Ferguson Prepared America For This Moment

The Ferguson unrest and the work of protesters laid the groundwork for the current movement, even if many white Americans didn’t listen until now.
Edward Crawford Jr. returns a tear gas canister fired by police who were trying to disperse protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 13, 2014.
Edward Crawford Jr. returns a tear gas canister fired by police who were trying to disperse protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 13, 2014.
Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

It seemed like a turning point.

Six years ago this month, law enforcement officers left the body of an 18-year-old Missourian shot and killed by a police officer lying on the street in the summer heat for more than four hours, and Americans living in the greater St. Louis area decided they’d had enough.

Black citizens, many ruled by bureaucracies originally crafted with the express purpose of excluding them, were tired of being harassed and mistreated by unaccountable armed government agents who locked them in cages to fill municipal coffers.

The unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 was sparked by the police killing of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 and reignited the Black Lives Matter movement that began with the acquittal one year earlier of a self-styled neighborhood watchman who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.

The protests and unconstitutional police response on the streets of a St. Louis suburb seized the nation’s attention and brought about some modest change in the St. Louis region and beyond.

There were blue-ribbon panels: Missouri’s Ferguson Commission and former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

The feds pulled back on distributing military gear to local police forces and forced the city of Ferguson to curb its profit-driven and discriminatory policing practices. The slow-moving local political process ― with the help of federal probes, expanded investigative reporting and activist-driven political pressure ― eventually ousted many of the government and law enforcement leaders who reigned over systems that enabled unconstitutional and abusive policing for decades.

Yet those reforms already pale in comparison to the swift changes the nation has witnessed since Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd on May 25. Since Floyd’s death ― which followed the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by white vigilantes in Georgia and the killing of Breonna Taylor by police in Kentucky ― there have been sweeping shifts in public opinion on the need for police reform. Just 7% of Americans now said policing is basically sound and requires essentially no changes, while nearly half of Americans said it is “not too sound” or “not sound at all.”

Mourners photograph a mural of George Floyd, whose death in Minneapolis police custody sparked nationwide protests against racial inequality, in Houston on June 8.
Mourners photograph a mural of George Floyd, whose death in Minneapolis police custody sparked nationwide protests against racial inequality, in Houston on June 8.
Callaghan O'Hare / reuters

The effect has spread far beyond policing. Few parts of American life have been untouched by this racial reckoning, from evangelical churches, elite schools, the media industry and major American sports leagues to the “Bachelor” franchise and reality shows on policing. Many industries underwent wrenching internal conversations about how Black and brown employees and customers are treated and the effect of systemic racism on society today.

Black Lives Matter, a movement previously perceived by many white Americans as extremist or anti-cop, has transformed into a corporate-friendly slogan that reaffirms the basic human dignity of Black Americans and adorns suburban lawn signs. And the protests haven’t let up yet, more than two months after Floyd’s death.

Ferguson movement alumni — many of them young men and women who spent countless hours enduring scorching heat, freezing cold and stinging tear gas to call attention to police violence — watched all this unfold with a mix of pride and consternation. How did all their hard work — the trauma they endured that comes from prolonged exposure to chaos and violence and injustice — not lead to this kind of mass national awakening six years ago?

It’s not that the Ferguson activists haven’t been waiting and hoping this might happen. “There was frustration before this moment,” Kayla Reed, a former pharmacy technician who has emerged as one of St. Louis’ most prominent criminal justice reform activists in the years since Ferguson, told me. “So many people have sacrificed their bodies, their mental health, their freedom. You were questioning what was being produced on the other side of these uprisings.”

Even if it took this long, there is a growing sense among the people who were part of what happened in Ferguson in 2014 that what’s playing out on the streets in 2020 is merely a continuation of what they started, albeit a delayed one. Activist Samuel Sinyangwe called Ferguson “the catalyst” for that current movement in America and the almost “overwhelming consensus” that the nation needs to curb police abuse.

“None of what we’re seeing today would be possible without the protesters who took to the streets in Ferguson,” Sinyangwe told me. “All of that is built off of a foundation of people who got involved in this work in large part in response to the Ferguson uprising.”

Rasheen Aldridge, who was a 20-year-old from St. Louis when he came out to protest in Ferguson, said the movement helped create the “infrastructure” to get to a world now where serious policy change is possible and created an opportunity for “real uncomfortable conversations” around systemic racism.

