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What's Changed, 3 Years After Ferguson Shooting


Three years ago today, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer drew the world's focus to Ferguson, Mo. Brown's death refocused attention on police interaction with African-Americans. And as Durrie Bouscaren of St. Louis Public Radio reports, the extended months of protests helped shape activism throughout Missouri and beyond.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: In the summer of 2014, Kennard Williams was a street medic.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Yelling) Don't do it. Don't do it.

BOUSCAREN: He'd go to rallies with bandages, bottles of water and milk of magnesia. The mixture helped with the pain when people were pepper-sprayed.


KENNARD WILLIAMS: Seeing people out in the street getting shot at and brutalized by police, and it's just like, who's going to help these people?

BOUSCAREN: Back then, activists would write the phone number of a jail support program on their arm with a felt-tip pen in case of arrest. Nonprofits would raise money to bail them out. That program grew into the project that Williams now leads, Decarcerate STL, which focuses on jail and prison reform.

WILLIAMS: Like, there are people who are in there for child support. If you lock somebody up where they can't have any way of paying off this debt that they owe, where's the logic in how this system is supposed to work?

BOUSCAREN: Like a lot of young people in St. Louis, his first experiences as a protester informed the work he does today. But Williams sees a long road ahead. So does Reverend Dinah Tatman, a local minister who would stay at the protests long into the night. Some activists called her mom.

DINAH TATMAN: St. Louis became a giant that woke up.

BOUSCAREN: Ferguson has made changes. The police officers now wear body cameras. The city officials who were cited for sending racist emails are gone. Businesses and nonprofits have invested in projects and funded scholarships. But while Ferguson became shorthand for institutional racism, it sits in a county with 89 municipalities. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles says, yes, his city has problems, but so do the towns around him. And he doesn't see the same effort there.

JAMES KNOWLES: You tend to hear people talk about, well, I'm doing my thing for Ferguson. Here's the money we gave to Ferguson, or here's the money we gave to #Ferguson. Now all of a sudden I'm absolved of all responsibility.

BOUSCAREN: In the past three years, the Republican-controlled Missouri Legislature has declined to pass most of the bills aimed at increasing police accountability. At a press conference last month, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens cited Ferguson as a reason for having more police to patrol St. Louis.


ERIC GREITENS: They'll point to what's happened here, and they'll point to what they call the Ferguson effect, all right? And what's been happening here in the city of St. Louis is a lot of our law enforcement officers haven't felt like they've been supported to go out and to proactively police.

BOUSCAREN: But while police officers and politicians say the Ferguson effect makes crime rates worse, there are residents who say they're unfairly targeted by police and watched constantly. Reverend Tatman says even if the pace of reform feels sluggish, Ferguson did shift the course of history. It empowered people to say they're hurting...

TATMAN: Now I can say there is racism. Now I can say that I'm disenfranchised. Now I can speak.

BOUSCAREN: ...Because she says that pain she heard from protesters wasn't just about Michael Brown. It was about their own lives. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Durrie Bouscaren was a general assignment reporter with Iowa Public Radio from March 2013 through July 2014.