Ferguson: five years on from the police shooting of Michael Brown

The fatal shooting on 9 August 2014 was followed by months of protests. Five years on, the legacy of that shooting of a black teenager by a white officer depends on who you talk to. Photographs by Jeff Roberson/AP. Co-written by Jeff Roberson and Jim Salter.

People affected by the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown and those who have sought change in the aftermath acknowledge his death and the upheaval that followed changed race relations in Ferguson and beyond for ever. Here are some of their stories.

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Michael Brown Sr

Michael

In the aftermath of the shooting, Brown said he was so angry that every time he spoke, he started feeling changes in his body. He eventually turned the anger into activism and today works with young people and counsels others who have lost loved ones to violence.

I went through those stages [of anger], but what people dont understand is that being angry wasnt doing nothing but killing myself, Brown said. I cant just stay angry I knew I had to get somewhere with a little bit of peace or I would lose, my family would lose.

A rebuilt memorial in place of one that burned down, in 2014, and the same location with a faint ‘RIP’ visible in the street, in 2019
  • A rebuilt memorial in place of one that burned down, in 2014, and the same location with a faint RIP visible in the street, in 2019

Five years later, Brown said he is in a little better space. I beat myself up for a bunch of years thinking it was my fault, because you vow when the child comes out of the womb that you will protect him, he said.

Michaels legacy is through me. I am his legacy. We stand in the public, try to do the right thing, keep the work going. Try to pull families and communities together.

Josh Williams

Josh

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In 2014, Williams and Brown were both 18 and knew each other, though not well. Williams took to the streets of Ferguson the night after the shooting and stayed there for the months of protests that followed. He lived in a tent most of the time along West Florissant Avenue. He said he found his calling in activism.

I really started saying to myself, Theres no turning back, Williams said. Browns death was followed by a series of other shootings in the St Louis area in which young black men were killed by white police officers. Protests followed each shooting. During one such demonstration, Williams grabbed a few things from a store and set fire to a trash can.

Protesters march in the street as lightning flashes in the distance, in 2014, and the same location along West Florissant Avenue, in 2019
  • Protesters march in the street as lightning flashes in the distance, in 2014, and the same location along West Florissant Avenue, in 2019

He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. Now, Williams is housed in a prison south-west of St Louis. He said he spends much of his time counselling other prisoners, helping them prepare for life once they get out. As for his future plans, Williams wants to open youth centres, including one that will be named after Brown. He sees Browns legacy in people such as him who now devote their lives to helping others. He gave me the opportunity to find my calling and be who I am today, Williams said.

Felicia Pulliam

Felicia

Pulliam recognizes that more than 50 years after the civil rights movement, race relations in the US still have a long way to go. But she believes events in Ferguson helped move things forward. Pulliam is a longtime advocate for racial equity and unity. She was among the 16 people appointed to the Ferguson Commission convened to address the racial problems that were thrust into the spotlight after Michael Browns death.

A man tries to calm a group of protesters as police stand in the distance, in 2014, and the same location, the corner of West Florissant Avenue and Canfield Drive, in 2019
  • A man tries to calm a group of protesters as police stand in the distance, in 2014, and the same location, the corner of West Florissant Avenue and Canfield Drive, in 2019

The commissions report is being used across the country to help us better understand the disconnects that we have and new approaches to conversations, building community, reimagining safety and dismantling racism, said Pulliam, 54.

As saddened as she was by Browns death, she said the unrest that followed and the willingness of young activists to take to the streets were exciting because it meant that people were not willing to languish and be abused.

Pulliam added: It was really eye opening, and it changed the way a lot of people see things they just didnt know. And now they know the truth, and things are beginning to happen. People are beginning to address the need for equity, more diversity and authentic relationships, and also healing the heart. Because people have been hurting for a long time.

James Knowles III

Mayor

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Fergusons longstanding mayor is proud of the work the city has done to change its police and court practices, reforms that he points out began weeks after Browns death, long before they were mandated by a 2016 agreement with the justice department. The Ferguson police department drew heavy criticism in 2014 for many reasons: it had only three black officers out of 53 in a city that was two-thirds African American. Police were accused of racial profiling in traffic stops, and of treating black people with aggression.