“Ferguson played a huge part of the Black Lives Matter movement and allowing people to feel like it is their right to organize and take to the streets against this mass injustice that is taking place all across this country,” Aldridge told me.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who headed the Justice Department as it investigated Ferguson’s discriminatory and unconstitutional policing practices, also credited Ferguson activists with laying the groundwork for the change the country has seen in 2020.

“The background established in Ferguson and the background that was established by those early leaders in Black Lives Matter has really helped push this movement along,” Holder told me. “It wasn’t just a moment that you had in Ferguson, that was the beginning of a movement.”

Ferguson activists took a lot of grief, Holder said, but the nation wouldn’t have been as prepared to seize the moment after Floyd’s death unless they helped clear the path.

“They’re too young to be called it, but they’re almost like the grandfathers of the movement,” Holder said. “They’re the creators of the energy that has now spilled onto the streets of the United States and help to move the nation into a better place.”

‘Deja Vu All Over Again’

The Ferguson movement may have helped set the stage for the current moment, but it was the enraging video of Floyd’s brutal death that set it off. Eight minutes of former officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of a handcuffed Floyd, slowly choking the life out of him. The truth was right there, on video, clear as day.

That wasn’t the case in Ferguson, where the underlying facts of Brown’s killing created a major divide, one that often broke along racial or ideological lines. There’s no video of Brown’s death, only of his body lying in the street. The initial narrative was that Brown had his hands in the air and was trying to surrender when he was fatally shot, but it was deemed noncredible by an extensive federal investigation. A progressive local prosecutor elected in the wake of the Ferguson unrest didn’t exonerate former Officer Darren Wilson but recently announced that he couldn’t make a case.

The video of Brown that Americans did see, released by Ferguson police days after Brown’s death, was a surveillance video of Brown shoving a convenience store clerk while stealing a packet of cigarillos shortly before he was killed. That video and the disputed circumstances of Brown’s shooting gave many white Americans a convenient excuse to dismiss or ignore the broader, systemic concerns that were long-simmering in greater St. Louis and that came to a boil after Brown’s death.

In Floyd’s case, the video made the truth undeniable. There’s no remotely plausible excuse for his killing. Millions of white Americans were forced to confront what Black activists have been trying to convince them of for years: that the way many Black Americans were being treated by the police was fundamentally unjust.

“People weren’t ready with Mike Brown. They didn’t have the visual proof,” said Heather Taylor, the president of the Ethical Society of Police, a St. Louis police union for Black officers that formed in 1972 to combat racial discrimination in policing. “Now they just have it. … It’s telling people, ‘Oh, you need to change something, because it’s not working the way that we thought that it was.’”

Johnetta Elzie, a Ferguson activist who was among the first protesters to hit the streets after Brown’s death and went on to co-found the group Campaign Zero, said it didn’t surprise her that it took a graphic video of police slowly killing a handcuffed Black man to finally force white people to deal with the reality of police violence against Black citizens.

“It’s frustrating, but also I just wasn’t shocked,” Elzie told me. “I went to schools with white people my whole life, and I saw and read their attitudes on Facebook six years ago versus what their attitudes are today.”

Holder, the first Black U.S. attorney general under America’s first Black president, drew a line between the enraging video of Floyd’s death and two other pivotal moments in American media history: the 1955 publication of gruesome images of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s mangled body in his open casket and 1965 visuals of Alabama state troopers cracking the late John Lewis’ skull on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

“You can’t underestimate the power of the visual. We can see what happened to that little boy Emmett Till, and we can see what happened to John Lewis and all those people as they were charged by Alabama law enforcement,” Holder said. “And then you can see what happened to George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.”

“That video ― 8 minutes and 46 seconds ― of seeing this man killed while people are yelling, ‘You’re going to hurt him.’ ‘You’re going to kill him.’ You hear him cry out for this mother. That struck a chord,” Holder said, adding that the video gave many white Americans “tangible evidence” of the misconduct that communities of color have been talking about for years.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, the first Black woman to head the second-largest prosecutor’s office in the nation as Chicago’s chief prosecutor, also pointed to Mamie Till’s decision to show her son’s mangled body to the world as a similarly galvanizing moment.

“This is deja vu all over again because this is not new,” Foxx said. “There were lynchings happening regularly, and it had been written about, but it was the actual seeing of that body that really got people moving.”

Foxx agreed it could be frustrating that it took the violent video death of a Black man to help awaken so many white Americans to longstanding injustices, but that such moments make it harder for Americans to ignore or justify away the lived experiences of their fellow citizens.

