On the fifth anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, academics in the area say the protests that followed have brought a lasting change to the St. Louis area.
“There’s been a greater awareness that racism does exist,” said Keon L. Gilbert, an associate professor in the St. Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice. “Many people were aware of it. They may not have been aware of how big an issue it was.”
Through the events of Ferguson, people became more aware of the systematic collection of institutions and policies that were racism, Gilbert said. “The systems there were set up to entrap people in a number of different ways.”
One result was an effort to frame the death of Brown in a public health perspective, Gilbert said. He noted that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified such fatalities as death by legal intervention.
“St. Louis as an area can’t really afford to revert back to how it was before the death of Michael Brown,” Gilbert said, adding, “There really haven’t been large systematic changes in police in the region.”
David Kimball, professor of political science at the University of Missouri, said a long-term effect was that it had brought more attention to issues such as fines, fees and municipal governments.
“There’s probably more of a public appetite for some changes, even though not a lot of policy changes have been made,” Kimball said.
Kimball said he thought the ill-fated “Better Together” effort to merge St. Louis through a statewide vote tried to capitalize on that feeling.
“There are many efforts underway to make improvements,” said UMSL political scientist Terry Jones. “There’s a heightened awareness.”
Protests absolutely matter, said Kimberly Norwood, Washington University’s Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law. She is the author of the book “Color Matters (New Directions in American History).”
As a result of the Ferguson protests, she said, the governor put in place a Ferguson Commission that did remarkable work.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice got involved.
An investigation by the department noted patterns of racial bias and profiling and said Ferguson’s Municipal Court targeted black people. The Justice Department sued Ferguson, and both sides reached an agreement ending the suit.
The agreement requires Ferguson to promote officer and public safety, ensure fundamental fairness and equal treatment regardless of race in the municipal court and foster greater trust between police officers and the public.
Norwood is a member of a court-appointed team monitoring the agreement.
Norwood also pointed to state legislation to limit the percentage of their budgets that cities can receive from tickets.
Passed with bipartisan support, the law said cities within St. Louis County should obtain no more than 12.5 percent of their revenue from traffic fines and court fees, as opposed to 20 percent elsewhere in Missouri.
In 2017, the state Supreme Court threw out the 12.5 percent limit for St. Louis County but raised it to the 20 percent limit that all other counties have. But supporters cheered that the high court held on to the core of the law that mandated statewide limits on revenue collected from fines and fees.
The Missouri Supreme Court also assigned all Ferguson municipal court cases to circuit court.
“All of this was because of Ferguson,” Norwood said.
However, Norwood noted two indicators of continuing problems. One was the recent discovery of racially charged social media posts by some city police officers. The other was the indictment of four St. Louis police officers on federal charges for allegedly beating an undercover city police officer.
Professors at area universities have played an active role in finding solutions since the shooting of Brown.
In September 2015, for example, Kimball and fellow professor Todd Swanstrom wrote an op-ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and stltoday.com, “Responding to Ferguson: What works, what doesn’t.” They represented a group of scholars at UMSL, Washington University and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. In the article, they summarized articles by five other academics and provided links to those articles.
“The Ferguson Commission has insisted that we keep the ‘inconvenient fact’ of racism front and center as we think about our responses to Ferguson,” Swanstrom and Kimball wrote. “St. Louisans need to set aside their cynicism, roll up their sleeves and put into action what works for a more prosperous and just region.”