Ferguson in Focus How the tragedy of a police shooting became a national industry.

For many, the first glimpse of Ferguson was a sign, handwritten on a torn piece of cardboard, held by a middle-aged Black man in a tank top and jeans: “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son!!!” The photo was posted to an Instagram account, now deleted, and circulated throughout social media on the afternoon of August 9, 2014. The man was Louis Head, the stepfather of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old resident of Ferguson, Missouri, who was gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson in broad daylight, his body left in the sun for four and a half hours.

People sometimes say the story of Ferguson began with a body in the road. But Ferguson attracted attention not because of a body but a person, Michael Brown, and those who loved him—a community who took to the streets in anguish and grief. On a hot August day, Brown’s family, friends, and neighbors surrounded the scene of what they deemed murder by a cop. They refused to remain silent about Brown’s death, but at the same time were hesitant to speak out. Before Ferguson became a buzzword dropped by pundits and politicians, it was a tale told with reluctance. When the first reporter to hit the Ferguson scene, Brittany Noble-Jones of St. Louis television network KMOV, attempted to interview Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, McSpadden would only consent to a brief interview distributed on Instagram.

“They’re not telling me anything,” she said of the police. “They haven’t told me anything. They wouldn’t even let me identify my son. The only way I knew it was my son was from people out here showing me his picture.”

The lines being drawn were clear: the local Black community was trustworthy, the rest—media, police, officials—were not. The mourners that assembled where Brown lay near his residence in the Canfield Green apartments saw not a body in a crime scene, but a teenage boy, cruelly executed by an officer with no respect for the law and no fear of repercussions. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the largest paper in the city, immediately characterized the scene as “Fatal shooting by Ferguson police prompts mob reaction.” Outcry prompted the paper to change the headline from “mob” to “crowd,” but the narrative die had already been cast.

To believe that Brown’s death was unjust was to believe his life mattered. Debate over that belief—later summarized as “Black Lives Matter,” a statement of dignity so basic that its ensuing controversy only speaks to its necessity–dominated the months to come, and persists to this day.


•   •   •


How you understand Ferguson is a product not only of principle but proximity. You will get a different narrative depending on where you live, what media you consume, who you talk to, and who you believe. For residents of St. Louis, Ferguson was viewed from the inside out: a locale of legend surrounded by swaths of mundanity that did not quite make the cut. You could park your car at a Schnucks grocery store next to a fleet of news trucks, all replaying the same set of images: a burned-down QuikTrip, a strip of boarded stores. Outside the trucks, tired residents are asked to ramp up the energy for yet another interview, while reporters flock the streets like vultures in search of new blood.

The “Ferguson” and #Ferguson of the public imagination are moving further from Ferguson, the place. Ferguson is what you want to see, when you want to see it.

Off the screen, life went on for the people of St. Louis: painfully, anxiously, a simulacrum of life punctuated by a frenzied exploration of a death. The cameras came and went, but between August and late November, when the grand jury decision was announced, the waiting never stopped.

The dichotomy between the Ferguson of lore—a bastion of cruelty and chaos—and the mundane Ferguson experienced in person was difficult to reconcile. The media action was so confined to one or two blocks that it eclipsed the bigger, sadder picture. For St. Louis metro area residents, Ferguson was yet another decaying suburb, a place of emptying shopping plazas and struggling citizens. The banal decline of Ferguson and its surrounding municipalities was its own kind of quiet horror, but it was one rarely explored. It lingers, as the “voices of Ferguson” come less and less often from Ferguson, or even from St. Louis; as a vigil that became a protest becomes a national and profitable movement, often divorced from the community that inspired it.

Ferguson is where riot tourists come to snap selfies with burned-down buildings. Ferguson is an international symbol of local failure, thanks to a searing condemnation of its corruption from the U.S. Department of Justice, whose statements prompted observers to finally believe what Black St. Louis citizens had been saying all along. Ferguson is where loyal residents, usually White, plant “I Love Ferguson” signs on their lawns to mitigate the town’s tarnished image, often in conflict with those determined to expose its deepest flaws.

The “Ferguson” and #Ferguson of the public imagination are moving further from Ferguson, the place. Ferguson is what you want to see, when you want to see it.


•   •   •


At first, the worry was that no one would care. On August 9, St. Louis residents took to social media to spread the news of Brown’s death and relay images from the streets of Ferguson. Among the photos they shared were a makeshift memorial for Brown trampled by police vehicles. The images circulated widely through a network of largely Black social media users, who were still reeling from the death of Eric Garner, choked at the hands of an NYPD officer on July 17, just weeks before. Brown was part of a pattern of police brutality against Black Americans, although the events that led to his own death were still unclear.

