Skip to main content

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

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.

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.

But any gains do not appear to be distributed evenly. At Mr. Jenkins' restaurant on the main street of Ferguson, the clientele tends to be white at lunchtime, black at dinnertime. The reason, he says: white residents often have higher paying jobs, which allow for longer lunch breaks and regular daytime working hours, unlike black residents.

Although in Ferguson, he adds, the real tension is not between the community's residents, but between young black men and the police force. When an employee is waiting for a ride home late at night, Mr. Jenkins sometimes sits outside too – an informal way, he says, to signal to any passing police that the staff member is of no concern to them.

Mr. Jenkins, who is 44, was stopped and questioned by local police a couple of years ago while out on a date with his wife. The same thing happened to him when he was in his 20s and in his 30s, he says, despite the fact that he has never even had a parking ticket. "I wouldn't say we're much better at all," he says.

Every black man here seems to have a similar story about an encounter with the police. Elliott Wilson, 23, said that when he played on the football team in high school, his teammates would sit together in front of his house. The mere fact of being "a bunch of black guys" would attract police scrutiny, he said while attending a demonstration on Tuesday night. "We're just tired of letting them get away with it."

For years, Missouri has been tracking the racial composition of traffic stops by the police. In Ferguson last year, black drivers had their cars searched at double the rate of white drivers, even though officers discovered contraband less often in their vehicles. Those figures were roughly similar to those for the state as a whole.

The tension between police forces and African Americans is something that unites black communities across the country and across class barriers. "People feel harassed, like second-class citizens – that this is not their country, that they're not full Americans," says Elijah Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale University who is an expert on urban inequality.

"Minorities, especially black people, run into these moments of acute disrespect based on their blackness," he says. "You thought everything was going just fine and then – boom."

That, in turn, leads to some difficult conversations between parents and children. Early one recent morning, Terrell Taylor brought his two daughters, 6 and 3, to the spot where Mr. Brown was shot. A memorial has sprung up in the middle of the road: a couple of pylons, candles, flowers, messages, stuffed animals.

Mr. Terrell, 29, showed his older daughter the mementos. "I told her, 'This is where a young man died from the police. I don't know if he was wrong or right, but cops do kill,'" said Mr. Terrell. She looked back at him with a question mark on her face, he said. "She will understand it in a couple of years."

Luck: $7.75 an hour

It's another steamy summer evening in Ferguson when Malik Wilkes grabs a ride with a friend to the nightly protests on West Florissant Avenue. A genial 23-year-old sporting stud earrings and a black tank top, he is studying for an associate's degree at the nearby campus of St. Louis Community College and working at a Church's Chicken.

Mr. Wilkes was raised by his mother and attended the area's "raggedy" public schools; his father is in prison. He considers himself one of the fortunate ones. "A lot of people don't make it even to my age," he says. Most of his friends are dead or incarcerated. "There's nothing else for us but to live fast and die young."

He lifts his shirt and points to a mark on his side. It's the spot where he was stunned with a Taser by police. At first embarrassed to explain further, he later tells me he was trying to steal a car. After that encounter, "I kind of calmed down."

Now he works at Church's for $7.75 an hour, 25 cents more than the state-mandated minimum wage. "I was one of the lucky few to get a job – even though I hate it," he says with a laugh. "I go to school, I go to work, I don't have time [for anything else]."

Once he gets his degree, his goal is to join the army, even if it means that he has to get rid of a couple of his cherished tattoos. Going into the military is a "great opportunity for a black male," he says. "You've got very few jobs out here."

The issues Mr. Wilkes raises go far beyond Ferguson. African Americans are more likely than their white counterparts to live in places with high unemployment, failing schools and elevated crime rates. In Ferguson, the most recent unemployment figures, for 2012, show the jobless rate at 14 per cent, compared to 8 per cent for Missouri as a whole.

For young black men in St. Louis County, the picture is grimmer. The unemployment rate for those aged 20 to 24 is nearly 40 per cent; for the country as a whole, the rate is 32 per cent.

Mr. Wilkes is proud to have a black man as president of the country, but it hasn't made much difference in his daily life. "Some of my friends have died, some are on government assistance their whole life, some have five kids with different fathers. When is it ever going to change?"

The backlash

By Wednesday evening, the nightly clashes in Ferguson appeared to be winding down. Gone was the tear gas; gone was the piercing, ululating siren to disperse demonstrators; gone was the line of police in riot gear carrying sticks. On Thursday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered the National Guard to begin withdrawing from the town, where it was camped in a suburban shopping centre, home to a Target and a supermarket.

In Ferguson, some next steps are clear. The town of 21,000 has had dismal turnout for local elections, particularly from the African American community. At one protest earlier this week, a volunteer went around handing out voter registration forms. There is a strong likelihood that black voters will be more active and mobilized in the future.

Repairing the relationship between the African American community and the police will be harder, but not impossible. For instance, in 2001 a shooting by an officer in Cincinnati led to riots. In response, the city instituted a series of effective reforms to the way its police department functions, including stricter oversight of its use of force. Tensions with police have eased, and the neighbourhood most impacted by the riots is flourishing.

In Ferguson, much depends on the course of the investigation and whether residents consider it impartial and thorough. A failure to charge the officer involved or to secure a guilty verdict is likely to produce fresh clashes. "It's going to be hard to convince the African Americans in Ferguson that this police officer didn't do something outrageous," says Michael Klarman, a legal historian and constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School.

On a national level, Ferguson has placed racial injustice and inequality back in the spotlight. The repeated killings of unarmed African Americans in recent years, together with last year's court decision striking down key provisions of a voting-rights law have contributed to a sense that a backlash is underway. If young African Americans form activist networks and build political organizations, it could have a lasting impact on the nation's politics, says Prof. Dawson of the University of Chicago.

A broader change is exactly what the demonstrators in Ferguson are hoping to spark. Gary Hill, 51, a local church elder, spent many recent nights chanting, marching and defusing confrontations between the police and young people, sometimes on a person-by-person basis. The authorities asked for peace, he said. "We give them peace so we can get justice."

It was late. He was tired, with a long walk home, where his wife was waiting. The hum of crickets combined with the whirring of police helicopters overhead. He gestured to the streets around him. "This is not just for here, this is for everybody," Mr. Hill said. "It don't stop here."

Inequality by numbers

2.02 x

African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts – and that ratio has gone down by only .02 per cent between 1972 and 2013.

17 per cent

The gap between African Americans 30-year-olds with a college degree (21 per cent) and white 30-year-olds with a college degree (38 per cent) – up by 7 per cent since 1970.

21.6 per cent

White workers make 21.6 per cent more than African American workers – up from 18.4 per cent more in 1983.

6.1 x

White families were 6.1 times as wealthy as African American and Hispanic families as of 2010 – up from 4.3 x in 2007.

27.2 per cent

The number of African American living below the poverty line has fallen significantly (from 32.5 per cent in 1980 to 27.7 per cent in 2012) – but African Americans are still twice as likely as whites to be below the poverty line than whites.

14 x

About 76 out of every 100,000 African American men between 25 and 34 were killed in a homicide in 2010 – more than nine times the rate among white men in the same age group and 14 times the rate of the U.S. population as a whole.

Source: The New York Times

Interact with The Globe