Police in riot gear outside the QuikTrip convenience store that had previously been burned and looted, in 2014, and the same location in 2019, now home to an Urban League building
  • Police in riot gear outside the QuikTrip convenience store that had previously been burned and looted, in 2014, and the same location in 2019, now home to an Urban League building

Today, Knowles said, the department is almost evenly split between white and black officers. Officers now wear body cameras. They are more involved with people, rather than just reacting to crime.

They have certainly made an effort to be part of the community, to engage with the community, Knowles said.

Chris Phillips

Chris

Back in 2014, Phillips, a film-maker, did not fully grasp the magnitude of the shooting until the next day.

I was out on my balcony and I heard this faint, distant noise, chanting and things like that, he said. It proved to be the first of hundreds of protests in Ferguson.

For the next several months, Phillips, now 38, and other videographers were a constant presence at the protests, capturing images of police in riot gear and armed with military weapons clashing with demonstrators.

2014: Police advance towards a man with his hands in the air, and the same location on Canfield Drive toward West Florissant Avenue, in 2019
  • 2014: Police advance towards a man with his hands in the air, and the same location on Canfield Drive toward West Florissant Avenue, in 2019

I just think that the big presence of heavy artillery, with that kind of response, really upset people, Phillips said. I think a different response could have really controlled the situation a little bit better. I dont think people would have stopped being upset, but I think that really enraged people.

Phillips said he felt a calling to tell that narrative about what really contributed to this, because it was more than just the shooting death of a young man, which is definitely tragic.

He added: It was decades of abuse, systemic abuse, that has existed [for] hundreds of years. Phillips documentary, Ferguson 365, has won several awards.

Wesley Bell

Wesley

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The St Louis county prosecutor Wesley Bell, who worked at the time as a municipal judge and attorney, urged calm the day after the shooting. He understood both sides.

From a perspective standpoint, my fathers a retired police officer, Bell said. But growing up in that area, Id been pulled over many times, especially in my younger years.

A St Louis County police car passes a burned-out building, in 2014, and the same location, now a vacant lot, in 2019
  • A St Louis County police car passes a burned-out building, in 2014, and the same location, now a vacant lot, in 2019

Bell said he felt compelled last year to run for prosecutor of St Louis county, Missouris largest jurisdiction. His win led to big reforms in the way the office is run, with more focus on alternatives to incarceration and a special unit to investigate officer-involved shootings.

I think when you look at criminal justice reform, the movement, if you will, I think many would argue it started in Ferguson, Bell said. People are aware of how courts were acting effectively as debtors prisons and of the high percentage of traffic stops for people of color.

I think these were issues that needed to be addressed, he said. And if you dont address them, youre heading down the same path to another seismic event.

Susan Ankenbrand

Susan

Ankenbrand and her husband moved to Ferguson in 1975, hopeful their children would benefit from going to integrated schools. She ran for the city council and served for 16 years. Her husband served on the school board.
Both remain active, but the changing dynamics of Ferguson since Michael Browns death have created a chasm in relations between black and white residents, she believes.

A man prepares to throw a flaming bottle, in 2014, and the same location along West Florissant Avenue, in 2019
  • A man prepares to throw a flaming bottle, in 2014, and the same location along West Florissant Avenue, in 2019

I think we passed beyond Michael Browns death, but we cant get beyond the anger, perhaps of generations of mistreatment, and I dont know how to do that, said Ankenbrand, 76. Weve tried different things and it just hasnt worked well.

Ankenbrand once approached a black woman she had known for years and asked her how she saw Ankenbrands role as a white woman.

The woman told her to step aside, Ankenbrand said. It was terrible, it really was. I have no intention of doing that. Ive never stepped aside from anything in my life. But I question, still, what my role might be, and I havent found it.

Were not giving up on Ferguson, Ankenbrand said. This community has meant too much to us.

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