“If your system has always worked for you, and you’ve always believed it to be fair, you will try to find justification for why something else happened that deviated from that,” Foxx said. “There’s a thing that we do where we just care about our bubble. That’s why we continue to have systems that fail us, when it’s not all hands on deck, when it’s only the Black people who are, like, ‘Yo, their knee is in our neck. We need you on this.’ The busting of that bubble continually is exhausting but necessary.”

Police officers force protesters from the business district into nearby neighborhoods in Ferguson on Aug. 11, 2014.
Police officers force protesters from the business district into nearby neighborhoods in Ferguson on Aug. 11, 2014.
Scott Olson via Getty Images

The roiling coronavirus pandemic also can’t be separated from any comparison between Ferguson and today — nor can the presence of a president who has used his platform to make less-than-subtle racist political appeals and implemented policies that harm people of color.

“Our history is stained by state violence against Black people,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division charged with investigating Ferguson. “But the national outcry about racial injustice in policing is also happening against the backdrop of a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting communities of color. We are in the middle of two pandemics — structural racism in policing and COVID-19 — as we face a national election just three months away in which one candidate uses racism and division as an electoral tactic with our very democracy at stake.”

‘The Whole Damn System’

Protests didn’t erupt from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Buffalo, New York — and last for two months — purely because of one killing in Minneapolis. The nationwide uprising sparked by George Floyd’s death was fueled by deeply held frustrations over the way people of color in America are treated by the country’s power structures and, most of all, by the police. The exact same dynamic played out in Ferguson in 2014, just on a smaller scale.

The men and women who hit the streets back then didn’t do so solely because of Brown’s death. That was just the final straw. National media coverage of Ferguson did focus on the aggressive and unconstitutional police response to the demonstrations. But particularly in the case of cable news coverage, it was tough to capture the broader reality of the broken law enforcement systems at the core of the tension between police and Black residents of greater St. Louis. The media focus on the shooting and the looting often hid a larger truth: that the entire law enforcement apparatus in the St. Louis region was unjust, as even some area police chiefs later conceded.

Some of the first people I interviewed after I first set foot in Ferguson in August 2014 were employees of an auto parts store that was looted after Brown’s death, where two workers explained that police harassment was an everyday fact of life.

“They see dreads, and they, you know, I’m young, I’m Black, that’s an automatic flag,” one told me. “I’ve gotten harassed, pulled over for no reason. They want to search my car, didn’t find anything. Got mad, you know, still want to write me petty tickets.” His coworker added that “everyone” had a bad experience with police.

He was right. Pluck anyone from the crowds of protesters on the streets of Ferguson that August, and you’d almost certainly hear a story about police misconduct, ranging from excessive ticketing to threats to their lives. One protester recounted the time he was talking on his cell phone only to turn around to see a cop’s gun in his face. “This man almost killed me,” the demonstrator said. “You know what that man said? ‘I want you to have something on you because I’m gonna beat your ass.’ That’s what that man said ― I swear to God on my son ― he said, ‘I’m going to beat your ass if you got something on you.’”

If you’re looking for a place that encapsulates systemic racism, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than greater St. Louis. No sane person would design the patchwork municipal structure in place in St. Louis County, which was largely built from small white-flight towns designed to keep Black residents out. As the demographics shifted over time, many of those municipalities turned to ticket revenue to keep their budgets solvent, employing poorly trained (and often poorly paid) officers to fund their own salaries by fining residents for minor violations of municipal ordinances.

The work of the St. Louis-based group ArchCity Defenders, which put out a paper outlining municipal court abuses days after Brown’s death, helped federal authorities and national reporters connect the dots between the anger on the streets and the injustice in the courts. St. Louis County’s system of dozens of municipalities, many of them strapped for cash, routinely locked people up for outstanding debt for violations municipal ordinances, holding humans in cages until they could extract monetary payment. One corruption-plagued town had an ordinance against saggy pants that resulted in hundreds of dollars in fees and an eventual arrest warrant for an American citizen, giving law enforcement legal permission to seize a man’s body for a fashion crime.

Over the next few months, in municipal court after municipal court, I watched mostly white police officers, court officials and judges treat Black citizens facing minor municipal ordinance violations with disgust and disdain as they quickly churned through cases in an effort to raise cash. In one municipal court, an elderly white judge ― who held a day job as a St. Louis prosecutor ― told one Black defendant to take his “rag” off, told another Black defendant to “get a job” and complained that a Black mother brought her child to court.

