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Community Divides Are Still Wide A Year Later In Ferguson


Let's ask what difference a year has made in Ferguson, Mo. It is nearly a year since an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, sparking many protests.


Significant political and racial tensions remain in Ferguson and the St. Louis region despite some cautious optimism about change. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum reports.

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: As the clock ticks closer to the August 9 anniversary of Michael Brown's death, there's a tranquil aura around the Corner Coffee House in Ferguson. Daily protests have petered out and the hordes of reporters who camped out here have moved on to the next story. But there is no new normal for people like John Powell, a Catholic schoolteacher who's lived in Ferguson for nine years. He says the Ferguson he knew is gone.

JOHN POWELL: For many of us, we've had our consciousness changed. There's a lot of good people in Ferguson before the shooting, a lot of good people after, who want to make us a model, hopefully, for the rest of the country in terms of addressing the racism, the police abuse, the municipal court abuse.

ROSENBAUM: In the last 12 months, Ferguson became synonymous with exposing painful racial and economic strains. But for more than 20,000 people, Ferguson isn't just a symbol or a hashtag. It's a place reeling from conflict and intense scrutiny. But to say that Brown's death didn't change things in Ferguson would be an overstatement. A city government once lacking diversity now has a black city manager, police chief and municipal court judge. And in April, voters turned out in unprecedented numbers to elect African-Americans like Wesley Bell to the Ferguson City Council.

WESLEY BELL: We've got to understand that the message is important. And when we see a governmental body, for example, that doesn't reflect the community, some people may not feel - they may be put off by that.

ROSENBAUM: Even before state lawmakers passed a sweeping overhaul of the municipal court system that critics say bedeviled minority motorists, Ferguson officials talked a lot about bridging the divide here. It's a major focus for interim police Chief Andre Anderson.


ANDRE ANDERSON: We want to embrace professionalism. We want to embrace respect. We want to embrace community engagement and we want to make the community safe.

ROSENBAUM: But these structural and philosophical alterations haven't relieved all the tensions. On a particularly sweltering afternoon, several dozen people are gathered in front of City Hall to call for Ferguson Mayor James Knowles's ouster. Phil Gassoway says an infusion of racial diversity in the City Hall hasn't changed the way some white residents feel about African-Americans here.

PHIL GASSOWAY: They think that it's all right if we get shaken down by the police if the police pull us over, search our cars, harass us just because we black because, you know, society or statistics show that we commit crime.

ROSENBAUM: But there's also been a palpable backlash by some white residents like Peggy Faul. She expressed anger at a recent City Council meeting about the looting and violence that was widespread in Ferguson.


PEGGY FAUL: And I'm here as a citizen to ask for an apology from everyone who burned the buildings in our town and everyone who talked derogatorily about other people also.

ROSENBAUM: Willis Johnson has witnessed his city's social and racial divide. He's the senior pastor of Wellspring Church, a predominantly black congregation in Ferguson. He says it's frustrating that there isn't an easy solution.

WILLIS JOHNSON: We really don't have the answer. We know we can't legislate love. We know we can't adjudicate justice. We know that there is no consensus around what is the just and equitable resolve to most of the challenges, questions, contention that we are experiencing.

ROSENBAUM: There aren't that many Ferguson residents that say reconciliation will be easy or believe it can be confined within Ferguson's borders. In fact, Ferguson resident Marc DeSantis says things won't change unless people throughout the St. Louis region have an attitude adjustment.

MARC DESANTIS: When people ask me how they can help, what I always say is that you should seek to live in a more diverse place than you live in right now. If you have more people living with people who aren't so much like them, that's really what is going to solve this problem.

ROSENBAUM: Changing hearts and minds may be crucial for the future of Ferguson and the St. Louis region, but fostering that change is likely to take much longer than just a year. 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.