One year ago, Ferguson, Mo., became the center of the world’s media as widespread protests broke out across the St. Louis area following the death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot dead by Officer Darren Wilson. However, the media eventually moved on to other stories. But in Ferguson, local activists are still fighting for change.
Leah Gunning Francis, Ph.D., associate dean for contextual learning at Eden Theological Seminary, was one of the co-organizers of the Mothers’ March, a protest featuring mothers complaining about how law enforcement treats their children. Gunning Francis worked closely with several activists on the ground. She gathered interviews with faith leaders and local activists into a book called “Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership & Awakening Community.”
Gunning Francis said while there has been some superficial change—the Ferguson Police Department is now headed by a Black man—there hasn’t been any policy changes. According to Gunning Francis, the Department of Justice investigation revealed widespread institutional racism in Ferguson, including city officials making disparaging comments about Black people in emails and police using excessive fines on Black residents to help fund the city government.
Gunning Francis said there are still structural problems and pointed to the high number of African American students suspended from local schools.
Another thing she has noticed is more jobs coming to Ferguson. Some higher education institutions have also created more opportunities, and the Urban League now has a Ferguson office, she said.
Gunning Francis also said local activists are still agitating for change as well. She pointed to Tribe X, a student activist group at St. Louis University, who had met with the administration with a list of demands.
In some ways, the Ferguson protests reignited the civil rights movement, says the Christian educator.
“Both came out of the cries of Black people to be treated as fully human,” Gunning Francis said.
Jonathan E. Pollard, president of the National Black Lawyers’ Top 40 Under 40 ranking, said he is disappointed with the online activism that came after the Ferguson protests.
“Nothing has changed period,” said Pollard, who discussed this issue at the National Urban League Conference last week in Fort Lauderdale.
“Posting on Twitter is not activism. Hashtags and slogans do not change entrenched systems. You can tweet #BlackLivesMatter all day long and pat yourself on the back, but you really haven’t done anything to change society.”
Pollard also said the Ferguson protests have not stopped the harsh treatment of Black Americans by police.
“There are lots of good cops, but there are also lots of bad cops,” Pollard said. “A year after Ferguson, throughout this country, there are cops routinely violating people’s rights, trampling on the U.S. Constitution and–in some instances—killing unarmed civilians. This is an American epidemic. And it will not change based on tweets and hashtags and protests.”
Pollard said the only thing that would bring about real change is direct action through the courts and the ballot box.
“The system responds to votes, money and litigation,” Pollard said. “We need civilian oversight panels. We need civil rights lawsuits targeted at getting consent decrees and federal oversight of rogue police forces. If the DOJ doesn’t go after your local rogue police force, form a task force, map out the lawsuit and recruit a large law firm to consider handling your civil rights case pro-bono.”