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Ferguson, one year later: From a city to a symbol

Today, to America and to the world, the word “Ferguson” means far more than just another city


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By Kevin McDermott
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

FERGUSON, Mo. — Before last summer, Ferguson was just one more patch in the crowded quilt of towns that make up St. Louis County — a mixed-race, working-class community of about 21,000 people on six square miles of unremarkable urban landscape northwest of St. Louis.

Today, to America and to the world, the word “Ferguson” means far more than that. The fury that ripped through the small city in the summer and fall of 2014 inaugurated a national debate about police tactics against African-Americans that continues a year later. Ferguson now dwells on an exclusive list of locales — Little Rock, Selma, Watts — that have lent their names to key chapters in the sprawling tale of race in America.

The story of how Ferguson went from a city to a symbol began with a midday confrontation between two people on a street. Exactly what happened between Michael Brown Jr. and Darren Wilson one year ago Aug. 9 may be forever controversial. What resulted — an unarmed black man lying dead at the feet of a white police officer — provided a blueprint for outrage in other police-related deaths of unarmed black males in New York, Cleveland, Baltimore and South Carolina.

The Ferguson riots came in two waves: in August 2014, immediately after the fatal shooting of Brown, an 18-year-old African-American Ferguson resident, by Wilson, a 28-year-old white Ferguson police officer; and again in late November, after a grand jury declined to criminally charge Wilson in Brown’s death.

All told, it resulted in a dozen nights of violence, dozens of injuries, hundreds of arrests and millions of dollars in property damage. Perhaps miraculously, there were no additional deaths.

By the time it was over, it had added a twist to America’s intractable discussion about race, with a new focus on police militarization. It revealed how cities use traffic fines and court policies as mallets against their most vulnerable citizens. It underlined the idea that a police force should reflect the cultural makeup of its community, and drove home the reality of how often it doesn’t.

It validated the principle that, as syndicated columnist Eugene Robinson put it, “policing is something that should be done with a community, not to it.”

Politically, it was a minefield. It drew America’s first black president into what has so often proven a risky topic for him — racial strife — and figured prominently in his 2014 State of the Union address. It probably ended whatever national political ambitions Missouri’s current governor might once have had. It has already made an appearance in the 2016 presidential campaign, and almost certainly will again.

“This is not going away” as a political issue, says Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University who is conducting a study of municipal court issues raised by events in Ferguson. “The gut reaction of politicians has always been to defend the police … but now people are taking pictures of white cops roughing up blacks. It’s going to continue to be in candidates’ faces, and they will have to address it.”

As with most epic conflicts, Ferguson engendered some myth-making. Most notably, it fostered a devastating new civil rights slogan — “Hands up, don’t shoot!” — that a U.S. Department of Justice report would later determine was based on a fiction.

But the shooting alerted a sobered nation to some broader truths about police-minority relations in an era that not so long ago was being smugly declared “post-racial.”

“It really pulled the covers back on how people of color have been treated for years” by police, says Miranda Jones, vice president of the Better Family Life Neighborhood Resource Center, a nonprofit community service organization based in Ferguson. “It was a national wake-up call.”

Aug. 9, 2014, a Saturday, was overcast and mild in Ferguson, with temperatures hovering in the mid-70s as noon approached. Brown and Dorian Johnson, 22, were walking down the middle of the 2900 block of Canfield Drive, a curving residential street that snakes through the Canfield Green apartment complex.

Wilson, who had been on the Ferguson police force for five years, pulled up in his SUV squad car and told the pair to move off the street. They ignored the order. It was then, Wilson would later say, that he realized they might be suspects in the theft of a package of cigars that had been reported from a nearby liquor store minutes earlier.

At 12:02 p.m., Wilson radioed in: “Put me on Canfield with two,” meaning two suspects. “And send me another car.”

By the time the backup arrived, less than two minutes later, Brown lay dead in the middle of Canfield, with six bullets in his body from Wilson’s gun.

There was dispute from the beginning about what happened. Some witnesses claimed Wilson killed Brown as he was attempting to surrender, literally with his hands up. But the Department of Justice report would ultimately conclude that Brown attacked the officer, tried to take his weapon and was charging at him when Wilson shot him in self-defense.

“While credible witnesses gave varying accounts of exactly what Brown was doing with his hands as he moved toward Wilson … they all establish that Brown was moving toward Wilson when Wilson shot him,” the report said.

What isn’t in dispute is that Brown’s body lay in the street, face down under a white sheet that wasn’t big enough to completely cover him, for four hours after the shooting.

