Today marks five years since Darren Wilson gunned down 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was far from the only black man to die at the hands of the police that year; other high-profile cases—Eric Garner died in New York months earlier, Laquan McDonald would be shot and killed later that fall—sparked protests and dominated headlines. But the uprising that surged through St. Louis in the aftermath of Brown’s killing galvanized Black Lives Matter to new levels, changing conversations about social justice around the globe. People across the political spectrum expressed horror at the heavily militarized police response in Missouri and calls to end police brutality reached a feverish urgency. In the wake of Brown’s death, the Washington Post began tracking police-shootings in real-time, an endeavor that continues to this day.
But while social justice movements around the world were shaped, in part, by Brown’s killing, members of the Ferguson and greater St. Louis community say not enough has changed in their hometown itself.
Black drivers are still stopped at much higher rates than white ones throughout the state of Missouri, despite a new state law aimed at tackling excessive ticketing, the New York Times reported this week. In Ferguson, racial disparities in traffic stops have actually gotten worse in the last five years. And according to a recent CBS report, the St. Louis Metro Police continues to have an issue with racism in their department culture, with one 19-year veteran of the force telling the news outlet, without hesitation, that white supremacists continue to be employed by the police force.
Four Ferguson activists have also died in the intervening years: While two of the deaths were ruled suicides, the murder of Darren Seals remains unsolved. Local residents suspect a fifth death—that of organizer Melissa McKinnies’ son, also ruled a suicide—was, in fact, a lynching.
Ferguson has a new police chief, Jason Armstrong, who is black, and St. Louis County has a new top prosecutor, Wesley Bell, a former Ferguson City Council member who ran on a platform of reforming the county’s criminal justice practices. Since taking office earlier this year, Bell has fired the prosecutor who presented evidence to a grand jury in the Michael Brown case; said his office won’t prosecute low-level marijuana cases or pursue child support cases criminally; and would avoid asking for cash bail for misdemeanor charges.
But still, activists and residents maintain not enough has changed, including Michael Brown Sr., who wants Bell to re-open the case against Wilson. Perhaps telling of the current state of affairs, a civilian review board that has oversight of the Ferguson police (established after Brown’s killing) had just one community member in attendance at a recent meeting, according to a local Fox affiliate.
The Root spoke to Blake Strode, head of the ArchCity Defenders, a criminal justice advocacy group that has fought for reforms across the St. Louis metro region, about the ongoing fight for a more just Ferguson, and what it would take to get there.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Root: How does something like traffic stops—and black people being overrepresented in them—connect to some of these other issues you’ve been fighting against, like cash bail and closing the workhouse (a city jail)?
Blake Strode: All of these things are happening within the same criminal legal system that targets and mistreats and dehumanizes poor people and people of color, in particular. And so, the very same dynamics we see playing out in municipal courts and debtors’ prisons, where poor residents are treated as ATM machines, assessed fines, and fees that they can’t pay, and held in jail for non-payment and as a means of collection—that is happening in the same system as the folks charged with state crimes, held on cash bails that they can’t pay in places like the workhouse that are inhumane and dehumanizing institutions. They’re sort of happening in different spaces, at different levels of the criminal legal system, but it really is the same sort of system at work.
Another important element is that the kind of entry point for many people into the criminal legal system is, in fact, these sort of mundane police encounters. It’s the traffic stop, the missing tag, the busted tail light. Not for all, but for many people that’s the sort of entry point. And that can lead to literally years being caught in different levels of this system, and sometimes folks will move from municipal ordinance violations that keep them in, or exacerbate, their poverty, to them having a state charge for stealing or trespass or something else that still is tied to their survival efforts, day-to-day.
TR: Right. And you can get this compounded effect, you get a fine or court date that you miss. And that sets in motion other strikes with the system that could land you in jail for something as minor as a parking ticket.
Strode: Absolutely. It speaks, kind of, to the pathology of the system itself that again runs across all levels, which sees certain people as disposable.
TR: One of the things the [New York] Times pointed out was how the demographics of the Ferguson police force have changed. That was a mostly white force but now half of the officers are black.
TR: Why might changing the demographics of the department not change who is policed?
Strode: Representation matters, but representation isn’t everything. Institutions have their own cultures. And one of the things that we know about the culture of police institutions is that they have embodied and reflected this deep bias toward communities of color, and particularly poor communities of color.
It would be unreasonable to think that merely by shifting this level of representation within a department, all ills will be cured. That’s a pretty naive assumption to make, actually. And what we’ve seen in many departments across the country is that [representation] can make some difference around the margins sometimes, but if there’s not real work happening at the cultural and structural level, then ultimately what you have is the culture of the institution wins out.
TR: Can you name some examples of structural change—what would that look like?
Strode: There are various mechanisms for accountability that can be created and really strengthened. For example, civilian review boards are kind of a community-driven reform that actually places some power in the hands of non-police; non-public officials to set a standard for how all enforcement should behave and to hold them accountable.
TR: Yeah, we saw that in Chicago recently (a civilian review board fired Chicago police officers who were accused of covering up the death of Laquan McDonald).
Strode: Right. That is a structural change because it’s actually shifting the power. It’s putting the power in the hands of people other than police.
But I think where a lot of energy is right now, in activist and advocacy circles, is around actually divesting from police. Asking police to do less. And by doing so, actually reducing the power and influence of police in our lives. So instead of having the police be the first call for any sort of emergency, actually building in community supports and services, including crisis-intervention teams and institutions that don’t show up with badges and guns. And when we rely less on police, it also means police have less power, which means that they can be held more accountable.