The same helicopters buzzed overhead, the same police officers clutched shields and batons, the same chants of "No justice, no peace" filled the air. When riot officers draped in heavy body armor lined up in front of the town's police department, Reed knew she had to leave. She couldn't bear to watch violence erupt again.
“It feels too familiar to me,” said Reed, 30, a well-known activist.
After Brown’s death galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement in this St. Louis suburb in 2014, protesters’ demands for policing reform made the city’s name synonymous with the cause of racial justice. Over the intervening years, Ferguson has seen some change.
Four of the six City Council members are black, compared to just one six years ago. A black police chief now leads a more racially diverse department, whose rank-and-file officers wear body cameras. The city — once accused of harassing its black residents with tickets and fines to fill its coffers — now collects far less in revenue this way than it once did.
And this month, voters made history by electing the city’s first black mayor.
Yet residents say that a deeply ingrained racism still exists in Ferguson, that black neighborhoods are still overpoliced, and that even with the more diverse leadership, remnants of the old guard remain.
They say the city has been slow to implement changes that are part of a U.S. Justice Department consent decree to change discriminatory practices, such as implementing an effective civilian review board and collecting data on police use of force. Much of the economic boost that streamed into the region after Brown’s death flowed toward the whiter, more affluent end of town, a Washington Post analysis in 2018 showed.
Chris Phillips, an activist and filmmaker who once lived in Brown’s apartment complex, said that many Ferguson residents still have anxiety-fueled dealings with local police, and they’ve been airing their grievances at local Floyd protests.
“You still see the same police presence. Nothing has changed as far as that goes. It’s night-and-day different from white, middle-class neighborhoods,” Phillips said. “You’ll see police every quarter to the half-mile patrolling, and people getting stopped. This is basically traumatizing for people, an African American person seeing a cop in their rearview window. That anxiety doesn’t go away.”
Then on June 6, another video surfaced from a neighboring town that showed a white officer ramming an unarmed black suspect with his car, then beating him as he lay in the street. The officer was fired on Wednesday.
Veteran protesters in Ferguson see this latest incident of local police brutality as evidence that systemic racism in the region — one of the most racially segregated in the country — is endemic, and that true change remains elusive.
Nationally, officers have continued to shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people a year since 2014, a Washington Post database shows, and are on track to do so again even during the pandemic. They’ve been filmed using excessive force at rallies across America — and across the street from the White House.
“I think in some ways it’s really inspiring to see so many people out, and black folks understand this moment will have the same legacy of the Ferguson uprising,” Reed said. “But there is a piece of it that’s difficult to process — so much time has passed since Mike Brown was killed and so little has been done.”
The tear gas from the Floyd protests had barely cleared the air and business owners were still boarding up broken windows when the city went to the polls on June 2 and elected Ella Jones the first black mayor of this former sundown town of 21,000 residents.
Jones, 65, a former Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman and pastor, said she was inspired to enter politics after Brown’s death, winning a seat on the council in 2015. She earlier ran for mayor in 2017, trying to unseat the controversial former town leader who had defended Ferguson police after Brown’s death — and lost.
But she has never been part of the city’s protest movement, and as a consequence, some have viewed her with suspicion.
“We’re going to wait and see what she does,” Phillips said. “If you were to categorize how protesters feel about Ella, it’s almost keeping both eyes open and not put this blinded trust in her.”
Jones said that after Brown’s death, she believed the best thing she could do was knock on the door of City Hall. As a City Council member, she held events to showcase vacant homes to new buyers and helped clean up businesses damaged in the last round of riots.
“Once you protest, what’s the next step?” she said. “So, I ran for council, and that was my way of saying Ferguson needs to change.”
Jones’s primary goal is to complete the mandates of the 2016 consent agreement, including improved training, increased civilian oversight and expanded diversity. The city has contracted a firm to collect data on use of force complaints and other actions, she said.
The consent decree was put in place after the protests, when the Justice Department found that the police department had routinely violated the rights of black citizens in traffic stops, unlawfully ticketed them, made arrests without probable case and used excessive force.
Income from tickets and fines has dropped from nearly $2 million the year Brown was killed to $344,711 last year, state data shows.
But some activists remain worried that Jones may not be strong or progressive enough to heal the still-fractured city.
Katurah Topps, a policy counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a St. Louis native, argued in a recent editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Ferguson’s leadership has resisted progress, and that the “very power structures that preyed on their most vulnerable residents remain intact today.”
For example, Jeffrey Blume, the finance director who was in charge when Ferguson wrongly ticketed and fined black residents millions of dollars, is now the interim city manager. Jones had opposed his appointment. Phillips called Jones’s opposition to Blume’s appointment a rare instance in which she went against the status quo.
“She had opportunities to be more progressive in her approach and to vote on issues that were in the better interest in the city, and she did not take all of those opportunities,” Phillips said.
On June 6, a grainy home security video posted on a local news website showed a white officer from a neighboring town allegedly ramming an unarmed suspect with his car, then beating him. The officers had responded to a report of gunshots, authorities said, but neither the suspect nor his companions had a weapon.
Ferguson veterans found themselves mobilizing again, finding the latest incident to be proof that, as Reed put it, “police reform is just as fragmented as the political landscape.” Nearby police departments in the St. Louis area have shown little interest in implementing reforms that the Justice Department ordered in Ferguson, she said.
Veteran protester Cheyenne Green was 21 years old in 2014 when she joined the crowd that gathered around Brown’s body as it lay in the street for more than four hours.
She says she didn’t even know what an activist was back then. Now she’s a 27-year-old veteran protester and political consultant.
Green joined about 200 other protesters Wednesday in front of the Florissant Police Department headquarters as they wielded bullhorns and led the crowd in now-familiar chants. At one point, leaders asked the crowd to raise a middle finger to the officers standing nearby.
Green sees part of her role now to educate the new ones coming out — white, black, Latino — about the cause.
They’d received good news that day, she said. The officer, Detective Joshua Smith, had been fired. Police Chief Tim Fagan had told reporters earlier in the day he had been moved by the protesters demonstrating outside the station.
“I hear those cries. We are listening to the voices of the people,” Fagan said, noting that the video showed Smith had probably committed “numerous policy violations” during the stop when the suspect was mowed down.
Green grabbed a bullhorn.
“This isn’t no kumbaya,” she said. “We understand the officer was fired, but was he arrested or convicted?”
“No!” the crowd hollered back.
“Is that right to you guys?” she asked.
Green had some words for the younger people in their group, many of whom were in middle school when Michael Brown was shot and had been to their first protests in recent days.
“As we’re occupying, we’re going to have conversation, something you can take back home to your families,” she told the younger protesters. “This is only the beginning.”
Mark Berman and Julie Tate contributed to this report.