On Saturday, Michael Brown Sr. led a group of about 100 marchers during a peaceful five-mile journey through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, accompanied by a state-police escort. The peaceful march was intended to not only commemorate the anniversary of the controversial killing of his son by police officer Darren Wilson a year ago Sunday, but to also demonstrate the progress the city has made between the police and the public. Brown Sr. was visible for much of Saturday’s events, saying that although he is constantly grieving; the anniversary was a chance to keep “moving forward on a positive note.”In a starkly metaphoric turn of events, however, the sound of gunfire near the Family Dollar store on West Florissant Avenue disrupted the peace just before midnight. According to police reports, one man was shot and the back window of an unmarked police car was also shattered by a bullet. Brown was shot on Canfield Drive on August 9th, 2014, just a few blocks from that same location. A year following Brown’s death and in the aftermath of protests enflamed the city and brought national attention to the issue of police abuse, how has the city of Ferguson changed, and if so, will the changes last?
The simple answer to the question is that “it’s complicated.” Although Wilson was cleared by a grand jury, and a subsequent Department of Justice investigation ruled that Brown’s civil rights were not violated, Wilson resigned from the Ferguson police force and is no longer employed as a police officer citing safety concerns. While a lack of consistent testimony marred both investigations, opinions on the incident were largely divided among racial lines, with the black community citing the Brown incident as an example of the mistreatment of Ferguson’s minority residents. African-Americans make up 67 percent of the city’s population, yet the city only had three African-American police officers out of 53 at the time of the shooting. A second Justice Department investigation into Ferguson’s police force concluded on March 4th, 2015 that officers routinely discriminated against African-Americans in a “pattern or practice of unlawful conduct.” The Justice Department discovered that much of the police force and city revenue has been generated on a repeated pattern of targeting African-Americans for tickets, and then arresting them for failing to pay. Although much of the city government was purged in the wake of the shooting, blacks currently only make up 10 percent of the police force. Also, embattled mayor James Knowles, who was accused of leading the revenue scheme, remains in office despite fending off two recall attempts.
Saturday’s march, and events planned for Sunday’s anniversary do signal progress for the city, however. Despite the violent conclusion in which a man was arrested for the shooting, although claiming he was not firing at police, most of the day went peacefully and a sign of healing for many. Most notably, troopers were handing out popsicles to children, shedding the riot gear and military tactics that accompanied, and often enflamed, the protests in the aftermath of the Brown shooting. While there is still a lack of racial diversity within the police department’s ranks, the new interim police chief is black, as is the interim city manager as well as half of the city council. The incident and protests also led to the city and much of the country to adopt new policing strategies and implement body cameras. President Obama also announced that he was authorizing $75 million dollars in federal funds for the purchase of body cameras nationwide in response to the incident in Ferguson, as well as a wave of similar incidents throughout the country following Brown’s shooting. Brown’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in April 2015, seeking damages in excess of $75,000 plus attorney’s fees. The case was moved to federal court on May 27th. On July 14th, Eastern District of Missouri Senior Judge, E. Richard Webber dismissed four of the seven counts in the lawsuit.
Many residents feel that the changes in Ferguson to be superficial, and temporary at best. 15 year-old Darnell Singleton stresses the importance of the continued movement to remove Knowles, saying “When people see him, all the baggage associated with a year ago comes to the front. That issue has stopped everything from moving forward.” Chris Phillips, who lives in Canfield Green, the same apartment complex where Brown was shot agrees, saying “You can pull all these weeds out, but if you still have one there, the weeds can grow back again.” Beyond Knowles, most of Ferguson’s leadership is in power only on a temporary basis. Interim police Chief Andre Anderson is on a six-month loan from his current post in Glendale, Arizona, and the judge brought in to reform Ferguson’s municipal court system will be forced to retire in eight months when he turns 75. Anderson may not have endeared himself to his new community either, issuing a heavy-handed plea for acceptance barely two-weeks onto the job saying, “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.” Still, the increased amount of political participation among Ferguson’s black residents is evident by the recent city-council elections, and if the trend continues it could lead to more lasting changes within the city.
CNN – Sara Sidner and Jason Kravarik
New York Times – Mitch Smith
St. Louis Post-Dispatch – Doug Moore