St. Louis police saw it as their mission to protect citizens from the protesters, regardless that the protesters were long-suffering St. Louis citizens themselves.

On August 10, the police were ready to tell their side of the story. At a press conference, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said that an unarmed Brown, after robbing a convenience store, had assaulted the officer who went on to kill him. This version flew in the face of witnesses who insisted Brown had his hands up in surrender. Belmar refused to name the officer at that time. Meanwhile, the community planned a vigil for that evening, and Brown’s death became a nationwide talking point. Memorials were planned around the country for August 14, but before the first candles were lit nationwide, locally another fire burned.

August 10 was the night the Ferguson QuikTrip, located on the strip of West Florissant Avenue close to the site of Brown’s killing, was torched by unknown arsonists and burned to the ground. As architectural historian Michael Allen noted, “The iconic Ferguson QT may be the most photographed structure in St. Louis aside from the Gateway Arch. … These are expressions of a world upended, of suffering made plain.” The burning of the QuikTrip was part of a night of looting and destruction that stood as an anomaly throughout the long stretch of peaceful protests between Brown’s death and the grand jury decision.

Until November, August 10 was the only night of intense citizen violence, but it was enough to cement Ferguson’s reputation as a place of danger. This was the time when people stopped believing you when you said you had been to Ferguson for fun—to the farmer’s market, to the brewery, to send your kid to camp. This is when the two Fergusons—one of mundane suburban life, another of crippling pain and exploitation of the Black community—collided with something else: an insatiable media appetite for chaos. It was an appetite the St. Louis County police fed with aplomb.

That is, of course, not how the police saw it. Much as the Post-Dispatch had designated mourners a “mob,” St. Louis police saw it as their mission to protect citizens from the protesters, regardless that the protesters were long-suffering St. Louis citizens themselves. To understand the dynamic, it is important to situate Ferguson within the broader geography of St. Louis. The problems of Ferguson were never confined to the boundaries of Ferguson—had Brown died a mile away, you would be reading about Berkeley, or Jennings, or any other nearby town facing the same problems as Ferguson. Ferguson’s issues—rising poverty, job loss, a municipal court system and police force that disproportionately targeted Black residents, a government alienated from its citizens—were the same as those throughout the surrounding North County, a continuum of tiny towns whose tax base was drawn by exploiting its impoverished residents through things like traffic tickets.

Throughout August, patrolling of the Ferguson protests passed from the Ferguson police to the St. Louis County police to, at the request of Governor Jay Nixon, the Missouri Highway Patrol, and the National Guard. Much as Ferguson was not unique within St. Louis County, the tactics of the county force were no better than those of Ferguson, and the tactics of the state little better than that. It made little difference who was in charge when the order was to suppress protests regardless of citizen rights.

Tear gas and rubber bullets were routinely used, to the shock of residents and to the delight of ratings-starved cable news outlets, who had found in Ferguson a profitable horror show. Protesters, local officials, and journalists were arrested. A curfew was instituted. Live-stream videographers appeared on the scene, filming the chaos minute by minute for viewers around the world. #Ferguson, the hashtag, was born. The Twitter followings of those filming the chaos rose into the tens of thousands.

The world saw violence, but St. Louis saw grief. Ask a stranger how they were doing during the mid-August madness and their eyes, already red from late nights glued to the TV or Internet, would well up with tears. Some grieved stability, others grieved community, others simply grieved the loss of a teenage boy, unique and complex as any other, to a system that seemed to designate him a menace on sight. But it was hard to find someone who was not grieving something, even if it was a peace born of ignorance. St. Louis had awakened.


•   •   •


By late August, the streets of Ferguson resembled a media-staged Hunger Games, with camera crews filming camera crews filming citizens increasingly weary of battle.

“All I want tomorrow is peace while we lay our son to rest. Please, that’s all I ask,” Michael Brown’s father pleaded on August 25 as the protests and hype continued to grow. More than 4,000 people attempted to attend his son’s funeral, with the church only accommodating 2,500. The same day, The New York Times wrote a profile of Michael Brown stating that he was “no angel.” The same day, $400,000 was raised for the defense of Darren Wilson, whose identity as the shooter had been revealed.

There would never be a trial for Wilson, but Michael Brown was put on trial the moment he was killed—or alternatively, as for any Black man in America, the moment he was born.

In August, the Ferguson protests attracted thousands of people who descended on the small suburb with independent, often conflicting, agendas. Black rights activists ranging from celebrities like Al Sharpton to ordinary concerned citizens came to show solidarity with the community. Leftist groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party declared Ferguson their cause and passed out fliers encouraging citizens to overthrow the powers that be. Medics who had served in war zones arrived to train citizens on how to respond to tear gas. Religious figures ranging from the Nation of Islam to Tibetan monks flooded the streets, along with anarchists, libertarians, Democrats, NGO workers, gun rights activists, human rights activists, White supremacists, and members of Anonymous. At times the St. Louis Arch felt like a giant magnet pulling in every fringe group in America.

And then, in September, it stopped. The media, who at a protest I attended in August outnumbered protesters by roughly 20 to one, closed the book on Ferguson, and headed home. A dazed St. Louis returned to its regularly scheduled programming, with new wounds of civil rights violations joining the old and pervasive problems of poverty and eroded opportunity.

In the weeks to follow, a core group of protesters emerged, taking to the streets day and night, often assembling in front of the Ferguson police department to march to cries of “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” St. Louis had already seen a number of protests before the summer of 2014: for an increased minimum wage, for better schools, and for Palestinian rights, among other things. These causes, along with gay and lesbian rights—an issue important to LGBT protesters and their supporters—were incorporated into the Ferguson movement. A network of largely underfunded NGOs already existed in St. Louis, and some of the newer protest leaders were absorbed into those organizations. But mostly protests remained loose and leaderless, with many still struggling to recover from the trauma of August. Protesters began talking about having PTSD, a condition still widely discussed—though often not remedied—in St. Louis today.

On August 9, people had worried that Michael Brown would be forgotten. By September, it was clear no one would ever forget Brown, but what legacy his death would leave was in question. The geography of St. Louis is carved with fault lines—as in local leaders repeatedly claiming nothing that happens within the lines of their municipality is their fault. Ferguson’s mayor recused himself from responsibility and denied the suburb had a race problem. Officials from St. Louis County and city feuded so heatedly their Twitter exchanges wound up in the gossip pages of Buzzfeed. St. Louis, an insular region, was suddenly everybody’s business, and Ferguson was the cause to which quarreling parties wanted to lay claim.

As St. Louis officials feuded, St. Louis citizens waited. In August, it was announced that Wilson’s case would be heard by a grand jury overseen by controversial prosecutor Bob McCulloch. This decision was protested by activists concerned that McCulloch, whose father was a policeman who had been killed in the line of duty, and who had himself overseen numerous cases where police who killed citizens walked, was too biased to present the evidence objectively. Governor Nixon was asked by protesters to remove McCulloch but ignored the request.

The geography of St. Louis is carved with fault lines—as in local leaders repeatedly claiming nothing that happens within the lines of their municipality is their fault.

The waiting game began, with many feeling the decision, under McCulloch’s watch, was a foregone conclusion. What came after it, however, was anyone’s guess.

For those outside St. Louis, Ferguson is a tale of high drama: the August arson and tear gas, the October “Weekend of Resistance” that brought celebrities and media to town, the November grand jury decision. But for those who live in St. Louis, the most stressful part of the Ferguson events was arguably the waiting. For three months, St. Louis woke up each morning wondering if this would be the day—of reckoning, of repercussions, of remorse. With the judicial process carried out behind closed doors, and shifting deadlines for a decision announced by McCulloch throughout the process, residents of the metro area lived in agonizing suspense.

It is one thing to watch a region implode on TV. It is quite another to live within the slow-motion implosion, to carry out the activities of daily life knowing the place you call home may soon become unrecognizable due to the whims of a cloistered party. Every day felt like the prelude to disaster, every incident another sign that the game was rigged. Two more young Black men, Kajieme Powell and VonDerrit Myers, were killed by police in between the time Brown was killed and the grand jury reached their decision. A movement born in grief kept gaining martyrs, while pro-Wilson detractors latched onto the Powell and Myers cases to further their own belief that Brown’s death was justified.

Always segregated, St. Louis grew more divided as tension built and tempers flared. Covert discussions on race turned into chants shouted on the streets or slogans—like “I am Darren Wilson”—printed on bracelets. This is how St. Louis killed time in a time marked by killing.

Protesters tried to look at the long time lag positively: here was a period to prepare, to organize, to mobilize. And they did, but as the weeks of protest wore on, “victories” within the movement became less about overturning a corrupt system and more about the act of protesting itself. Policies like the “five-second rule”—which required protesters to keep walking or risk arrest—were implemented by St. Louis law enforcement officials but successfully challenged by the ACLU. By November, protester planning meetings focused on basic survival: how to recover from tear gas, where to find a safe house, what kind of clothing to wear when you need to run from gunfire or carry emergency supplies.

The average St. Louis citizen could not escape the Ferguson waiting game, even if they chose to avoid its uncomfortable politics, which many tried to do. Throughout October and November, St. Louis was warned to brace itself for “the worst” without knowing what “the worst” was. The only thing residents knew was that it was inevitable. Businesses sent out emergency procedures for the day the decision would be reached. One town recommended citizens stock up on gasoline and water. Schools prepared to cancel classes, and several districts, upon hearing rumor that a decision was forthcoming, sent children home with a week’s worth of homework, which kids christened “the riot packet.”

Purgatory had become its own hell. The “state of emergency” was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On November 17, Governor Nixon announced a “state of emergency” for Missouri that caused panic due to its sheer baselessness. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened, but now there were Humvees patrolling the mall, fleets of national security agents filling hotels, and hundreds of armed National Guardsmen accompanying thousands of extra police. Mundane sights became militarized, and the more the “state of emergency” dragged on, the more citizens searched for any indication that an end—no matter what kind of end—was in sight. Purgatory had become its own hell. The “state of emergency” was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Citizens clung to rumor, because it was all they had, but more disconcertingly rumor appeared to be all representatives had as well. The “pass the buck” nature of St. Louis authority—showcased in August when all parties blamed someone else for the unrest—remained in effect until November 24, the day the grand jury decision was announced. The only person with real power was revealed to be McCulloch, who sauntered into a press conference late and announced with a smile on his face that Wilson would walk.


•   •   •


During the fall, protests in St. Louis moved from Ferguson to a number of different locales, among them the south side, where Myers was killed; events like Cardinals games and St. Louis Symphony performances; police departments in other towns known for fleecing minority residents through ticket schemes; and the justice center in Clayton where the St. Louis County Council met and where the Wilson case was being decided. The issues protesters raised—racial discrimination, police brutality, municipal corruption—were regional issues that extended beyond Ferguson’s borders. But Ferguson was where it had started, and it remained the primary site of protest.

The Streets of Ferguson, late November 2014. (Credit: Greenz Productions)

The Streets of Ferguson, late November 2014. (Credit: Greenz Productions)

Protest in Ferguson was divided between two main streets: West Florissant, the struggling commercial strip which housed the torched QuikTrip as well as businesses catering to poor Black residents who lived nearby; and South Florissant, a historic, more upscale drag festooned with holiday decorations in front of the Ferguson Police Department headquarters. Almost immediately after the grand jury decision was announced, arsonists set West Florissant on fire.

A devastated Louis Head, the stepfather of Michael Brown who had alerted the community with the news of his child’s death on a cardboard sign, called for residents to “Burn this bitch down!” upon hearing the decision. (He later said he regretted the statement.) Dozens of businesses were destroyed along with police vehicles, which were overturned and burned. The damage extended down West Florissant out of Ferguson and into the neighboring town of Dellwood, which is poorer and less equipped to deal with the financial loss.

Despite the state of emergency and the presence of thousands of military and police officials, multiple buildings on West Florissant were left to burn. South Florissant—richer, Whiter—was largely spared. The two parallel streets became the latest chapter in St. Louis’s long story of abandonment. Until the spring of 2015, wreckage still lined West Florissant—much as wreckage lines the streets of other areas of St. Louis whose residents were long denied resources and opportunities. This is the result not of arson but apathy. When St. Louis burns, it does not rebuild. This is a city with an urban forest in its center, where the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex once stood, because no one can agree on what or how to build over it.

Ruins dot the landscape of St. Louis like reminders, like repercussions. West Florissant became another bad memory, carved in corroded metal and charred facades.

Despite the state of emergency and the presence of thousands of military and police officials, multiple buildings on West Florissant were left to burn. South Florissant—richer, whiter—was largely spared. The two parallel streets became the latest chapter in St. Louis’s long story of abandonment.

The night West Florissant burned, police sought out not the arsonists but the protesters, who had assembled in safe houses on the south side of the city. MoKaBe’s, a coffeehouse that had become makeshift activist headquarters, was pumped full of tear gas while prominent protesters sat inside. Nothing had changed since August—not the tactics, not the audacity, not the results. St. Louis braced for more nights of violence, but November 24 turned out to be its peak. Since August, the media had falsely depicted Ferguson as “burned down” or “riot-torn” despite that the QuikTrip was the sole burned building and the protests had overwhelmingly been peaceful. Now, finally, everyone’s worst suspicions were confirmed.


