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Ferguson takes steps toward change in year since Michael Brown’s death

It’s nearly a year since Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, setting off a firestorm of protest and political activism around aggressive law enforcement and race. Hari Sreenivasan talks to community members about how the events have set changes in motion.

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    It was one year ago this weekend when the city of Ferguson, Missouri, quickly moved to the center of national attention. Protests followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer.

    The police response and the unrest that came afterwards called more attention to shootings and the militarization of police forces across the country and triggered more debate and calls for reform.

    Hari Sreenivasan returned there to see how Ferguson is faring.


    Clifton Kinnie had no idea how much his life was about to change at this time last year. Then 17 years old, his mother had just died from stage four breast cancer. He was at home and depressed, when social media brought him a picture of Michael Brown's body just a few miles away.

  • CLIFTON KINNIE, Youth Activist:

    And at first, I didn't think it was real. I grabbed my keys and I drove straight out there. And just seeing the reaction from the people, the community there, who were trying to figure out what's going on, right, trying to figure out, why is this kid laying in the street?


    Outrage pulled Kinnie out of his grief and led him into the nightly protests.


    My first time getting hit with tear gas, rubber bullets was August the 12th. My lungs were stinging. I began throwing up. I think there was a little blood in there. And I was crying.

  • MAN:

    You must disperse immediately.


    But I wasn't tearing up because it was painful. Yes, it was painful, but I was tearing up because I couldn't believe something like this could happen in 21st century America or a small town like Ferguson.


    Kinnie went back to high school. He started a week late because of the unrest and channeled that outrage into action.

    Texting among his friends led 300 classmates to his backyard to start what became Our Destiny Saint Louis, a small student group promoting social engagement among young people. Ever since, Kinnie has organized his peers to pursue justice in their communities.


    The problem in Saint Louis has become far deeper than just policing.


    In February, Clifton spoke in front of the Ferguson Commission, volunteers appointed by the governor of Missouri to examine the root causes of the shooting, the reaction to it, and ways to prevent this from happening again.

    The group has met more than a dozen times, tackling topics such as health disparities, education equity, and law enforcement policy.

    On that commission is Brittany Packnett, someone who grew up grocery shopping in this neighborhood, getting her hair done along West Florissant Avenue. A year ago, this familiar street was unrecognizable.


    What flashes through my mind are the armored vehicles and rifles and body armored police officers that would fill these parking lots. What crosses my mind is trying to Vine videos of when rifles are pointed in people's faces and of us being tear-gassed to make sure that people knew the truth.


    The year has been filled with keeping the issues from Ferguson front and center, including a trip to the White House.


    There is still so much more to be done. We stand here even not even halfway through 2015, and nearly 700 people have been killed by police in the U.S. alone.


    That sense of urgency is not lost on police Sergeant Dominica Fuller.

  • SGT. DOMINICA FULLER, Ferguson Police Department:

    I was surprised. I was hurt. I was afraid. I was saddened.


    A lifelong Ferguson resident and mother, Fuller is also a 17-year member of the police force. Three months ago, she rose to the rank of sergeant. A year ago, some of her family sided with the protesters against the police.


    When you're family, you are going to agree to disagree, but my safety came first, and they understood that.


    This spring, the U.S. Justice Department investigated the practices of Ferguson police, finding officers routinely arrested citizens without probable cause and used unreasonable force against the city's African-Americans.

    The sergeant wears a body camera, like all Ferguson police do now, one change in the past year, but Fuller says she hopes some of the basic tactics she has learned working a beat will spread throughout the department, part of an emphasis on community policing going forward.


    You have to have compassion in this job. You have to have understanding and you have to be patient. We now focus on the community a little bit more. We're in the schools. We're able to go sit with the kids in the park.


    Ferguson has a new judge, new city manager and the city's leadership is now more diverse. The interim police chief is African-American, as are two newly elected city council members.


    What happened in the city of Ferguson, a lot of cities can learn from. When they sit back and realize, it could have happened to us, let me pay attention and see how they're addressing it.


    Missouri legislators proposed a number of measures, ranging from bills requiring body cameras for police officers to ending racial profiling and the use of lethal force by police. In the end, only one bill passed, a missed opportunity for progress, according to Missouri State Assemblyman Courtney Allen Curtis.

  • COURTNEY ALLEN CURTIS, Missouri State Assemblyman:

    We had the worldwide attention on us. We could have been a leader, but we haven't been. We could have implemented the body cameras. We could have made significant strides towards improving the education system. We could have done economic development packages to bring more jobs to the area.

    And while we talked about doing that, we haven't done nearly enough to actually implement those talking points.


    The new law limits how much of a municipal budget can come from traffic fines, ironically leading Ferguson into a budget deficit.

    New rules also ban courts from jailing someone over small traffic fines, practices the Justice Department condemned. News of the Justice Department report and the new state law continued to keep Ferguson under a spotlight, a light some local residents wanted to turn towards something different.

  • BRIAN FLETCHER, Former Ferguson Mayor:

    We started making up T-shirts. Then it came into coffee mugs, a license plate, stickers, wristbands. You got kids and toddlers. These are onesies for the babies. They got a little caboose on the bottom.


    Former Ferguson Mayor Brian Fletcher is currently a city council member. Struck by the negative portrayal of his hometown, he began getting his own message out starting with yard signs that say "I heart Ferguson."


    Starting moving across Saint Louis and actually orders from across the United States and the world to the state. We have issued 10,450 yard signs.


    So far, he says that they have donated $130,000 to local businesses, all part of a larger campaign to show Ferguson moving on. We heard this radio ad on his phone.


    You can't change history, but you can learn from it. And there is definitely a spirit of optimism in the air. So, grab your keys and the family and come see and enjoy the new face of urban America, Ferguson. Better than ever with more to come, Ferguson, we can do this together.


    But the campaign sends a different message to some.

  • RASHEED ALDRIDGE, Ferguson Commission:

    It was almost like a counterprotest to the protest. It was almost say — to not even acknowledge of what happened.


    Rasheed Aldridge, a Saint Louis native, is the youngest member on the Ferguson Commission.


    To just be like, oh, there's nothing wrong. We love Ferguson. You see? Just look at us. We're happy, we're people, we're having a good time, look at the businesses, and not to acknowledge life was taken in Ferguson.

    How do you love Ferguson and not acknowledge the hurt that the people in Ferguson are going through? It didn't make sense.


    The QuikTrip minimart convenience store that burned down in the aftermath of the shooting was behind this fence on West Florissant Avenue. The Saint Louis Urban League plans to open a job training on this site, one more sign of Ferguson moving forward.

    For activists like Packnett, it's the single step on a long road.


    We cannot quit. We absolutely cannot stop. In fact, we need to move further, faster.


    When Clifton Kinnie gets disillusioned with the pace of the justice movement, he turns to this, one of the last pictures of his mom.


    It reminds me that, despite everything negative going on in my life, that I can accomplish what I want to accomplish. If she could do it, having stage four breast cancer and eight kids, going back to school and getting a degree, I can do what I want to do and need to do in order to help people.


    All right. She'd be proud of you.


    Thanks, man.


    Kinnie begins Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the fall.

    I'm Hari Sreenivasan for the PBS NewsHour in Ferguson, Missouri.

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