OPINION: Six Years After Michael Brown’s Death, Ferguson Remains Forever Changed
On August 9, 2014, the world changed forever as a young, unarmed 18-year old, Black boy who was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown, who was the same age as my son is now, died in Canfield Green, right where I used to play when I was kid. My grandma Christine lived right in front of where Mike Mike’s (what friends and family called him) body laid in the streets. I grew up on the other end of West Florissant in North St. Louis where we thought nightly gun fire was the sound of fireworks celebrating. It wasn’t until we grew up and saw so many friends disappear that we linked the loss to the barrage of bullets that had become so familiar.
Later that afternoon, images and video began to emerge as the media began to report on the story and the hours that this young Black boy’s body just stayed in the street. I was in Los Angeles when the news broke posted up with some of my homies when one of them said to me, ‘It looks like they need you in the Lou.’ I paused because at this time I was running from the Lou. I wanted to put that part of my life in the rearview as I focused on my career and growing my company. I remember talking to my pastor, who is also my mother, Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould. She was there in Ferguson on ground zero from day one and was one of the few clergy who the protesters and youth respected as they took to the streets reeling after Mike’s unjustified killing.
At her request, I flew home, but I knew that she really didn’t want me there. She knew how I was growing up; more revolutionary than rational, and over the next few days, after seeing Mike Jr. lay in the street for all that time, the people of Ferguson responded in anger. The police became more aggressive and suddenly our home had turned into a warzone with tanks and tear gas used against unarmed, peaceful protestors.
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The Ferguson Police Department armed itself with even more tools of destruction in an attempt to quell all that anger from people, but these are the same people who witnessed former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Mike, Jr., pollute the crime scene by disrupting evidence. He stood there glaring at the community he was hired to protect and serve all the while playing the victim as a Black boy, once full of life, lay dead in the street.
Mike, Jr. had just graduated from high school and was scheduled to begin vocational training classes just two days after he was killed. After his graduation, he told his father, Michael Brown, Sr. ‘One day, the world is gonna’ know my name. I’ll probably have to go away for a while, but I’m coming back to save my city.’ Unfortunately, those words would hold true.
The Reinvention Of Ferguson
Many people often ask what has changed since the Ferguson uprising six year ago. If you drive down one end of West Florissant to the other, from a visual, you may say not much but from the perspective of activists, organizers, and artists, the Ferguson movement has transformed the St. Louis region into an emerging new technology hub, and a model for moving power and change.
In the last six years since Mike Jr.s death, Ferguson has had some pretty powerful wins. Electing Ella Jones in 2020 as our first Black woman mayor. The emergence of artists and musicians like Tef Poe, who became the storytellers of the movement. Professors like Dr. Reynaldo Anderson who helped expand culture with writing Afrofuturism 2.0 bringing with him a new activist artist movement with creatives like InnerGy. St. Louis is actually very much on the rise.
In 2018, St. Louis County voters elected Wesley Bell as their prosecuting attorney, the first African American elected to the position. Bell defeated longtime prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who became a target of Black activists, unhappy with his handling of the investigation into Michael Brown’s death as well as 27 years of prosecutorial misconduct. McCulloch used his office as a tool of oppression towards the Black community and a piggy bank for the county. #ByeBob became the hashtag that many young people used to mobilize the community to get to the polls.
In 2017, my mother led a coalition to lay the framework to get McCulloch out of office. There is no one organization that could have done this alone. We built various coalitions including congregations that would host events like film screenings showing “Stranger Fruit” right down the street from McCulloch’s house. We helped Bell get vetted by the community and meet with Mike Brown’s parents. In August 2018, 100,000 voters responded by electing Bell as our first African American prosecutor.
Two years later, Bell’s office has been transformed into a transparent community partner model of fighting crime. He has joined the new rank of reform prosecutors around the nation and the St. Louis County prosecutor's office has diverted more than 1,100 people from the criminal justice system according to data shared from the St. Louis County Diversion team. These are the people his predecessor would have prosecuted without thinking twice.
Over a week ago, on July 30, Bell met with Michael Brown’s father to give him news he definitely didn’t want to hear. Bell reviewed the investigation into the shooting death of his son at the hands of a former white Ferguson police officer and concluded that could not prove without a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed.
“In the end, we cannot ethically bring this case to trial,” Bell told me via phone before he announced the results of the investigation at a very emotional news conference. However, “our investigation does not exonerate Darren Wilson.”
The fact that there was a review of the case at all says something about how Mike Jr.’s death has changed St. Louis and the world. Prosecutor Bell formed a Conviction and Incident Review Unit within 100 days of being in office and hired Dana Mulhauser to run it. She served more than a decade in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Among her first duties was to review the murder of Michael Brown Jr.
Our nation is still suffering from watching the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis as well as the countless other Black men and women whose lives have been destroyed at the hands of police. Ferguson provides hope of what can happen when we build powerful coalitions by inviting everyone to participate in democracy but we need more than just political change. We need systemic changes; in fact, we need a new system entirely.
My message to young people in the streets today, six years after Mike Jr.'s death but fresh off the death of George Floyd is this: turn your rage into a strategy that helps build the type of community you want and need. One thing I know for sure as I look up to the heavens and think of Mike Mike on this day and that is we have been chosen for change and the time to prove it is now!
Daniel "Zip" Gould is a community organizer and Tech entrepreneur working to bring transformation to communities one block at a time.