•   •   •


And then, once again, people moved on. The media that had swarmed the city ever since Nixon issued his “state of emergency” left to cover a new wave of protests—this time against the Eric Garner grand jury decision, which was released a few days after Wilson’s. To the shock of many in St. Louis, a good part of the Ferguson protest movement followed the media along. Activists flew to New York, some leaving St. Louis for good to take jobs in other cities. Ferguson was now “where it began,” not a place in which to invest. What had begun as a community reaction to a tragedy had become a national industry.

Back in St. Louis, citizens struggled to pick up the pieces. The Ferguson events had thrown a number of issues into public discussion, and had begun to prompt reforms in areas like the municipal courts. But the distrust, the pain, and the confusion had only intensified. The grand jury decision had coincided with Thanksgiving. Now the winter holidays had come and citizens hid out in their homes, reeling from news of a region seemingly out of control. St. Louis’s murder rate spiked, the crimes ever more grisly: a Bosnian man beaten to death by teenagers with hammers, children shot while sitting with their parents in parks. Cops call it “the Ferguson effect,” despite the fact that the homicide rate had started to climb in April 2014, months before Brown was killed.

It is hard to say whether the Ferguson effect is real or whether St. Louis’s rising crime comes from the same problems that produced the Ferguson events: poverty, corruption, and distrust of the law and those who allegedly enforce it.


•   •   •


In mid-November, Governor Nixon authorized the creation of the Ferguson Commission, a select group of citizens who would listen to community concerns and document them in order to improve the welfare of the region. In December, the Commission began meeting and hearing citizens speak. Residents of the St. Louis metro area, particularly Black residents, had plenty to say: meetings were often so crowded they were standing room only. Residents spoke of decades of racial profiling, of abuses by officers and local officials, of complaints long ignored, of inequalities in the education system, of corruption in the courts. They told a story they had been telling for decades, a story Black St. Louis grandparents told their grandkids in commiseration and warning.

The same stories were told at the weekly St. Louis County Council meeting, which had become a popular Tuesday night location for protests over the fall. Every week, Black citizens shared their grievances with a largely stone-faced set of officials. Their concerns were the same ones shouted in the street or heard on the Ferguson livestream. None of this was new: the fact that these grievances were so old was itself part of the problem.

Yet it took the release of a report from the Department of Justice for many in the United States to take these complaints seriously. In March the media again converged, with the out-of-town activists following, all to discuss what was common knowledge on the streets of St. Louis. The same claims that St. Louis citizens had made about their own lives and experiences were suddenly taken seriously when they came from a national organization and reiterated by national NGOs and the national media. It was simultaneously an insult and a validation. Resignations long demanded—including that of Thomas Jackson, Ferguson police chief; and John Shaw, Ferguson city manager—were finally brought about, with many wondering why it took so long, and why earlier cries were not heeded.

The same claims that St. Louis citizens had made about their own lives and experiences were suddenly taken seriously when they came from a national organization and reiterated by national NGOs and the national media. It was simultaneously an insult and a validation.

Ferguson has become a buzzword, a brand name, but on the streets of St. Louis, the same desperate pleas continue: when are things going to get better? When are things really going to change? Who cares what happens to the people who live here, who experience the region’s tension and tragedy every day? Who seeks to serve instead of using the region as a stepping stone?

Drive through the St. Louis metro area, through the scarred suburbs and blighted city and you will find a legacy of abandonment: buildings without bricks because people stole them and sold them for money for food, hollowed-out factories of a long-dead economy, houses left behind by waves of White flight. This is Ferguson’s inheritance, St. Louis’s inheritance.

What will be the region’s future is hard to say. One cannot invest in a flashpoint. It glimmers, it burns, sometimes so brightly it eclipses the pain of day-to-day living. A vigil became a protest became a movement. But the lingua franca of Ferguson was always grief.

Sarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior is best known for her reporting on St. Louis, her coverage of the 2016 election, and her academic research on authoritarian states. She is currently an op-ed columnist for the Globe and Mail and she was named by Foreign Policy as one of the “100 people you should be following on Twitter to make sense of global events.” Her reporting has been featured in many publications, including Politico, SlateThe AtlanticFast CompanyThe Chicago TribuneTeenVogue, and The New York Times. Her books include The View From Flyover Country: Essays by Sarah Kendzior (2018, Flatiron Books) and, most recently, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (2020, Flatiron Books).