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Ferguson residents have turned anger into action — but say some wounds won’t heal

Friday marks the fifth anniversary of the deadly Ferguson, Missouri, shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. by a white police officer. Protesters gathered in Ferguson after the incident to voice outrage, but the officer was never charged. Since then, activists including Brown's family have continued to push for change -- but say the trauma will never heal. Yamiche Alcindor reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, we return to Ferguson, Missouri, where, five years after the killing of Michael Brown, a community is still healing.

    Our own Yamiche Alcindor went to Ferguson and reports that, while some progress has been made, many who lived through that day and the protests and the unrest that followed said their lives have been changed forever.

  • Lesley McSpadden:

    When I wake up in the morning, my emotions are all over the place, and I really don't know if I want to go forwards, backwards, because every day is a fight for me since August 9, 2014.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That was the day Lesley McSpadden's son, Michael Brown Jr., was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting sparked massive protests and unrest in the city.

    Ultimately, officer Darren Wilson wasn't indicted for killing the 18-year-old. It's now been five years since Ferguson became a national symbol and inspired activists across the world. For those who intimately experienced what happened here, the trauma of that time runs deep. And for McSpadden, the hurt is about what never was.

  • Lesley McSpadden:

    I was left with absolutely nothing as far as a remnant of Michael. You know, he didn't have any children. He had never worked a job.

    As a mother, it makes you question yourself, even though you know it's not your fault. But that's what I have been dealing with for the last five years.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Since then, she's started a foundation in her son's name. It offers youth services and a support network for mothers dealing with similar losses.

    Much of her focus, though, is on her family.

  • Lesley McSpadden:

    My baby son is now about to be 15. People talk. They ask questions. So, now he has questions for me. How do I answer those questions?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It sounds like you're not any more confident five years later that your son, who's now 15, would be safe from what happened to Michael Brown.

  • Lesley McSpadden:

    No, I'm not.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In the hours, days and months after Brown was killed, thousands of protesters came to Ferguson to voice outrage over the shooting.

    Kayla Reed was one of those protesters.

  • Kayla Reed:

    I think it really touched to the fabric of something in this country for a generation that hadn't been touched.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The sights and sounds of those days and months have left many, including Reed, scarred.

  • Kayla Reed:

    It is really hard is really hard for me to go to Ferguson. When I see that box that they pour cement over where his body laid, and I see his memorial, it is really hard to reckon with the reality that all of this came because someone had to die.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    She is now co-director of the advocacy group Action St. Louis.

    The group campaigns to elect progressive politicians. It also hosts a fellowship for young black activists. Reed says, despite what she and others like her have accomplished, there remains a heavy weight.

  • Kayla Reed:

    There's a lot of pressure to kind of achieve this line of justice that was undeclared four years ago. I felt like I was up against a clock, that, if I didn't do enough, somebody else's child was going to get killed.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Physical reminders of what happened five years ago also remain. There are remnants of buildings that were damaged and stores boarded up in the wake of the protests.

    For some, they are triggers that have led to nightmares.

  • William McCarty:

    Well, some nights, I will be pummeling her in the back. You know, I would like — the other night, I was trying to push somebody out of the house, you know, thinking that somebody had come in. And she said: "Your hands are moving. You have got to wake up."

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For decades, William McCarty and his wife, Judy, have lived here. Their home is just a few blocks from the epicenter of the protests and unrest.

  • Judy McCarty:

    I thought, every night, when I took a shower, I was afraid that a gunshot was going to come through the window and kill me. That's how close it was.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Judy McCarty, whose brother was once a Ferguson police officer, is still shaken by her experience.

  • Judy McCarty:

    One night, they came just to check on us to see how we were doing. And when they left, they asked us to pray for them. The police wanted prayer. They were scared.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For Joshua Williams, who was a prominent protester, the consequences are even more stark.

  • Joshua Williams:

    I saw Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland. I saw all those people. And, most importantly, I saw myself, because I could have been one of those people on the ground under the sheet.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Williams, then 19, was arrested after he tried to set fire to a gas station. There was little damage to the building, and no one was injured. Williams pled guilty to arson, burglary, and stealing. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

    Williams says he regrets what he did, but adds he did it for a purpose.

  • Joshua Williams:

    I was so angry that I didn't really care what came out of it. I just did it. In my mind, that would set off the government to pay attention to us, to see our pain, to see our tears, and to see our blood in the streets.

  • Kayla Reed:

    I feel a lot of pain and some guilt around Josh, because I really wish that it wasn't his experience. I really wish that he wasn't so young. And I wish that he didn't have to suffer this, like, by himself, you know?

    I wish we could all do a day for him, so that he could come home faster or something.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For many, five years feels like just a snapshot in time. Residents and activists say it will take much longer to address longstanding issues and the new ones emerging.

    When Lesley McSpadden reflects on the next five years, she again turns to her family.

  • Lesley McSpadden:

    In four years, my son will graduate from high school. In two years, my daughter will graduate from college. I just want to be here to see it all, through it all, just continue to be their mother, endure what comes my way, and pray about better days for Ferguson.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor in Ferguson, Missouri.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And a note about last night's story on the changes taking place in Ferguson.

    We misidentified the political affiliation of former Saint Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch. He is a Democrat.

    We also stated Saint Louis County jail population has declined by 20 percent since new prosecutor Wesley Bell took office. That number should be 16 percent. We have posted a corrected version online, where you can watch the entire series at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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