Police would blame the delay in part on shots fired and the potential danger that the angry, growing crowd posed to officers at the scene. But to many of the black area residents who gathered at the site, it was one more indication of the long-festering animosity between them and the mostly white police force that patrolled their community — a rift that would soon be on display for the world.

“They shot a black man, and they left his body in the street to let you all know this could be you,” Ferguson resident Alexis Torregrossa, 21, said at the time.

Within hours of the shooting, residents had set up a makeshift memorial and launched protests at the site. The protests continued peacefully through the day Sunday.

Then, with nightfall, they morphed into full-fledged rioting — the first of 10 consecutive nights of unrest — with two police injuries, 32 arrested, several businesses looted and one gutted by fire.

“I don’t think it’s over, honestly,” protester DeAndre Smith, 30, told the Post-Dispatch the following morning, as he stood near the smoking debris of the QuikTrip convenience store on West Florissant Avenue. “I just think they got a taste of what fighting back means.”

Within three days of the shooting, Ferguson had made its debut on the front page of The New York Times, where it would remain for months to come. “The speed with which the shooting of Mr. Brown has resonated on social media has helped propel and transform a local shooting into a national cause,” the paper reported.

President Barack Obama also stepped into the smoldering issue in those first days, releasing a statement calling the shooting “heartbreaking” and urging peace: “We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” But in fact, the wounds were just beginning.

The fuse had been set long before Brown’s death lit it.

For years, Ferguson, like many other African-American or mixed-race communities around Missouri and the nation, had quietly simmered in tension between the black population and a police force that was mostly white — a little-noticed remnant of the urban “white flight” trends of the late 20th century.

In 1980, Ferguson’s racial makeup was 85 percent white and 14 percent black; by 2014, it stood at 29 percent white and 69 percent black. But the town’s power base didn’t change with the changing racial makeup. At the start of the Ferguson riots, the mayor, police chief, five of six city council members, and six of seven school board members were white. Of 53 sworn officers on the Ferguson police force, just three were black.

Police contact with the community had long been similarly out of whack with its demographics. Black drivers in Ferguson were twice as likely to be stopped as white drivers, according to an annual report by the Missouri Attorney General’s office in 2014.

A March 2015 Department of Justice report found that when Ferguson police documented using force between 2010 and 2014, 88 percent of the time it was against a black person. And every time a police dog bit a civilian during that time, the civilian was black.

The report found that almost all of the people who were cited for “Manner of Walking Along Roadways” were black — 95 percent of those citations were issued to African-Americans.

“It is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in releasing the DOJ report.

The second powder keg, in November, was different from the first in that officials knew it was coming and had months to prepare for it, as a St. Louis County grand jury considered whether to level criminal charges against Wilson in Brown’s death.

With August’s destruction still a fresh memory, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in advance of the announcement and readied hundreds of National Guard troops. Obama cautioned that “using any event as an excuse for violence is contrary to rule of law and contrary to who we are.”

Still, when St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch announced the no-indictment decision Nov. 24 — in a contentious, early-evening news conference at which he blamed social media and “the 24-hour news cycle” for the unrest so far — the speed and ferocity with which the violence re-ignited appeared to surprise everyone.

Later that night, Obama urged calm in a nationally televised address, saying: “There will inevitably be some negative reaction, and it will make for good TV.” He was right. The images of flying rocks, blazing buildings and surging crowds fighting police were juxtaposed with Obama’s address on split screens.

More than two dozen businesses were damaged or destroyed. The FAA diverted flights around Lambert-St. Louis International Airport because of gunfire from protesters. Police made scores of arrests.

In a news conference at 1:30 a.m. Nov. 25, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar reported that there was basically “nothing left” along West Florissant Avenue between Solway Avenue and Chambers Road. “What I’ve seen tonight is probably much worse than the worst night we ever had in August,” Belmar said. “Frankly, I’m heartbroken.”

Just as news footage of Southern civil rights abuses in the 1950s and Vietnam War scenes in the 1960s helped mobilize public opinion on those topics, so the images coming out of Ferguson in 2014 molded the debate over police tactics in black communities: police in riot gear leveling military-grade weapons at civilians; clouds of teargas wafting through crowds of protesters; armored assault vehicles rolling down the streets of a small American city.

The scenes would prompt Congressional review of the practice of supplying U.S. military equipment to local police forces. “(M)ilitarizing police tactics are not consistent with the peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights,” U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in one Senate hearing. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called the situation “crazy out-of-control.”

Police tactics, too, were criticized as out of control. Police initially enforced a “keep moving” policy against protesters to prevent them from standing in one place, ultimately prompting an injunction from a federal judge prohibiting the tactic on First Amendment grounds. Police snipers “lowered their rifle sights to monitor the crowd,” according to a draft Department of Justice report that called the tactic “inappropriate as a crowd control measure.”