One municipal court operated out of a single-family home, with the courtroom in the family room and the clerk’s office in the dining room. The prosecutor and the judge, who wielded the power to issue warrants allowing police to lock human beings in cages for high crimes such as failing to obtain a $10 parking sticker, sat next to each other at a table near the fireplace.

Yet another self-styled court functioned as detention for poor adults: The city required American citizens who it claimed owed a monetary debt for mundane municipal ordinance violations to sit in a room each month under threat of arrest. The length of their monthly detainment was determined by how much money they could afford to fork over that night.

In Ferguson, the Justice Department’s investigation revealed, the police force, city officials and a part-time municipal judge conspired to raise revenue, and officers competed to see who could issue the largest number of tickets. Ferguson effectively had a regressive tax system, enforced upon Ferguson’s poorest residents by armed police officers, that paid the salaries of an overwhelmingly white police force that disproportionately harassed Black residents for offenses such as “Manner of Walking in Roadway” and arrested domestic violence victims for failing to secure occupancy permits for their abusers.

The DOJ probe also exposed racist emails inside the city’s government and police department. The city’s former top clerk, one of those fired for sending racist emails, told a local television station that the racist emails “went through the whole station.” Beyond the outright bigots, the data illustrated that Ferguson’s overwhelmingly white police operated off of racial stereotypes. More Black citizens were stopped, and Black drivers were more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched, even though the white drivers that were searched were more likely to have been carrying contraband.

Missouri’s municipal courts had not changed much since the 1960s when a law professor called the money-hungry operations “the misshapen stepchildren of our judicial system” that often functioned as kangaroo courts. Municipal court reform became a major focus in the wake of the Ferguson unrest. Some reforms were made, though the basic structure largely remained in place even after reforms. Some municipalities with egregiously corrupt police departments that survived on ticket schemes voted to abolish their own police forces and contract with other agencies. But calls for reforming the current system avoided a much larger question: Why in the world were tiny municipalities with poorly paid police forces allowed to run their very own profit-driven courts in the first place?

Tony Rice, a front-line Ferguson protester, said it took some time for the movement to figure out where to put pressure to bring about change in the region. Did it make sense to target one particular town or municipal court when the entire structure of the region’s law enforcement system was broken?

“It was a huge learning curve for us in 2014, and we still didn’t know what part of the system to attack,” Rice said. “One thing that we used to chant was, ‘The whole damn system is guilty as hell.’ That’s sort of what the 2020 protesters have figured out: It’s just the whole damn system. We’re not going to try to piecemeal this. Let’s just take the fight to the whole damn system.”

‘In Some Parts Of The World, This Is Unfamiliar’

On my first day in Ferguson, not long after interviewing the workers at the auto parts store, I watched a daytime peaceful protest develop along West Florissant Avenue, a main thoroughfare near the site of Brown’s death, which became a focal point of the protests. A church choir performed from a platform attached to the back of a truck. Ministers led the way, and church members marched along with professionally printed signs calling for love, peace, prayer and nonviolence. A group of protesters of all ages danced to Pharrell’s “Happy.”

Then the riot cops showed up. Dozens of officers, some in military camouflage, arrived at the scene. In broad daylight, from atop a heavily fortified BearCat, a St. Louis County police officer trained his sniper rifle directly at the crowd of peaceful demonstrators. They were not interested in dialogue.

Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014.
Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014.
Mario Anzuoni / reuters

The actions of law enforcement agencies in St. Louis County amounted to a tremendous self-own, much like the more recent actions of police departments across the nation who routinely brutalized peaceful protesters, particularly in the early days of the movement. Faced with a protest movement that asserted that police brutality was a problem; that cops weren’t held accountable for misconduct; and that law enforcement officers frequently lied, St. Louis law enforcement chose to help protesters illustrate those exact points.

Police soon began clearing the entire area. As I tapped away on my computer on a story from inside a McDonald’s down the block, I saw the fortified police force march in formation down the road. A few officers made their way into the McDonald’s. Minutes later, a group of officers led me out of the McDonald’s in handcuffs, and a St. Louis County police officer slammed my head on the door for good measure. Outside, I joined Wesley Lowery, then of The Washington Post, who’d been violently seized moments earlier by an officer who didn’t like being recorded. In what seemed almost like a parody of a movie about the civil rights era, they stuffed us into the back of a police car with a minister in a white collar who sang hymns as we made our way to a Ferguson jail cell.

