FERGUSON, Missouri — When black teenager Michael Brown lay dead on a Ferguson street, shot by a white police officer, it happened in a town with a white mayor, white city manager, white police chief and a nearly all-white police force.
The details of what happened on August 9, 2014, and the days of protest that followed have become a polarizing topic in Ferguson and America as a whole. Arguments over the case often split down racial and sometimes-generational lines as to whether the facts of the case warranted the reaction that came after.
That reaction by a portion of the black community in Ferguson put all the blame on then-police Officer Darren Wilson, who they claimed shot Brown in cold blood for simply disobeying orders to stop walking in the middle of the street. People on the scene that day still say Brown was surrendering with his hands up when he was shot by Wilson.
But other citizens point to the details of the grand jury and subsequent Department of Justice investigation. Both ultimately determined Wilson was justified in the shooting and did not violate Brown’s civil rights, saying the evidence showed Brown scuffled with Wilson in his vehicle and did not show Brown was surrendering when he was shot and killed.
Those details came long after months of protest that ultimately spawned a movement called Black Lives Matter. The details of Brown’s death were often overshadowed by the pent-up frustration that boiled over in the black community about the way police treat and target them.
Protesters say the widely criticized reaction of the police who rolled military equipment into the streets and pointed guns at them during the initial protests after Brown’s death only served to prove demonstrators’ point: Police are overtly more brutal with black people.
Now, one year since the shooting, Ferguson’s new interim police chief is black, the interim city manager is black and half the city council is black.
The changes — in a town where 67% of residents are African-American — came after relentless protests punctuated by a few nights of riots and a second Justice Department investigation that said the Ferguson police department patterns and practices revealed it was discriminating against African-Americans by targeting, ticketing, jailing and searching them far more often than whites.
Change that will last?
While the city points to visible changes, those skeptical of change in Ferguson do have good reason. While more blacks are in positions of power in city government, three of the most important ones are technically temporary.
Interim police Chief Andre Anderson has taken a temporary six-month leave of absence from his current department in Glendale, Arizona. The chief judge — brought in to reform the municipal court system after problems highlighted by the feds — will be retiring, by law, when he turns 75 in eight months. And the city manager also has interim before his title, causing some to wonder whether the black leaders in a position to drive city government are superficial changes for show that will soon disappear.
“A new city manager and police chief don’t make changes people can feel and experience,” said Pastor Tommie Pierson of Greater St. Mark Family Church. “When the talk becomes reality then we’ll stop.”
Barely two weeks on the job, Chief Anderson says his priority is for both he and his officers to reach out directly to the community.
“We are not hopeless,” Anderson told CNN. “We have to work together in order to improve things in this community.”
He says he knows that changes at the department are necessary.
“I’ll be honest with you, I just need the people to get on board. The folks that are unwilling to accept and move in the right direction — they don’t need to be here,” Anderson said.
So far, only 10% of the force is black. But the chief is less worried about the racial makeup as he is the character of the men and women who are wearing the badge.
“The citizens don’t want police officers that are not community-oriented. I do not want police officers that are not community-oriented. I will not tolerate police officers that don’t want to work well to move this community in the right direction. So now everyone is aware of that and we’re working steadfastly to identify the folks that are moving forward,” Anderson said.
There is still a push to try and remove Mayor James Knowles after two failed recall attempts. He’s the remaining and most visible holdout from a city government the Justice Department found was bankrolling its budget on the backs of local mostly black citizens — usually by ticketing and then arresting them on warrants for failing to pay.
“When people see him, all the baggage associated with a year ago comes to the front,” said 15-year Ferguson resident Darnell Singleton. “That issue has stopped everything from moving forward.”
“You can pull all these weeds out,” said Chris Phillips, a resident and filmmaker who lives in the Canfield Green Apartments where Brown was shot. “But if you still have one there, the weeds can grow back again.”
But other residents like Blake Ashby say the mayor was actually part of the new guard and is working to bring the city together.
“Change is hard and takes time. We are making change,” Ashby said. The mayor, he claims, is helping usher in that change.
‘Protest brings attention to the problem’
A year ago, Blake Ashby says he, too, took to the streets and protested. The four-year resident is a Republican who says he has been a lifelong progressive. He agrees change is a necessity.
“Statistically, it’s hard to say that our society values African-American lives as much as white lives,” Ashby said. “You can look at almost any number and it suggests a disparity.”
Ashby is white. And for that, he says, his support of the protest movement has sometimes been met with a touch of skepticism. But now he faces sheer opposition from a very small but very vocal group that wants to dismantle Ferguson’s city government, taking it as a trophy of the protest movement.
“Essentially, what they are doing is dismissing the efforts of everybody else who doesn’t do things exactly the way they do. If we are not out shouting at the cops and threatened to rape their families then somehow we are not really committed to the cause of social justice,” Ashby said, while at the same time worrying about the impact of his words. He says he and his wife have been threatened for their stance.
Ashby is among those who want to give city leaders a chance. He and others represent a splintering of a protest movement that features multiple goals and philosophies.
Pastor Pierson, whose Greater St. Mark Family Church will host a gathering to honor Michael Brown and the accomplishments of the protest movement, says his goal is community-focused.
“When those kids have access to quality education, when jobs are available, then we’ll rest,” Pierson said. “Protest doesn’t solve a problem; protest brings attention to the problem.”
‘One year later’
On the anniversary of Brown’s death, some in the city are commemorating his killing with silent prayers and peaceful marches, that have been more parade than protest.
But Monday, two groups are planning something that is not so family-friendly, a day of civil disobedience. In the past, that’s included blocking highways and shutting down big businesses across St. Louis County.
“It’s like a hurricane is headed for your city,” Ferguson resident Dara Ashby said. “We don’t know if it’s going to be a Category One or a Category Five.”
Ferguson and St. Louis city officials say they are planning for disruptions, but nothing on the scale of the damage inflicted after the grand jury did not indict Officer Wilson.
Michael Brown’s family has already urged peace, but with a protest movement that is clearly splintered, the Brown family is no longer its sole voice.
This weekend, out-of-towners will mix with locals; the religious will share streets with the radical; and the peaceful well-organized groups will cast shadows big enough to shade those with less savory intentions.
A few have taken to social media, ginning up plans for destruction by saying the city still needs to pay.
But most here seem to think this is just social media bravado.
A plaque, a legacy
An obvious wedge in the protest movement is that Darren Wilson was ultimately cleared in the shooting death of Mike Brown. But protesters — many of whom are skeptical of the local and federal inquiries into the case — point to the concrete examples of police misconduct exposed in the wake of Brown’s death. The case also led to new policing strategies, including police body cameras that have injected truth into areas where there was once only debate.
Ferguson is the genesis of that movement, where one year ago Brown’s body lay on Canfield Drive, surrounded by tears, anger and unanswered questions. Today, just steps away, there is a plaque commemorating his life and death. While tears and anger still remain, some of those questions now have answers.
To many, the plaque is about the quest for those answers, and what America learned about itself in the process.
“I think that it has affected the world in a good sense,” said Chris Phillips, the filmmaker. “It did make people motivated to speak up, to march, to rally. To fight for change.”