It wasn’t just the police whose performance was criticized during the crisis. Nixon, a Democrat, was accused of ignoring the growing threat in Ferguson in its first days — and then of implementing a flailing, uneven use of National Guard troops that ultimately angered both sides.

“Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has VP aspirations. His handling of (hashtag)Ferguson ends that conclusively,” tweeted Daily Kos’ Markos Moulitsas, in one typical assessment. Nixon defended his shifting strategy as necessary to a shifting situation, saying in late August: “We didn’t know that folks were going to start throwing Molotov cocktails.”

Underlying the newish debate over police militarization was the age-old one over race.

The Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at Brown’s funeral Aug. 25, telling mourners, “All of us are required to respond to this.” In a late November NFL game, five black Rams players gave a “Hands up, don’t shoot!” pose as they came onto the field. The St. Louis Police Officers Association responded with a statement slamming players for ignoring “mountains of evidence released from the St. Louis County Grand Jury” and engaging in “a display that police officers around the nation found tasteless, offensive and inflammatory.”

In December, The New Yorker magazine featured one of the more sobering covers in its 90-year history: an image of the Gateway Arch, one half white, the other black, with a gap at the top between the two halves.

Looking around Ferguson today, you wouldn’t know it had been the violent epicenter of a national movement.

There are still some boarded-up windows along West Florissant Avenue and elsewhere, and some vacant lots where buildings stood before August 2014. But for the most part, the only visible remnants of what happened here are the occasional yard signs — “We Must Stop Killing Each Other,” and “Our City Matters” — and places such as the “I (heart) Ferguson” storefront on South Florissant Road, where volunteers sell T-shirts and coffee mugs to help area businesses damaged by the conflicts.

“It’s always been a diverse area,” says volunteer Cecelia Webber, who is white and not happy with the media portrayal of her town as a hotbed of racial strife. “We raised our children here because we wanted them to live in the real world and not in some enclave where all they see are people like themselves. The majority of the people who live here feel that way.”

But across town, on Canfield Drive, within sight of where Brown died a year ago, racial tension, particularly involving the police, is still a reality. Lewis Washington stood outside his Canfield Green apartment and shook his head when asked whether things had changed.

“No, sir,” said Washington, who is 27 and black. He pointed out to the street. “The day before yesterday they pulled up on two guys right here and said they fit the description for a burglary.” Rather than arrest them, “they just kept searching them, searching them, searching them — had them standing out there for 30 minutes. So they were basically just free-casing,” a term for when police manufacture a case against someone. “I see it all the time.”

Still, some things clearly have changed, in Ferguson and around America.

Ferguson officials now require officers to wear body cameras, an idea that is catching on around the country. In July, the city hired its first black police chief, on an interim basis. A new Missouri law limits local court revenue, the result of a DOJ report that slammed Ferguson’s court fee collection practices as essentially a shake-down of Ferguson’s poorest citizens. Obama banned in May the federal government’s transfer of certain military equipment to local police departments.

But even as those and other changes inspired by Ferguson have unfolded, police-related deaths of black males around the country continued — and, to many, now looked like part of a theme:

—On Nov. 22, Tamir Rice, 12, was fatally shot by a white Cleveland police officer who mistook a toy gun Tamir was holding for a real one. Resulting protests would be joined by about 40 Ferguson residents who traveled to Cleveland. “They know our pain. We know their pain,” said an organizer.

—On Dec. 3, a grand jury in New York declined to indict a white police officer in the choke-hold death in July 2014 of Eric Garner, prompting thousands of protesters to surround New York’s City Hall. “It’s about the no-indictment of Eric Garner’s killer,” one protester told a television reporter. “It’s about the no-indictment of Darren Wilson.”

—On April 4 of this year, unarmed forklift operator Walter Scott was fatally shot in South Carolina by a white police officer as he ran away during a traffic stop. Scott’s family later implored Sharpton to stay away from the funeral, saying: “We don’t want another Ferguson type of circus here.”

—On April 19, Freddie Gray, 25, who was unarmed, died of a spinal injury while in custody of Baltimore police, triggering rioting and arrests. Baltimore Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez vowed that police wouldn’t overreact, saying: “This is not Ferguson.”

“Michael Brown … may not have been without blame in the altercation with a white police officer that led to his death,” wrote political commentator David Horsey in The Los Angeles Times in April. “Brown, though, no longer needs to be the prime example of an innocent victim killed by a cop. More compelling and appalling examples keep showing up.”

Copyright 2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch