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.”
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.
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.
History of tensions
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.
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.”
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.
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:
“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.”
AUG. 9: Michael Brown and a companion, both black, are confronted by an officer as they walk back to Brown’s home from a convenience store. Brown and the officer, who is white, are involved in a scuffle, followed by gunshots. Brown dies at the scene, and his body remains in the street for four hours in the summer heat. Neighbors later lash out at authorities, saying they mistreated the body.
AUG. 10: After a candlelight vigil, people protesting Brown’s death smash car windows and carry away armloads of looted goods from stores. In the first of several nights of violence, looters are seen making off with bags of food, toilet paper and alcohol. Some protesters stand atop police cars and taunt officers.
AUG. 11: The FBI opens an investigation into Brown’s death, and two men who said they saw the shooting tell reporters that Brown had his hands raised when the officer approached with his weapon and fired repeatedly. That night, police in riot gear fire tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse a crowd.
AUG. 12: Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson cancels plans to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, citing death threats against the police department and City Hall.
AUG. 14: The Missouri Highway Patrol takes control of security in Ferguson, relieving St. Louis County and local police of their law-enforcement authority following four days of violence. The shift in command comes after images from the protests show many officers equipped with military-style gear, including armored vehicles, body armor and assault rifles. In scores of photographs that circulate online, officers are seen pointing their weapons at demonstrators.
AUG. 15: Police identify the officer who shot Brown as Darren Wilson, 28. They also release a video purporting to show Brown robbing a convenience store of almost $50 worth of cigars shortly before he was killed, a move that further inflames protesters.
AUG. 16: Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declares a state of emergency and imposes a curfew in Ferguson.
AUG. 17: Attorney General Eric Holder orders a federal medical examiner to perform another autopsy on Brown.
AUG. 18: Nixon calls the National Guard to Ferguson to help restore order and lifts the curfew.
AUG. 19: Nixon says he will not seek the removal of Ferguson prosecutor Bob McCulloch from the investigation into Brown’s death. Some black leaders questioned whether the prosecutor’s deep family connections to police would affect his ability to be impartial. McCulloch’s father was a police officer who was killed in the line of duty when McCulloch was a child, and he has many relatives who work in law enforcement.
AUG. 20: Holder visits Ferguson to offer assurances about the investigation into Brown’s death and to meet with investigators and Brown’s family. A grand jury begins hearing evidence to determine whether Wilson should be charged.
AUG. 21: Nixon orders the National Guard to withdraw from Ferguson.
SEPT. 25: Holder announces his resignation but says he plans to remain in office until his successor is confirmed.
SEPT. 25: Ferguson Chief Tom Jackson releases a videotaped apology to Brown’s family and attempts to march in solidarity with protesters, a move that backfires when Ferguson officers scuffle with demonstrators and arrest one person moments after Jackson joins the group.
OCT. 10: Protesters from across the country descend on the St. Louis region for “Ferguson October,” four days of coordinated and spontaneous protests. A weekend march and rally in downtown St. Louis draws several thousand participants.
OCT. 21: Nixon pledges to create an independent Ferguson Commission to examine race relations, failing schools and other broader social and economic issues in the aftermath of Brown’s death.
NOV. 17: The Democratic governor declares a state of emergency and activates the National Guard again ahead of a decision from a grand jury. He places the Ferguson Police Department in charge of security in Ferguson, with orders to work as a unified command with St. Louis city police and the Missouri Highway Patrol.
NOV. 18: Nixon names 16 people to the Ferguson Commission, selecting a diverse group that includes the owner of construction-supply company, two pastors, two attorneys, a university professor, a 20-year-old community activist and a police detective. Nine of its members are black. Seven are white.
NOV. 24: The St. Louis County prosecutor announces that the grand jury has decided not to indict Wilson. During ensuing protests, at least a dozen buildings and multiple police cars are burned, officers are hit by rocks and batteries and reports of gunfire force some St. Louis-bound flights to be diverted.
MARCH 4: The U.S. Justice Department announces that it will not prosecute Wilson in Brown’s death but releases a scathing report that faults the city and its law enforcement for racial bias. The report said blacks in Ferguson are disproportionately subject to excessive police force, baseless traffic stops and citations for infractions as petty as walking down the middle of the street.
MARCH 11: Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigns, effective March 19. He is the sixth employee to resign or be fired in light of the Justice Department’s report. He is replaced on an interim basis by his top commander, Lt. Col. Al Eickhoff, who also is white.
MARCH 12: Two St. Louis-area police officers are shot in front of the Ferguson Police Department during a demonstration by protesters.
MARCH 15: St. Louis County officials charge 20-year-old man with first-degree assault in shootings of the two St. Louis-area officers.
APRIL 7: In Ferguson’s first municipal election since Brown’s death, two of the three city council members elected are black. Blacks now hold three of six seats, compared with the single seat prior to the election.
APRIL 23: Lawyers for Brown’s family file a lawsuit against the city of Ferguson. The complaint also names Wilson and Jackson as defendants.
MAY 20: The makeshift mid-street memorial that marked where Brown fell dead is cleared out on would have been his 19th birthday, giving way to a permanent plaque installed nearby in his memory.
JUNE 9: Ferguson hires a new municipal judge and interim city manager, both of whom are black. Ed Beasley, the fill-in city manager, had been city manager of the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, Arizona, for a decade before retiring in mid-2012. Former St. Louis Circuit Judge Donald McCullin steps in as municipal judge.
JULY 2: A St. Louis Circuit Judge Joseph Walsh III tosses out a push by activists for an independent investigation of prosecutor McCulloch’s handling of the grand jury proceedings that led to Wilson not being charged. Walsh wrote that he reached “the inescapable conclusion” that McCulloch “faithfully performed his duty” in connection with the grand jury, “even though some other person may have made the presentation to the grand jury in a different manner.”
JULY 9: The Urban League and dignitaries break ground on a proposed job-training center where a QuikTrip once stood in Ferguson before being looted and torched the night after Brown’s death just three-quarters of a mile away.
JULY 10: Nixon signs into law legislation limiting cities’ ability to profit from traffic tickets and court fines – the first significant step taken by state lawmakers to address concerns raised after Brown’s death. Among other things, the law lowers the percentage of revenue most cities can collect from traffic fines and fees from 30 percent to 20 percent.
JULY 22: Andre Anderson, a black, longtime police administrator in suburban Phoenix, is introduced as Ferguson’s new interim chief. Anderson, on essentially a six-month loan from Glendale, Arizona, says he’d be interested in the permanent Ferguson job.