In case we still hadn’t gotten the message that St. Louis County had a fundamentally broken system, county attorneys charged us with municipal ordinance violations a year after our arrests in an attempt to fend off a potential lawsuit. To drive the point home, the municipal court later issued warrants for our arrests in what it claimed was a clerical error. Just to clear up any lingering doubts, St. Louis County also cleared the officer who slammed my head against the door of wrongdoing and promoted him to sergeant.

The actions of police on Aug. 13 drew even more attention to what was unfolding in Ferguson. The next night, under new law enforcement leadership, police allowed the protests to continue without interference. It was one of the few nights of calm in Ferguson that August.

But it didn’t last long. Many of the aggressive police tactics continued, with little regard for the U.S. Constitution. A ragtag smorgasbord of armed security forces ― seemingly champing at the bit for an excuse to arrest citizens assembled to petition their government ― forced demonstrators to maintain constant motion and seized the bodies of protesters who paused on a public sidewalk for violating a “five-second rule” they made up. (A police chief later said the unconstitutional rule was enforced by mistake.) Even months later, police grabbed peaceful demonstrators off a sidewalk, outfitted them in orange jumpsuits and held them for 18 hours on high bail. Over the course of months of unrest in Ferguson, police came up with any excuse they could to execute arrests, locking up dozens of other reporters along the way.

Despite widespread evidence of a fundamentally broken system, there was an instinct to cover policing in St. Louis as an issue of “bad apples.” But a lot of people had trouble conceptualizing or refused to acknowledge the existence of a law enforcement system with a rotten core.

Edward Crawford, who was photographed tossing a police tear gas canister while wearing an American flag T-shirt in what became an iconic image of the Ferguson unrest, told HuffPost in 2015 that he understood that a lot of people didn’t understand the system that Black people in the St. Louis region dealt with every day.

“In some parts of the world, this is unfamiliar,” Crawford told me. “The police crimes are very low. Police officers are respectable in a lot of places. Every police officer isn’t bad. There’s a lot of good police officers out there who protect and serve. But you also have some who seem to not.” (Crawford died in 2017.)

The politics of policing and media coverage of policing have shifted in the past decade. Just a few years before Ferguson, Obama had to invite an officer who’d arrested a Black law professor inside the professor’s own home to visit the White House because the president had mildly criticized an arrest that, based on the officer’s very own police report, was unlawful. Crossing a police union was a political death sentence.

During the Ferguson unrest, Holder ― a former judge who spent much of his professional life in law enforcement and whose brother was a cop ― was frequently smeared as anti-law enforcement based on measured criticism of race and law enforcement. When former FBI Director James Comey spoke out on the contentious issue of race and policing ― stating that law enforcement has historically enforced “a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups” ― the white Republican said he received literally no pushback from the law enforcement community. But Holder’s comments on race and policing were met with an immediate backlash, and in many cases, the racism wasn’t so subtle.

When Holder remarked in 2009 that the United States had been “essentially a nation of cowards” on issues of race ― a statement that barely raises an eyebrow in the 2020 dialogue ― his words set off an immediate backlash in the conservative media. His point, that Americans needed to “find ways to force ourselves to confront that which we have become expert at avoiding,” was somewhat lost in the controversy.

Holder recently told me he revisited that speech after Floyd’s death and thinks it held up pretty well. “For people in this country to talk about racial things is hard,” he said, echoing his speech a decade ago. “We’re experts at avoiding racial conversation.”

On the local level, there’s certainly been progress in Ferguson, which recently elected its first Black mayor. But some of the changes have been maddeningly slow. Jon Belmar, the St. Louis County police chief who oversaw the violent, unconstitutional response to even peaceful demonstrations in Ferguson, only retired earlier this year after the county paid out more than $10 million dollars to a gay St. Louis Police Department sergeant to whom a jury awarded $20 million in a discrimination and retaliation suit. (That sergeant, who was named to head the police department’s diversity and inclusion unit, recently stepped down from the position, claiming he had faced racial discrimination as a white man.)

Other changes came about more cleanly. Voters in both St. Louis city and St. Louis County elected prosecutors with more than progressive ideas about criminal justice. Aldermen in St. Louis unanimously voted to close the “Workhouse,” a notorious city jail with decrepit conditions widely condemned as inhumane.

And while some Ferguson protesters have become national voices in the movement for social justice, others have followed the path of the late Rep. John Lewis, running for office and working to change the government from within.

Back in 2014, Aldridge was working at a rental car chain when he joined the Ferguson protests, sometimes forming lines to prevent looting that could distract from the protest’s message. He went on to become the youngest member of the Ferguson Commission and a St. Louis city committeeman and was sworn in earlier this year as a state representative.

