Hope and fear in Ferguson, one year on

2015-08-06 18:01
(Michael B Thomas, AFP)

(Michael B Thomas, AFP)

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Ferguson - Charred shells of burned buildings still mar the landscape near Ferguson, Missouri a year after the police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown sparked a global Black Lives Matter movement.

The heavy-handed police response to the outrage expressed after Brown's body was left uncovered in the street for more than four hours steeled the resolve of protesters fighting for an end to "police thuggery”.

The world watched as first Ferguson filled with tear gas and armoured vehicles and then as cities like Baltimore were engulfed in civil unrest as the list of disputed killings by police grew.

"When something like Ferguson happens, you see an explosion of all these young men and women that feel so hopeless and helpless," Michael McMillan, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan St Louis, told AFP.

"People wonder 'where do these people come from, why don't they have a job, what are they so mad about?' They've been there all along but people weren't paying attention."


There are signs of progress in this St Louis suburb, which has become a symbol of the deep racial tensions simmering across the United States.

The remains of a QuikTrip gas station destroyed on the first night of protests have been cleared away and a job training and empowerment centre run by the Urban League will soon be built in its place.

Some of the injustices outlined by a federal investigation are being addressed.

Ferguson recently appointed an African-American police chief who pledged to instil the force with the "respect, cultural awareness and the professionalism this community deserves" and several judges, police officers and city officials have resigned or been replaced.

Municipal courts across Missouri are no longer allowed to send people to jail for minor infractions like not paying parking tickets and the state has placed limits on how much money towns can raise from traffic violations.

Police in Ferguson are now wearing body cameras - which studies have shown drastically reduces the use of force - and departments across the nation are following suit.

But the powder keg that exploded on August 9 2014 has not been defused, experts, activists and community leaders said.

"You still have that tinderbox because you don't change decades of injustice in one year," said Pastor Tommie Pierson, a state representative whose church was used as a sanctuary by protesters.

Others agreed the issue is far from settled.

"It's not as if this problem has been resolved. We're just waiting for the next Ferguson to erupt," said Carol Camp Yeakey, director of the Centre on Urban Research and Public Policy at Washington University in St Louis.

"We do have elements of window dressing but any major change to correct the fundamental social and political ills? No."

For some, the root of the problem is deeply embedded racism and social injustice, including the underfunding of dysfunctional schools in impoverished neighbourhoods.

"The police are the tip of the iceberg of systemic racism and classism," said Tory Russell, an organizer with Hands Up United who lives near the memorial that marks where Brown was killed.


The remarkable thing about Ferguson is how unremarkable it is.

It's hard to tell where Ferguson ends and the neighbouring suburbs begin. There are stately homes on a hill, modest bungalows, a smattering of apartment complexes and plenty of churches.

A quick drive through its 16km2 shows the same mix of chain-filled strip malls and mom-and-pop shops you'd find pretty much anywhere in America.

People are poorer than the national average, but census data shows the suburb is doing a bit better than the city. The population of about 21 000 is 67% black and 29% white.

Deputy mayor Mark Byrne thought Ferguson was a model of racial harmony before the burning and the looting began. He hopes it actually will be one day.

"It's not going to be easy, it's not going to happen overnight," he told AFP. "We can fix the problem."

The mixture of optimism and frustration that fills the community can be seen in the graffiti and murals painted on boarded up businesses, like the barbecue restaurant at the foot of the street where Brown was killed.

One side of the building is filled with colorful quotations and two raised fists next to the word "hope." Someone clearly gave up, however, after trying to wash "Let us purge white AmeriKKK" and "No Justice, No Fucking Peace" off the brick walls.

"My prayer is that people will be patient," said Charles Davis, who opened the Ferguson Burger Bar and More restaurant the day before Brown was killed and kept it open as neighboring businesses were looted and burned.

"We as a community have been devastated, but we've had changes made faster than ever before," Davis said as he prepared for both the day's lunch rush and an onslaught of reporters and protesters coming back to mark the anniversary on Sunday.

"Hopefully this young man did not die in vain."

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