Five Years After Ferguson Uprising, Still Seeking Justice and Healing
Michael Brown Sr. lies stock-still on his back on the floor of an art studio in St. Louis as an artist layers papier-mache on his arms, chest, and torso.
Brown Sr. is a stand-in, the model for a life-size replica that St. Louis artist Dail Chambers is creating to represent Michael Brown Jr.—his deceased son.
In the days and weeks that followed, other artists added their own interpretations to the cast, and community leaders, family, friends, and activists affixed messages of remembrance, of hope, as well as photos and tributes to Brown Jr.
“Although everybody else has left since your death, we are still here fighting,” one 16-year-old girl wrote.
The final exhibit, called “As I See You,” will be part of a memorial Aug. 9–11 for Brown Jr., five years after a police officer took the 18-year-old’s life in Ferguson, Missouri.
The memorial weekend’s events will include a private unveiling of the exhibit for the family members of 25 victims of police killings across the country, and will coincide with the first national reparations convening in Ferguson, beginning Aug. 8.
Brown Jr. was not the first unarmed Black man killed by a White police officer. But his death on Aug. 9, 2014, grabbed the world’s attention, exposing long-festering issues of race and inequality in the United States and bringing new energy to a simmering Movement for Black Lives.
In death, Brown Jr. became a household name, and the small, mostly Black city where he died became the movement’s ground zero. Both will be forever linked to the tragedy and trauma around police shootings and the will of a frustrated people to rise up against injustice.
For more than four hours, Brown Jr.’s lifeless body lay uncovered on the street where he fell, blood flowing from his head as bystanders watched in horror and outrage. For weeks following the shooting, and months after a St. Louis grand jury failed to indict officer Darren Wilson, protests and demonstrations engulfed the region.
Images on television and on social media caught the sporadic violent clashes between demonstrators and police, who used tear gas and armored vehicles intended for war zones to try to control the crowds.
“The media spent so much time dehumanizing Mike, people forgot he was somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, somebody’s cousin.”
“People, protestors were coming in from all over … coming to ground zero to stand up for what they believed in,” Brown Sr. says. “We are so grateful to them for making this happen, for having the courage to know it was wrong and to stand up for their beliefs. Before Mike, this kind of thing was mostly swept under the rug; now it’s happening almost all the time.”
The Ferguson Uprising raised awareness around the level of racial disparity on issues from policing and mass incarceration to economics—not just in that region, but across the country.
And in the months and years afterward, protests and demonstrations elsewhere would follow police shootings of other Black people whose names many have now come to know: Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Harris, Terence Crutcher, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Antwon Rose, and on.
David Ragland, cofounder of the Truth Telling Project of Ferguson, which got its start in the early days of the Uprising, described the spontaneity of protests that grew out of the shootings as moments that built into movements.
“Each generation has its own way, and Ferguson questioned the entire American project,” Ragland says. “These were people from marginalized communities demanding human rights, human dignity … They were average people—nurses, postal workers, people who came out because they were tired—saying we are good people, we deserve dignity.”
Father for son
For years, Cal Brown thought about how she might honor and keep alive the memory of her stepson, who was a recent high school graduate and had been preparing to begin vocational training classes just two days before he was killed. At the same time, she wanted to acknowledge and give voice to those who saw his death as a catalyst for change.
As the fifth anniversary neared, she searched for ways to do both.
“The media had spent so much time dehumanizing Mike, people forgot he was somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, somebody’s cousin,” Brown says. “So many people say, ‘I love Mike Brown; he belongs to me.’ I wanted to take the time and show people why they love this young man.”
Collaborating with Elizabeth Vega, a St. Louis “artivist” (artist and activist) who uses art to empower and inspire change, she settled on the idea of using Brown Jr.’s father as the model for a body cast of his son. Chambers, a local artist, would create the cast.
The new exhibit would also help to counter a controversial one in a Chicago museum in 2015 that graphically depicted Michael Brown Jr.’s death scene. Already, Brown says, other venues across the country have started requesting “As I See You.”
Brown Sr. recalls his reaction when his wife first suggested the idea of using his body as a model for the cast. “It took me a minute,” he said. “I went outside and smoked a cigarette to get my mind together, get myself together to prepare for it.”
Not the first or last
Police have been shooting unarmed people long before cases like Brown Jr.’s called attention to the injustice of it. A Washington Post database has recorded about 1,000 fatal police shootings each year since 2015, when the paper first began tracking them—4,453 fatal shootings in total. Just under one-quarter of the victims have been Black.
