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Protesters march along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson. ‘This is something like I never seen before,’ says local Tommy Chatman-Bey. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)
Protesters march along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson. ‘This is something like I never seen before,’ says local Tommy Chatman-Bey. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)

How events in Ferguson put race back on the agenda Add to ...

The sidewalk on Canfield Drive is baking under the afternoon sun as Tommy Chatman-Bey starts walking from his home toward a protest. He has numbers on his mind.

There are his two ailing knees, which bother him when he marches – and lately, police are ordering crowds to keep moving or face arrest. There are the ten shots he keeps reliving, which he heard ring out on this street on Aug. 9 when 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed. And then there are the faces of the young people – hundreds, maybe more – who have gathered each night since in Ferguson, Mo., to demand answers.

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Those youths were angrier than he’d ever witnessed. “This is something like I never seen before. This much passion, this much frustration, this much tension, this much fed up-ness,” he says. “It’s like a pot on the stove with the gas on high.”

Mr. Chatman-Bey, a 60-year-old retired drug counsellor, is fed up too – with the police, with discrimination, with a lack of opportunity. The passion he sees on the streets of Ferguson reminds him of the demonstrations of his own youth. “This thing here has a life of its own,” he says. “Mike is a movement now.”

Over the last two weeks, a formerly obscure suburb of St. Louis has become a crucible for how race is lived in America. Ferguson is a town where black men feel criminalized and where a whole community is disempowered; where parents are afraid for their children; where young people lack opportunity and sometimes make bad choices.

But the events in Ferguson are also a stark reminder of national discontent – of America’s unfinished business in the long struggle for equality.

After the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, some pundits talked of the advent of a “post-racial society.” Ferguson has shown that idea to be a cruel mirage, while underscoring a gulf in perception between blacks and whites. A poll conducted earlier this week by the Pew Research Center found that 80 per cent of African Americans believed Mr. Brown’s shooting raised important issues about race. Only 37 per cent of whites felt the same way; 47 per cent said the issue of race was receiving undue attention.

State and federal authorities are conducting separate investigations into Mr. Brown’s death. On Wednesday, a grand jury began hearing evidence in the case and will determine if charges are brought against Darren Wilson, the police officer involved. On a visit to Ferguson, U.S. attorney general Eric Holder assured community members that the inquiry would be “thorough and fair.”

He also said the unrest was the product of a long history – and “the history simmers beneath the surface of more communities than just Ferguson.” By way of illustration, Mr. Holder, who is African American, recounted how he was once stopped by police in Washington, D.C., as he and a cousin ran to catch a movie. At the time, he was a federal prosecutor.

Mr. Brown’s death can be a catalyst for progress, Mr. Holder said. What that change will look like isn’t clear, but it will almost certainly include new initiatives to diversify police forces and repair their relationship with black communities.

As the protests start to quieten, some see a chance for an even broader discussion, and broader changes. “Things might die down in Ferguson, but race is back on the agenda – certainly for African Americans but also for the country as a whole for the foreseeable future,” says Michael Dawson, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who heads its Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture.

 

‘Not full Americans’

In a parking lot across from the headquarters of the Ferguson Police Department, a group of people is gathered in a circle to pray. Since Mr. Brown was killed, they’ve arrived at this patch of asphalt early each morning and stayed until late at night. Supporters bring peanut butter sandwiches, donuts, and even a “crave case” – a box packed with White Castle hamburgers.

Jerome Jenkins, a local restaurateur, arrives with a cart full of food and drink. He and his wife own Cathy’s Kitchen and have lived in Ferguson for more than 20 years. During that time, Ferguson has evolved into a community where two-thirds of the population is African American, even as the police force, local government and school board remain overwhelmingly white.

“Ferguson does not stand out as an extremely disadvantaged community,” says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who lives nearby. “There are pockets of poverty. There are also sections of the community that are middle income and even upper-middle income.” The historic downtown has seen a new influx of businesses and has a farmer’s market every weekend. Emerson Electric, a Fortune 500 company, has its headquarters in Ferguson.

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