When the chaos has receded into memory, and the streets are no longer lined with protesters and police and journalists and armored vehicles and tear gas canisters, Canfield Drive will still wind through a city facing the same problems that existed before Michael Brown was killed and Ferguson, Mo., became #Ferguson. The cameras will leave and our attention will shift elsewhere, as it always does, because we are endlessly consumed by the next thing, because a plane will disappear and that will be all everyone talks about until there is a shooting that everyone will talk about until there is a scandal that everyone will talk about, because the next thing is always out there.
Except in Ferguson, where the next things will be the same things, where the tensions and unrest that existed before Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9 are still there, only now they have been laid out in the open for the world’s judgment, an exposed nerve held up for all to see and left for few to try and heal. What happens next? Brown was buried Monday, two weeks after he was killed, allowing those who knew him to mourn his life. The schools reopened and the businesses that were boarded up will eventually begin taking on customers again, allowing some sense of normalcy to resume.
Yet the residents of Ferguson will still live in a city where black drivers are much, much more likely to be pulled over by the police than white drivers. The residents of Ferguson will still live in a city where two-thirds of the residents are black but 50 of the city’s 53 police officers are white (although one of those 50 is currently on paid administrative leave, his location and current status unknown), along with the police chief, mayor and most of the city council. The residents of Ferguson will still live in a region that is starkly segregated, with Delmar Boulevard — a four-lane road cutting from east to west — serving as a fairly precise boundary between the two worlds of St. Louis:
The residents of Ferguson will still live in a city where the poverty rate is double what it is in surrounding St. Louis County. The residents of Ferguson will still live in a state where black drivers are 66 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers, according to Chris Koster, Missouri’s attorney general. The residents will live in a city where they were outraged that Michael Brown was shot and killed, where they were outraged that his body was left in the street for four hours, where they were outraged at the police response to the protests and where they were outraged that police waited a week to identify the officer who shot him, only to immediately follow that by releasing video footage showing that Brown was a robbery suspect (and later say that the robbery was unrelated, though they said later still that it may have been related after all).
A reaction like we saw in Ferguson does not simply grow from nothing. It takes years of issues and tension, friction and unease, building and building before a spark sets the entire thing off. “This is something that has a history to it and the history simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said during his visit to Ferguson.
Officials in Ferguson have promised that changes will follow what happened, that the maelstrom faced by the people in Ferguson will not simply be something to endure but something to prompt movement. A letter attributed to the city’s leadership last week vowed to find “immediate, intermediate and long-term solutions to the concerns raised” in recent weeks. The city vowed to raise funds to get cameras for its officers and cars (although dozens of cameras have already been donated, according to CNN); encourage its officers to live in Ferguson (Wilson lived in the more affluent, largely-white city of Crestwood); and try to increase the number of black applicants to Ferguson’s police force.
Thomas Jackson, the Ferguson police chief, said in the days after Brown’s death that he had been pushing diversity on the police force. “Race relations is a top priority right now,” Jackson said during a news conference on Aug. 13. He said his force is working with the Department of Justice’s community relations office to improve how police interact with the citizens. “I’ve told them, ‘Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’” When Holder visited Ferguson for an update on the federal investigation into Brown’s death, he met with community leaders and promised that the Justice Department would “continue to stand with Ferguson” after the story disappears from the headlines.
People in Ferguson will see whether these changes come to fruition and if the promises of finding purpose in the wake of chaos are borne out. Yet they will also be watching to see what happens with Brown’s death and to see how these local and national authorities determine what actually happened. There are two ongoing investigations into Brown’s death: the FBI is conducting a civil rights investigation, while the county is also carrying out its own inquiry. Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney who has resisted calls to recuse himself, said it could take until October for the grand jury to hear all of the county’s evidence. The outcomes of these investigations could spark another round of protests and anger, even as the situation in Ferguson months and years from now could show if the recent weeks in Ferguson have changed the place. The story that began in Ferguson before we started paying attention will continue long after the cameras have left.