In that time, 58 officers were charged and 13 convicted of murder or manslaughter, says Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University who tracks and studies arrests of police nationwide.
“Between 900 and 1,000 times each year, on-duty police officers across the U.S. shoot and kill someone,” Stinson says. “And yet, only a few times each year is an officer charged with murder or manslaughter resulting from one of those shootings.”
Based on his research, Stinson says the number of officers charged since 2005 in any given year has varied from zero to 18; any increase in recent years is not statistically significant. Basically, he says, “it’s business as usual in the police subculture.”
Just last month, after a five-year civil rights investigation, federal prosecutors announced they would not bring charges against Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who applied a department-banned chokehold, killing Eric Garner a month before Brown Jr. was shot in 2014.
With a grand jury also declining to bring charges, the most severe punishment Pantaleo faces is termination from his job. He was suspended after an administrative judge recommended he be fired.
The dying gasps of “I can’t breathe” by the father of six became a rallying cry in nationwide protests.
Five years later
In the five years since Garner’s and Brown Jr.’s deaths, heightened activism by the Movement for Black Lives and more extensive national discourse have raised awareness around issues of police accountability and use of force—particularly when it comes to people of color.
President Barack Obama, who appealed for calm following Brown Jr.’s death and the nonindictment of Wilson, created the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in December 2014. The following spring, it issued a report that called for the removal of policies that reward police for producing more arrests and convictions, and for independent prosecutors to investigate civilian deaths in police custody or in officer-involved shootings.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report on Ferguson, highlighting how disproportionate enforcement by courts and the police, intended to generate city revenue, targeted African Americans. In a city where Black people make up two-thirds of the population, the 54-person police force had only four African Americans.
That report led to a consent decree between the Justice Department and the city requiring body camera use for police officers, use-of-force policies, and a municipal court overhaul.
The police chief in place during the Uprising and the city manager and municipal judge were all forced out of their jobs. In 2015, residents elected two Black city council members, and last year replaced the prosecutor who declined to charge Wilson in Brown Jr.’s death.
In his place, they elected Wesley Belle, a progressive African American lawyer who understood the system needed to “change from the inside.”
The dying gasps of “I can’t breathe” by the father of six became a rallying cry in nationwide protests.
Last June, the city appointed a Black police chief—a police captain from the Atlanta suburb of Forest Park.
Residents appear to have mixed feelings about how far the city has come in five years.
Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels of the activist group Potbangerz, whose organizing around housing and feeding the unhoused began with the Uprising, says she’d hoped the community would be further ahead given “all that we did on the streets and are still fighting for.”
She feels hopeful, though. “We have a lot of young Black folks who went from protest to politics and doing some dope, amazing stuff,” she says. “They are fighting hard, but we need some people power behind them.”
And while applauding the political progress, Ragland says that real substantial change has yet to be seen. Black people in the region are still more likely to be targeted for enforcement, he says.
Pointing to the recent decision in the Garner case, Ragland adds: “We now have a federal government that is less willing to hold law enforcement accountable.”
“I think there’s a deep power imbalance between law enforcement and everyday citizens,” he says. “And I don’t think it’s helpful for a democracy.”
In Mike Brown’s name
Brown Sr. is also working to help empower and uplift young people through the Michael Brown Chosen for Change Foundation, which he and his wife, Cal, formed the year after his son’s death.
It is one of many ways the elder Brown is working to preserve his son’s memory.
Through the group Conscious Campus, Ragland and Brown Sr. have been working together to take the story about what happened in Ferguson five years ago to college campuses across the country. The idea is to fill the gaps and correct the misinformation that exists, Brown Sr. says.
He and Brown Jr.’s mother, Leslie McSpadden, were featured in the 2017 documentary about the shooting, Stranger Fruit. And in 2014, the two traveled to Geneva to testify before the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
Brown Sr. is hopeful that the sculpture will be a lasting reminder of the promise of youth and the potential for change.
“Everything is a process,” he says. “Just us making noise and standing together and getting in the right rooms and having these discussions, I can see it moving forward. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Lornet Turnbull is the former civil liberties editor for YES!, a Seattle-based freelance writer, and a regional freelance writer for The Washington Post. An award-winning enterprise reporter who's worked in media for more than 20 years, Lornet has covered everything from the auto industry and labor unions in Michigan, to real estate and statehouse politics in Ohio, to homelessness in Seattle, to refugee children in the West Bank, and sex workers in Mexico City. She speaks English.