging the school board election process put black voters at a disadvantage. While blacks make up more than 77 percent of the student population, there is only one black person on the seven-member school board.
Another tension point is that the city recently learned that the Department of Justice is extending its probe into the practices of the Ferguson police department, according to Knowles.
The mayor acknowledged the continuing tensions but said city leaders were pushing forward. The city belatedly held a holiday lights festival on Dec. 14 after canceling the event in November due to protests.
And on Friday, city leaders hosted a resource fair with 57 state and local agencies and charitable organizations to offer aid to business owners and residents impacted by the months of demonstrations.
In the spring, city officials will launch a program to recruit black college students willing to work as Ferguson police officers after they graduate in exchange for paid tuition at a police academy.
"This whole situation has been very difficult," Knowles said. "The people who live here just want to get to a point of healing."
Rasheen Aldridge, a 20-year-old student and activist from St. Louis who serves on a newly created Ferguson Commission task force, said more change is needed.
"The politicians just want to move on," said Aldridge, who is one of the protesters facing criminal charges. "They say they are going to do this and that. But there is no healing yet."
(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)