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Before George Floyd In Minnesota, There Was Michael Brown In Missouri


In Ferguson, Mo., George Floyd's death feels painfully familiar. When a police officer in Ferguson shot and killed an African American teenager in 2014, protests followed, as did reforms. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum reports on what's changed and what hasn't.

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: Before George Floyd, there was Michael Brown. On a hot August afternoon six years ago, a Ferguson police officer shot and killed the 18-year-old in the middle of the street. His death shined a bright light on the chasm between law enforcement and black residents and made Ferguson the site of violent clashes between police and demonstrators. But it also compelled people like Book Robinson (ph) to come to a town willing to have the hard conversations about race and policing.

BOOK ROBINSON: I've purposely moved here to be a part of what's going on. And then also, for us, this is my community, and I live here. I need to show my face, and I need to show my presence. I need to speak on and let people know that we're here and we care.

ROSENBAUM: Part of the transformation that's been going on since Brown's death continued Tuesday evening.





ROSENBAUM: The cheering is for Ella Jones, who was just elected as Ferguson's first black mayor. It follows electing more black members to the City Council and hiring black police chiefs. After she won, Jones sat on a bench next to a community center that used to be a gas station that looters burned down right after Brown's death. She reflected on the task ahead.


ELLA JONES: When you're an African American woman, they require more of you than they require of my counterpart. And I know that the people in Ferguson are ready to stabilize their community, and we're going to work together to get it done.

ROSENBAUM: Ferguson remains under a federal consent decree restructuring the city's police department and government, and Wesley Bell says that's led to real change. Bell is St. Louis County's prosecutor and was elected to the Ferguson City Council after Brown's death. And he says police in Ferguson make an effort to forge meaningful relationships with residents.

WESLEY BELL: What we saw in Ferguson was a symptom of a much larger problem that you're alluding to. People didn't feel that the justice system actually worked for them.

ROSENBAUM: But there's still hard work ahead. Ferguson is still trying to comply with the consent decree that requires the city's government to pay for a monitor. And like other cities around the St. Louis region, Ferguson has seen declining revenue because of COVID-19 shutdowns. So it was a hard blow last weekend for Ferguson residents when protests broke out over George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.


ROSENBAUM: Some people broke windows at the police station and damaged some businesses. After news cameras caught footage of white rioters smashing windows, community leaders like Councilwoman Fran Griffin noted that such acts make life worse for Ferguson's black residents.

FRAN GRIFFIN: When we talk about sales tax and things of that nature that comes from businesses, we have to understand as a community that those things help fund things like our children - our babies' education.

ROSENBAUM: Others question why the Justice Department only focused on Ferguson and not other St. Louis County cities with frayed police relationships. Longtime resident Susan Ankenbrand wonders if the city is being punished for the region's long history of racial discrimination. She pointed out that even during the latest round of protests, Ferguson police tried to engage.

SUSAN ANKENBRAND: You saw the chief out there genuinely trying to talk to protesters and officers taking a knee with protesters.

ROSENBAUM: Ella Jones, the city's just-elected mayor, expresses solidarity with the protest movement but says it's time for people to stop targeting Ferguson, especially when residents and city leaders have done much of the hard work that lies ahead for dozens of cities across the nation.

For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, Rosenbaum's work appeared in Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Business Journal and the Riverfront Times' music section. He also served on staff at the St. Louis Beacon as a politics reporter. Rosenbaum lives in Richmond Heights with with his wife Lauren and their two sons.