Youth leader Rasheen Aldridge of the Ferguson Commission listens as President Barack Obama speaks at the White House on Dec. 1, 2014.
Youth leader Rasheen Aldridge of the Ferguson Commission listens as President Barack Obama speaks at the White House on Dec. 1, 2014.
Kevin Lamarque / reuters

As a kid growing up in St. Louis, now-state Rep. Aldridge took a bus to a St. Louis County school as part of a desegregation program that gave him an early education in inequality and the long-term legacy of decades of government-backed racism. Educating people on unfairness and injustice since the Ferguson unrest has often felt like pulling teeth, but Aldridge said he tries to maintain a sense of optimism about the progress that has and can be made.

“Ferguson has allowed us to push and hold people accountable,” Aldridge told me. “I know this is a marathon and generational work, but if we can make it a little better now so the next generation doesn’t have to feel like the ball was dropped or that no change is going to happen, I think that’s the goal that I try to look at in the long haul.”

‘This moment right now is the harvest.’

Kareem Jackson, a St. Louis activist and rapper better known by his stage name Tef Poe, said that what people witnessed in Ferguson was people from all different backgrounds come together and “stand up against this police force that morphed into an army.” He sees the Ferguson unrest as a moment that pushed the United States a bit closer to living up to the promise of the Constitution.

“There’s a subversive energy that has radiated from Ferguson all throughout America,” Jackson said. “They saw the people of St. Louis do something that, in my opinion, hadn’t been done since 1776, which was force the democracy to actually be a democracy, to actually be what it said it is.

“When you’re in a situation like this where the actual republic is being oppressive and not listening to its constituency, you have the right to rebel,” Jackson said. “We’re not drafting our own constitution here. We’re within the framework of how the United States was even designed.”

Whether, as Holder joked, the Ferguson protesters are the grandfathers of the movement ― or perhaps the older siblings ― the largely young protesters who hit the streets of Ferguson less than six years ago said there’s already a change in the movement with the younger protesters coming up, many of whom were coming of age in a world where they’re constantly exposed to gruesome videos that remind them of their vulnerability.

“They were raised in rage,” said Rice, a front-line Ferguson protester. “We thought we were pioneers going out into the streets and protesting. People called us courageous. But what I’m seeing now is kids are just flat out fearless. They are not looking for strategic places to have protests at. They’re taking the fight directly to the problem. They go straight to the police stations.”

Elzie, who was 25 when she hit the streets of Ferguson and is now in her 30s, said that watching injustice unfold online has shaped the world of many of the youngest protesters.

“I think that’s radicalized a whole generation of people, especially because they also just don’t have any hope for the future,” Elzie said, referring to the shrinking economic opportunities for the next generation of Black Americans that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. “Looking at their little baby faces, it’s just heartbreaking.” But social media has also helped raise broader awareness of racial issues in society to a new generation, she said.

“They have more access to the internet than we ever had. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up on Twitter, on Tumblr, on Facebook, on TikTok,” Elzie said. “Just as much as there’s detrimental and racist bullshit on the internet, there’s also a lot of cool resources on how to unlearn racism or the anti-racism framework.”

The Ferguson unrest “opened up the gate” to a lot of the new faces that took to the streets in the wake of Floyd’s death, Aldridge said. “They are becoming more radicalized. They are becoming more woke,” he said. “The next generation is definitely going to be further along than we are now. ... Folks are not allowing the status quo to be the status quo.”

Visceral moments like Floyd’s death on video, Reed said, help chip away at the walls blocking people from seeing the scale of problems in policing and beyond. But that’s only helpful when there’s a backdrop of work that helps people see the broader picture.

“A lot of people saw Ferguson, saw the uprising in 2014, and they’re seeing this moment as detached. But there’s been consistent work to push the narrative, to build strong campaigns, to stand up new organizations,” Reed said. “It’s been six years of this conversation never ceasing.”

“Freedom struggles have many chapters,” said Brittany Packnett, an early Ferguson activist who served on both the Ferguson Commission and presidential policing task force and has since become a well-known national voice on racial justice.

“There will be generations who come after us who take this world even further than we can. Every lesson we learned in Ferguson, before and after, were essential for this moment,” Packnett said.

“I do know this: America owes its readiness for this moment to the thousands of people who were on the streets in Ferguson, Baltimore and more,” Packnett said. “We don’t have this time of transformation without that time of sacrifice.”

“If Ferguson was the seed that was planted around this,” Reed said, “then this moment right now is the harvest.”

Before You Go