Rick Wilking / Reuters

A year after Michael Brown shooting, Ferguson residents reflect on lessons

Crisis-hit Ferguson looks back, on the anniversary of the killing, as tensions still simmer

FERGUSON, Missouri — Few people in Ferguson remember where they were on Aug. 8, 2014. On that nondescript Friday, people went to work, ran errands, ordered pizza. Ferguson was still a sleepy middle-class suburb known mostly for its farmers’ market and its brewery, if it was known at all. There was no #Ferguson.

Although the kindling was already stacked — a police department that targeted African-Americans, a municipal court that generated revenue by piling fees on the poor and a disconnect between white officials and their black constituents — the match had not yet been lit.

“There’s nothing that stands out to me,” Patricia Bynes, a Ferguson Democratic committeewoman, said of the day before the shooting.

“I’m trying to remember anything special,” said Brian Fletcher, a former Ferguson mayor. “Not that I recall. It was just a normal Friday.”

The next day everything changed. The next day no one will ever forget.

The Rev. Traci Blackmon, whose Christ the King United Church of Christ is just a few miles from where Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson, remembers the phone call. Months earlier, she presided at a funeral for a 21-year-old woman who was killed in a drive-by shooting, still holding her baby in her arms. Someone at the funeral had taken Blackmon’s card. “We need you in Canfield,” the woman said. “Someone has been killed.”

Bynes remembers the blood that could not be washed away. Brown lay in the street for four hours, spilling his life onto the pavement. “I can still see his blood in the street,” she said. When the police tried to hose away that blood, the stain wouldn’t come out. Soon people covered the spot with flowers and teddy bears — a makeshift memorial that would stand for months.

Rasheen Aldridge was working at a car rental office near the airport that day. After he saw dozens of police cars race past on the interstate, he found a photo of Brown’s body online. The next day, he watched on Twitter as outrage over the shooting grew, then drove to Ferguson to see the scene for himself. He became an organizer in the protest movement that followed. “Mike Brown could have been me,” he said.

In the following weeks, Bynes’ Twitter feed became an essential source for information on the nightly clashes between protesters and police. Before last August, she didn’t know how to run while wearing a bulletproof vest. She didn’t know what it felt like to choke on tear gas, the uncontrollable coughing and the swollen eyes. Over the past year, she has learned.

She found that, whether people agreed with her or not, they appreciated her willingness to stand on the front line. “Personally, I have just grown tremendously,” she said. “It was a baptism by fire on how to de-escalate situations between the community and the police. I’ve learned that when you represent a community, you need to be there. Literally, you need to be present for them.”

‘It was a baptism by fire on how to de-escalate situations between the community and the police. I’ve learned that when you represent a community, you need to be there.’

Patricia Bynes

Ferguson Democratic committeewoman

Before police showed up to quell protests in armored vehicles, carrying assault weapons, Aldridge didn’t know they had that type of equipment at all. “It felt like we were in a war zone,” he said. “We were peacefully trying to do something right, walking up and down the streets. To get shot with tear gas and to see these militarized tank-trucks that police officers were in, as if we were the enemy — it’s shocking. I couldn’t believe that our police officers had some of these toys that they were able to play with, like early Christmas.”

Blackmon said the last year has taught her the importance of ministering in the street. “I’ve learned that there is a difference in having church and being church,” she said. “Being church means that you live and dwell in the community to show forth the light of God. Having church means you hold services in buildings … I’ve learned that even people who don’t agree can do great things together if they have a common goal.”

She was referring to the work done by the Ferguson Commission, a diverse 16-member panel set up by Gov. Jay Nixon to make Missouri, as he put it, a “stronger, fairer place.” Blackmon and Aldridge were among its members. The commission generated a long list of “calls to action” regarding things like police training, municipal court reform and economic policy.

“I am incredibly proud that the commission is agreeing that the minimum wage needs to be raised to $15 an hour,” Blackmon said. “Many of the things that have happened over the last 365 days have been symptoms and not causes. And to deal with the economic disparities in this region is to deal with the causes of our issues.”

