'Ferguson became a giant': How 3 years of activism is slowly reshaping the St. Louis area
The 2014 death of Michael Brown, a black, unarmed 18-year-old, at the hands of a white police officer unleashed anger and activism throughout the St. Louis area.
Some who marched in the streets of Ferguson after August 9 of that year remain committed to changing hearts, minds and laws throughout St. Louis and Missouri, despite setbacks at the ballot box and within legislative chambers. But activists also concede that policy alone won't bring St. Louis together: It'll require people of all stripes acknowledging the realities of a racially divided region and state.
'Reclaim their humanity'
Some demonstrators who came to Ferguson in 2014 eventually left for bigger cities, becoming national icons. Others went back to their day jobs, their homes and their kids.
Ferguson resident Tony Rice isn't going anywhere. His activism has led to inhaling tear gas, attending countless city council meetings and curating a Twitter feed with vivid images of confrontations between police and protesters. He said he's committed to changing the way area police departments treat black people like himself.
“For the first time, I've recognized in almost 50 years that America has been put on notice, that marginalized people no longer want to be treated a certain way,” Rice said. “They're out to reclaim their humanity.”
A couple of years ago, Rice quit his day job to devote himself to activism. Others became leaders in the fight to raise St. Louis' minimum wage, which will be rolled by due to a state law on Aug. 28.
People like Kennard Williams helped organize protests over the conditions of the city's jails, most recently the Workhouse. In August 2014, Williams volunteered as a street medic during the first nights of the protests — a role that he thinks may have led his boss to fire him from his IT job.
So, Williams kept going back to Ferguson with bandages and bottles of water and milk of magnesia, combining the two liquids for a mixture that helped people deal with the stinging pain of pepper spray.
“Every night, seeing people out in the street getting shot at and brutalized by police, it's just like — who's going to help these people?” Williams said.
Activists during the Ferguson protests would write the phone number of a jail-support program on their arms with a felt-tip pen in case they were arrested. The program, a local nonprofit called Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, raised money for bail.
It grew into the project that Williams now leads: Decarcerate STL, which focuses on prison reform and conditions at the Workhouse.
“There are people who are in there for child support,” Williams said. “If you lock somebody up where they can't have any way of paying back this debt that they owe, where is the logic in how this system is supposed to work?”
Many activists stayed the course on police accountability. Though a grand jury declined to charge former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in Brown's death, the federal Justice Department stepped in to mandate that Ferguson change how it runs its police department and municipal courts.
“We just have to do better. We absolutely have to do better,” said Elizabeth Vega, an artist who took part in a protest this week for two young men who were fatally shot recently by St. Louis police. “I don't want them to grow up in a world where this is their reality. Where black kids talk about how not to get shot by the police.”
From protests to politics
There are at least three men who demonstrated in Ferguson and transitioned to politics in the past year: St. Louis Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, state Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, and St. Louis Democratic committeeman Rasheen Aldridge.
Aldridge said he is heartened that activists were elected to seats of power. But there's been a lot of negative emotions along the way, he said, especially the disappointment many felt when Wilson wasn't indicted.
“I'm not going to lie, it's a bittersweet type of situation,” Aldridge said. “We were just trying to get justice. Not getting getting the indictment of Darren Wilson, having to be called thugs and looters and all these things, over time I think mentally and the chemicals that we were taking in also, in a post-traumatic stress type of way, affected us as well.
“Because even when I think about Ferguson, I think about the good how we were able to come together. But it's also those sad moments.”
There were other setbacks over the last few years: The Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly pushed aside a host of bills that activists supported, such as independent investigators for police-involved killings. And politicians like President Donald Trump rode a “law and order” message to victory.
“To many white people, Black Lives Matter meant to them 'White Lives Don't Matter.' And just like any other time during an uprising or people starting to question the government's ability to govern, there's always been a backlash to those people,” Rice said. “It happened during Reconstruction. It also happened during the desegregation of the buses. Because even though the policy changed, it didn't change the hearts and minds of the people that helped institute those policies.”
For Collins-Muhammad, the difficulties in policy changes aren't reasons to be discouraged. He said it's an opportunity for black public officials to band together.
“In order for north St. Louis and for black wards to progress, it's going to take a united front,” Collins-Muhammad said. “It's a part of a larger problem. I think that black elected officials just don't trust each other. Black elected officials just don't believe in each other. And that's a problem. That's what we have to change. And that' why I'm excited about other young elected officials.”
Franks said he brought his experience in Ferguson to bear on his approach to crafting legislation, including adding a provision to the new statewide system that alerts the public when a police officer is shot. He helped add language that would make it a felony if someone files a false report that leads to the death of a suspect.
During a St. Louis Public Radio event on Cherokee Street in late May, Franks said his presence in the Capitol is a victory in and of itself.
“When it comes to us fighting in Ferguson, if anybody questions what good came out of Ferguson, what important, what impactful came out of Ferguson? You tell them Rep. Bruce Franks, Jr.,” he said.
A minister reflects
“St. Louis became a giant that woke up,” according to the Rev. Dinah Tatman, a St. Louis-area minister who was a constant presence during 2014's late-night protests, sometimes standing in between protesters and police lines to stop verbal conflicts from escalating. But she took a hiatus from protesting after a death in her family.
To Tatman, the protests marked the beginning of a powerful conversation about institutional racism, similar to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
“It gave them power to show it and say it. They felt empowered - 'Now I can say I hurt. Now I can say that you have policies and systems in place that don't include me. Now I can say there is racism,'" Tatman said. “That's what changed. The freedom to say, 'You hurt me.'"
Upending the racism that held black St. Louis residents back needs to change, too, at least in the mind of Sharon Williams, a former Ferguson resident who helped care for injured protesters.
Williams, who moved to Hazelwood just before Brown's death, said change will remain elusive unless white people come to terms with their historic and current role in displacing black communities in St. Louis and keeping African-Americans at an educational and economic disadvantage.
“If indeed we've got the same structure and the same people still in place, how is it going to change? No one in the community and the immediate community that's black can get in to make a difference,” Williams said.
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