Real Progress in Ferguson Could Take a Generation

What do we mean when we talk about progress since Ferguson?

A man holds up a sign that says, "Am I next?," amid a crowd of protesters.
Demetrus Washington and others protest the death of Michael Brown on Aug. 14, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Every year around Aug. 9, people ask if there has been progress since Ferguson. Depending on who asks, Ferguson can mean the small suburb of St. Louis where Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Mike Brown or it can mean the broader St. Louis region. Ferguson can also represent one of those rare moments in time where white middle-class people were forced to see the interplay of race, class, and policing in ways they can most often completely ignore.

More importantly, what do we mean by progress? Would progress simply mean there are fewer police killings or fewer people in jail because of their poverty? Don’t we need to know what was sacrificed to make change in order to measure progress?

People protested for more than a year, risking their lives and their safety, while routinely being arrested, harassed, jailed, and surveilled. The world’s media came to St. Louis and shone a spotlight on the injustices here. Journalists were arrested for doing their job. ArchCity Defenders, the St. Louis–based civil rights law firm I co-founded, filed dozens of federal civil rights class actions against Ferguson and nearby cities along with the St. Louis University School of Law’s Legal Clinics, Alec Karakatsanis, and others. The Department of Justice launched an investigation and entered into a consent decree with the city after concluding the Ferguson Police Department systematically violated black people’s civil rights to increase revenue. The Ferguson Commission pulled in volunteers who devoted time and energy to hearing the voices of the most affected people and making recommendations for change over the course of 19 meetings and an entire year.

The fight for change took a lasting toll. People who were beaten, tear-gassed, and threatened by police still suffer psychological damage from it five years later. Bruce Franks, for instance, led protests, fought the system, won election to the Missouri House of Representatives, and then resigned in 2019 because of significant mental health challenges (he recently revealed he has contemplated suicide). Several young men involved in the protests—Edward Crawford, Bassem Masri, Darren Seals, MarShawn McCarrel, Danye Jones—died suddenly in the past five years.

So, what did they get for their efforts? As Malcolm X famously said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” Has the wound been healed? Five years later, have we even admitted the knife was there?

The racial disparities in policing were central to protesters’ message. According to the Missouri attorney general’s 2013 annual report on disparity in traffic stops in the city of Ferguson, police stopped 5,384 vehicles, 86 percent of which involved a black motorist, although black people make up just 67 percent of the population. By comparison, whites constitute 29 percent of the population of Ferguson but just 12.7 percent of vehicle stops. After being stopped in Ferguson, black drivers in 2013 were almost twice as likely as whites to be searched and two times more likely to be arrested.

Is it better now? Hardly. According to the Missouri attorney general’s report for 2018, police in Ferguson stopped 2,140 vehicles, 89 percent of which involved a black motorist, although black people now make up just 63 percent of the population. By comparison, although whites constitute as much as 33 percent of the population in Ferguson, they represent just 9 percent of the stops. In 2018, blacks and whites are almost equally likely to be searched and arrested after a stop. While arrests and search disparities have evened out, the stop numbers are worse for black drivers in Ferguson than they were before the killing of Mike Brown.

If progress can be measured through stronger police accountability, the results are decidedly mixed. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, pushed by local organizers, has placed an unprecedented number of St. Louis police officers on an exclusion list, refusing cases they bring and not allowing them to testify. She’s brought criminal charges against more than a dozen officers and attempted to overturn a conviction her office won based on lying officers and bribed witnesses. For these efforts, she has been derided by the police officers union and several of the region’s most prominent lawyers. Similarly, newly elected St. Louis County prosecutor Wesley Bell campaigned on reform under the close watch of local activists. He has already brought charges against a police officer who shot an alleged shoplifter in the stomach, something that never would have occurred under former prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s regime.

These prosecutions represent a small step toward acknowledging the knife is there. But other recent events suggest few other officials agree. Most notably, St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley walked free in September 2017 despite the existence of a video that showed him saying he was “going to kill this motherfucker” shortly before he shot Anthony Lamar Smith with his personal weapon. St Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson, who is white, ruled that Anthony Lamar Smith likely possessed a weapon, even though none was recovered at the scene, because “the Court observes, based on its nearly thirty years on the bench, that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”

Mirroring scenes from 2014, during the protests that followed Stockley’s acquittal, St. Louis police beat and trapped people, deployed chemical munitions in violation of a federal court’s injunction, and taunted protesters with chants of “Whose streets? Our streets!”

If we look at the Missouri Legislature for accountability, the picture is worse. Democratic legislators responded to the protests by introducing close to 100 bills to address policing and criminal justice reform in 2015. These bills required body cameras, sought to curtail racial profiling by police, required diversity and sensitivity training, and most significantly, sought to change the law that governs a police officer’s use of force. None of those bills passed.

The 2014 protests also exposed the predatory municipal legal system. At ArchCity Defenders, our clients educated us about the racist and predatory courts in St. Louis that created and exacerbated their poverty. Cities across the region stopped, ticketed, and arrested poor, mostly black people. This discriminatory scheme raised massive amounts of revenue for individual cities. In 2013 alone, the region’s municipal courts generated more than $60 million in revenue.

They did this by holding the threat of jail over people’s heads if they didn’t pay. Most could not. People locked in a cage solely because of money described horrific conditions to me and casually mentioned contemplating suicide because they had no idea when they would ever leave the system of jails they appeared to be destined to toil in for years because of their race and poverty. They were shuffled from one dilapidated jail to another over the course of months, with no access to showers or basic hygienic items; they lost their job, their car, their house, and contact with their loved ones as a result. All of this added up to a situation where there were more than 600,000 arrest warrants in a region of only 1.2 million people on the day Darren Wilson shot and killed Mike Brown.

In one genuine sign of progress, revenue from municipal courts prosecution has dropped 60 percent from 2014 to 2019. That happened because of a combination of legislation, litigation, journalism, organizing, and protest. However, the result is simply a promise to follow established legal standards that judges and prosecutors had been ignoring for years. Is that progress?

Ferguson still won’t admit the knife is there. The city is not in substantial compliance with the Department of Justice’s consent decree. It has not paid damages to the people it unconstitutionally jailed. While neighboring Jennings settled an identical lawsuit for $4.75 million in damages, Ferguson instead continues to fight the case with taxpayer money. James Knowles, who famously said Ferguson didn’t have a race problem, is still mayor of Ferguson. Jeffrey Blume, the city’s former finance director, who infamously wrote to the Ferguson Police Department about the need to increase revenue, has recently been appointed interim city manager.

The only real hope for meaningful progress lies in the network of community members who were shaped by the uprising and continue to fight for lasting change in St. Louis. Organizers like Kayla Reed of Action St. Louis and Fran Griffin at the Ferguson Collaborative, leaders like Starsky Wilson and Blake Strode, and elected officials like Rasheen Aldridge and Tishaura Jones work together toward meaningful transformation. But this is a generational effort. At just five years removed from the tragic murder of Mike Brown, we are only beginning to see a future where this is possible.