The killing of an 18-year-old black teen by a white police officer on a street in Ferguson was the spark that ignited years of frustration, distrust and anger. Protests of the killing of Michael Brown, fueled by social media, continued for weeks. Days were filled with marches and meetings, nights devolved into confrontations with police. New issues emerged to be explored, debated. Fervor ebbed, then exploded anew when a second, and third police shooting occurred. Protests moved into Clayton, the Shaw neighborhood, St. Louis University, downtown. A night of arson and looting followed the announcement that a grand jury would not indict the police officer. Protests spread across the nation. Here, from the epicenter, is the story of Ferguson.
At 12:02 p.m. on Aug. 9, 2014, Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson radioed that he was stopping two people at the Canfield Green apartment complex in Ferguson. Less than 90 seconds later, 18-year-old Michael Brown was dead in the street. His body remained there for four hours as the crowd grew. Witnesses who went public said Brown was trying to surrender when he was killed. Wilson, through his police superiors and others, said Brown initiated the violence.
People took to the streets immediately after the shooting of Michael Brown. “Hands up. Don’t shoot,” they chanted, echoing witness statements that Brown was trying to surrender when he was shot. (Police Officer Darren Wilson and some witnesses said Brown charged at Wilson.) The day after the shooting, violence broke out and the QuikTrip was looted and burned. In the days and weeks afterward, gatherings during the day were peaceful. At night, things got tense.
Key details of police Officer Darren Wilson's encounter with Michael Brown did not emerge for weeks. The private autopsy results, released early on, showed that Brown was struck by six rounds. The county autopsy, obtained by the Post-Dispatch weeks later, showed a close-range wound to Brown's hand. The investigation took months, but scant information was offered publicly. The newspaper obtained county dispatch records and conducted multiple interviews to figure out why Brown's body was left on the street for so many hours. The public records request for radio calls resulted in a story showing the entire encounter lasted about 90 seconds.
Scrutiny of police tactics extends far beyond the tick-tock of events on Aug. 9. Why was so little information shared? Why did police respond to protesters with dogs, military vehicles and sniper rifles? In the days that followed the shooting, the images of police dressed in full riot gear, tossing tear gas as they clashed with protesters triggered a nationwide debate about the militarization of law enforcement. That conversation has spilled over to other areas, such as the use of body cameras, the lack of diversity in the ranks, a shortage of data on fatal police shootings and calls for consolidating local departments.
“You’ve got issues in this city,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told a standing-room-only crowd three days after the shooting. The issues raised in Ferguson include police killings of black men, racial disparity in police stops and searches, courts that many say prey on poor people, and dysfunctional schools in black neighborhoods. Jesse Jackson protested. Bernice King worked with students to promote nonviolence. And a new generation stepped up to lead a new movement.
The question of whether to criminally indict police Officer Darren Wilson for Brown's shooting dominated the political conversation from the start. And from the beginning, the process itself was a source of dispute. Some wanted St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch — whom they felt could not be impartial for personal reasons — to step aside. Instead, McCulloch decided to present all the evidence to a grand jury and let the jurors decide without a recommendation from his office. On Nov. 24, the panel voted to not indict. But questions about that decision — and more generally, the unusual process that led to it — continue, as those on both sides pore through thousands of pages of grand jury documents.
As the street protests continued, familiar faces and key players emerged. Some were political figures, such as St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who became a fixture of protests on the street and gained thousands of followers through his regular posts on Twitter. Some were young and dedicated activists — many from other states — who sought to turn the protests into an enduring movement. One was a member of one of the first black families to buy a house in Ferguson.
The mistrust between the African-American community and police runs deep. Many have complained for years about a municipal court system that they say preys on impoverished communities by saddling residents with fines for traffic violations and failure to appear in court. Missouri's attorney general has vowed action, seeking to ensure that cities abide by laws that dictate how much revenue can come from fines. And the calls for action are spilling over into a broader conversation about reforming and consolidating municipal government.
People of goodwill have been visible throughout the events of the fall. On the morning of Aug. 11 — just after the burning and looting of a QuikTrip on West Florissant Avenue — volunteers turned up to clean up damaged businesses. Groups, in some cases with their children in tow, would return in the days thereafter, picking up spent tear gas cans. Those efforts continued for weeks as volunteers fed and read to children and came to the aid of neighborhoods cut off by the demonstrations. And when arsonists and looters returned on Nov. 24, tens of thousands of dollars of private donations flowed in to help owners of small businesses.
The Michael Brown shooting has intensified the public's interest in other fatal shootings by police. Just 11 days after Brown's death, St. Louis police killed Kajieme Powell, who was brandishing a knife. On Oct. 9, VonDerrit Myers was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in St. Louis. Police say Myers fired first. The Myers killing created a second protest site, with crowds gathering in the Shaw neighborhood and along South Grand Boulevard, where several businesses were damaged. The fatal shooting of 18-year-old Antonio Martin on Dec. 23 in Berkeley reignited tension between protesters and police.
From the first moments, clergy in the region have responded. Some headed to the front lines of protest, facing arrest and confronting authorities — including a controversial protest in which some called on police to repent. Clergy also often played the role of peacekeepers, seeking to calm more militant demonstrators. They have offered their churches as safe havens and community meeting places. Some are well-known national figures — such as the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jim Wallis, and even a former St. Louis Ram. Others have ministered to their flocks with little or no fanfare. They have had different interpretations of their roles in helping the community confront the crisis.
For thousands of schoolchildren, the Michael Brown shooting meant delaying the first day of school by at least a week. Those closest to the epicenter of the protests were kept awake by the crack of nearby gunfire and tear gas. The trauma of those nights prompted numerous school districts to call in grief counselors and organize ways for children to talk through their experiences. Some schools struggled, at least initially, over whether to directly address the unrest during class time. But as the weeks moved on, Ferguson became its own curriculum. And in several cases, that meant that schools became a base of student demonstrations and walkouts.
The economic impact of the Ferguson unrest was measured most immediately in broken glass, looted merchandise and a burned-out convenience store. But the toll to the town of Ferguson as a whole is harder to measure. It will be tallied in the property values of homes in surrounding neighborhoods and in the sales receipts of nearby businesses. Ultimately, the economy of the entire St. Louis region — and the willingness of companies to relocate here — could be tied to public opinion and anxieties about the civil unrest.
Almost immediately, the Michael Brown shooting and its aftermath spawned conversations and meetings about how the community should respond. Events large and small were held in churches and government buildings. Thousands of area residents turned out to talk about what changes were needed. Later, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon formed the 16-member Ferguson Commission to seek a way forward for the community. Most residents know that there are no easy answers and the efforts continue.