The Roots of Violence in Ferguson

Clashes between protesters and law-enforcement officials over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown began again on Saturday morning. Residents say the tension between the city's police and citizens is longstanding.
Police officers line up during protest demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, August 16. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Updated 8/16/2014

FERGUSON, Mo.—On Thursday evening, Jerry Rodgers, a longtime resident of Ferguson, Missouri, who’s known in the community as Uncle Black, gathered with other protesters for a peace march. Many in the crowd wore goggles or painters’ masks, concerned about another round of tear gas. I asked Rodgers if his yellow shower cap was for a similar purpose. “Nah,” he says. “I just put in a curl.”

“The police just be on you pretty much just to be on you, man,” Rodgers said. He doesn’t drive, so he relies on public transit and rides from friends. But he says most of his buddies usually won’t drive into Ferguson. “We ain’t going out there, man,” they tell him. “We ain’t going out near Ferguson.”

After days of violence following the shooting of an unarmed, black 18-year-old named Michael Brown by a police officer, tensions between law enforcement and protesters calmed somewhat on Friday. On Thursday, Governor Jay Nixon made a long-overdue intervention in the situation: The man he placed in charge of the police on the scene, Ron Johnson, is an African American State Highway Patrol captain who grew up in the area and still lives nearby. Johnson marched with, spoke with, and hugged protesters. The few police who showed up at Thursday night’s demonstration wore normal uniforms. They left their gas masks at home.

But the purpose of the Ferguson protests was not to win the right to protest, as renewed tension has shown. On Friday, the police department identified the white officer who shot Brown as Darren Wilson, but they also released surveillance video allegedly showing Brown participating in a “strong-arm robbery” minutes before the shooting, causing a fresh wave of outrage in the community. The autopsy still has not been released. By early Saturday morning, "protesters barricaded a major thoroughfare and police officers in riot gear quickly responded, prompting a standoff," The New York Times reportsThe case—and the pain it has caused—is far from being resolved.

In part, this may be because one of the most significant underlying causes of the unrest hasn’t been addressed: allegations of racial profiling.  

The civic infrastructure of Ferguson has not kept pace with its shifting demographics. In 1990, the town was three-quarters white. Twenty years later, white people made up only 30 percent of the population.

Now, Ferguson’s population is two-thirds black. Its more-than-50-person police force includes just three black officers. In 2013, black people accounted for 86 percent of all traffic stops and 92 percent of searches and arrests.

Ferguson’s figures are not much different than many municipalities in the St. Louis area—and they’re actually better than the statewide average. But residents say profiling in the city is severe.

Anthony Johnson lives in the Canfield Green Apartments, where Mike Brown lived and where he was gunned down in the street. Tattooed below Johnson’s right eye is a pair of tear drops, a tribute to his parents. His father was shot and killed when he was 10. His mom died in a car accident on Mother’s Day. Standing on the lawn of the apartment complex, he said police harassment is a regular part of life here. Cops often stop him on the street and ask where he’s going. Sometimes, they’ll pick him up by mistake, looking for a different black man. He knows not to walk around the neighborhood after a certain time at night, to avoid being stopped, interrogated, and asked for identification. “Why should I have to show ID if I’m just walking down the street?” he asked. “It just don’t make no sense. It’s sad that it took an incident like this to shed some light on the Ferguson police.”

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William Powell is a senior editor at St. Louis Magazine. 

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