Revisiting Ferguson: 2 Years After The Shooting Of Michael Brown

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Lezley McSpadden (right) led a march to the street where her son, Michael Brown, died two years ago in Ferguson, Mo. Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, is dressed in blue, and Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, is dressed in white. Both Eric Garner and Tamir Rice died in high-profile incidents with police.

There seems to be considerable optimism in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a police officer two years ago Tuesday.

On West Florissant Ave., the QuikTrip gas station that burned during protests in 2014 is now a fresh patch of cleared dirt, ready for the construction of a new Urban League center.

And strike up a conversation with some of the town's 21,000 residents, and it often shifts to how hard it is convincing out-of-towners that Ferguson is full of green lawns and kid's swim teams, with little sign of the damage two years ago.

Rodney Hubbard, 25, says he wants to stay.

"I've always loved this city. I don't like what it does, but like, everybody got family. They love their family, they don't like everything they do, but they still love their family," he says. "It's just the same way with your hometown."

When the Justice Department investigated Ferguson's police department, it found ample evidence of racial bias and excessive ticketing for minor traffic infractions. That review showed that fines generated by the municipal court here acted as a revenue generator for the city, disproportionately targeting black and low-income residents.

Vehicle stop data from last year show that Ferguson police officers are making about a quarter of the stops they did before the shooting of Michael Brown but black drivers are still pulled over much more frequently than white drivers.

Hubbard says there do seem to be fewer stops. But leave the city limits, and he says St. Louis County's other 50-plus police departments don't seem to be making the same changes. "There's a lot of police departments that still practice that same we-gotta-make-the-money, we-gotta-meet-the-quota situation," he says.

Under a federal consent decree to reform its police department, revenue from Ferguson's municipal courts has plummeted. Earlier this month, a clear majority of Ferguson voters approved increases to the city's sales and utility taxes to help shore up the budget. One of them was retired schoolteacher Ruth Benner.

"Our family thought Ferguson was an integrated place and things were going well. Obviously that was not true," Benner says. "Maybe I'm still kind of Pollyannaish, or whatever, but Ferguson might have the best tools for making change. "

Felicia Pulliam, a longtime community organizer, points to voter turnout, attendance at city council meetings and protests as evidence that the past two years have been a game-changer.

"We, the people, are the ones that are responsible for shaping our community," she says. "And what we've learned is when we don't pay attention, when we leave it to someone else, then we get left out."

Pulliam was appointed by Missouri's governor to the 16-member Ferguson Commission, tasked with developing policy proposals in response to the protests. Pulliam says it'll take much longer than two years to address systemic issues like institutional racism.

"We ignored that cry 25 years ago. Here we are, a generation later, facing the same issues," she says. "And I hope this time we don't squander the opportunity."

In the days leading up to Tuesday's anniversary of Brown's death, his mother, Lezley McSpadden, led a march to the street where he died.

"[Tuesday] is going to be real for me. I don't know if I'll be able to get out the bed, but I'm here now, and I want you to know we're not standing still, we're moving forward, and we couldn't do it if we all didn't do it as a force together, collectively," McSpadden says.

Those who marched wrapped their arms around each other. Among them are the mothers of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Sean Bell — other men and boys whose deaths at the hands of police sparked protests as well as a deeper look at policing in America.

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Due to an editing error, a previous version of this Web story referred to St. Louis County's other 50,000-plus police departments. It should have said 50-plus.