“We are coming up on the anniversary,” she added. “That is a time for reflection and not celebration, because we have a lot of work to do.”

A day or two after the shooting, Fletcher was dining with friends from church at Vincenzo’s Italian restaurant when he heard news that violence had broken out. As mayor, he had worked to keep the QuikTrip on West Florissant Avenue open, knowing that many residents without cars depended on the convenience store for essential supplies. Now it burned. “It was very hurtful to see this happen to our community,” he said.

Soon after that, he launched the I Love Ferguson campaign to raise money for local businesses that were destroyed by riots. What started in the back of a coffee shop now has its own storefront and has raised well over $100,000. This spring, he was among three new members elected to the Ferguson City Council, in the first municipal vote since the shooting. The other new members are African-Americans, including Ella Jones, the first black woman to ever serve on the council.

Despite his longtime involvement in local politics, Fletcher said he was surprised by much of what was reported about Ferguson government. Before this past year, he didn’t realize that police officers would sometimes write several traffic tickets in a single stop or that an inability to pay those tickets or even simply missing a court date could trigger an avalanche of additional fines and fees that ultimately landed the poor in jail, a system critics have likened to a debtors’ prison.

“I think there was long overdue need for some court reforms,” he said. “A parking violation, because of failures to appear, turns from a minor ticket into, like, a $1,000 fee. I certainly don’t support that.” 

‘Many of the things that have happened over the last 365 days have been symptoms and not causes. And to deal with the economic disparities in this region is to deal with the causes of our issues.’

Traci Blackmon

pastor, Christ the King Church

Fletcher felt it unfair that Ferguson was singled out for review by the Department of Justice. “As far as I know, there has been only one police shooting in 120 years in the history of our police department,” he said. “You wouldn’t think that would trigger a DOJ investigation, but it did. National politics played into that.” But he also acknowledged that some aspects of the report on the Ferguson Police Department shocked him. For instance, the report noted that every time a police dog was used to apprehend a suspect, the suspect was black. “I couldn’t give you an answer for that,” he said. “That’s an alarming statistic. I’d hate to believe that our entire police department was racist and that they were picking on African-Americans. Obviously, some were.”

He learned the importance of transparency. “I think that facts of the Michael Brown shooting didn’t get out quickly enough,” he said. “Was he really raising his hands and surrendering? Was he really shot in the back by the police officer? As we later found out months later, some of those things were not true, but that led to the anger.”

He also learned not to trust Nixon, who promised to use the National Guard to keep businesses safe after the announcement last fall that a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson for killing Brown. Those troops stood by while the city burned. “I said at the time, he should resign in disgrace. As far as I was concerned, he was a moron,” Fletcher said. “It’s the fact he promised the community protection. Much of the destruction could have been avoided.”

One thing he hasn’t learned is what the protesters want. Ferguson’s police chief, city manager and municipal judge have all been replaced by African-Americans. The state’s General Assembly passed a law this year limiting the amount of revenue a city may generate from its municipal court (though it failed to pass any legislation restricting the use of deadly force by police officers). The Department of Justice also declined to bring charges against Wilson. So why are people still standing out there with their signs?

“With citizens in Ferguson, we’re pretty tired after about a year of the protesting,” Fletcher said. “Even the past several nights, as the anniversary is approaching, there are 20, 25 protesters down there in the evening banging drums, using microphones and cussing at the police. It’s irritating for the community. We’re not quite sure what they’re actually wanting.”

For Aldridge, the answer to that question couldn’t be simpler. “Black lives matter. We have to yell ‘Black lives matter’ because it’s being shown in our everyday lives as if black lives do not matter. You have to fight for your life to matter. I’ve learned that no matter how much or how hard you can continue to push people and oppress them, that over time they will eventually fight back. That has been so beautiful to see. This whole nation has been shifted. Ferguson is everywhere.”

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