One year after Ferguson, emotions remain raw as Americans wonder: Are we better off?

On Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., a man backed away as law enforcement officials closed in on him and eventually detained him during protests over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by a white police officer.
On Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., a man backed away as law enforcement officials closed in on him and eventually detained him during protests over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by a white police officer. The New York Times

Perhaps it’s human nature to try to salvage something good from tragedy.

A few days ago, in the middle of trims and styles and weaves at JoeyCuts, the primarily African-American barbershop at 18th and Vine streets, employees and clients pondered whether any lasting good has come out of the protests, riots and investigations in Ferguson, Mo.

“No,” snapped stylist LaDonna Adams about whether Ferguson had helped improve matters between police and black people. “It’s made it even worse. How many other people have died since then? It seems like it’s made them (police) more aggressive.”

What’s clear one year after the death of Michael Brown — the unarmed black 18-year-old shot by white police officer Darren Wilson — is that emotions remain as raw as opinions are varied.

“I would say more awareness has come of it,” countered stylist Brittany Leek, working a few stations over. “People doing those videos and stuff (are) like bringing it to our attention. This stuff was going on. But now we’re seeing it.”

That the United States has changed since Ferguson exploded one year ago is incontestable, scholars say and polls indicate. The issues of body cameras, police militarization and the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of white police officers would not have come to the fore as they did — opening the eyes of and sensitizing white America to a long-ignored black plight — were it not for Ferguson.

But the question of whether America has emerged as a better or safer place, the scholars contend, is one that cannot yet be answered cleanly, as it must take into consideration the prisms of race, privilege and authority through which people view the issue, as well as the effects of similar killings on the national psyche.

Had Ferguson been an single, isolated incident, it is conceivable that the public reaction to it might have flared and died down and the incident would have been relegated to a footnote in America’s tumultuous racial history. Ferguson was not an isolated event.

“It think it’s obvious that there has been a cumulative effect,” said Darnell Hunt, an expert on the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Just before Brown’s death on Aug. 9 last year, a digital camera caught the July 17 choking death by New York police of 43-year-old Eric Garner, who was unarmed and being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes. Before that, in 2012, national protests erupted over the death of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old in Sanford, Fla., who was shot by George Zimmerman, a resident on neighborhood watch in a gated community.

“Ferguson was read through the lens of Trayvon Martin, just as all the events since Ferguson have been read through the lens of Ferguson,” Hunt said. “I don’t think it would have had the impact it did if it were not for the other events.”

Inside the barbershop, clients and stylists easily recognize or recount the names:

▪ Tamir Rice, 12, killed by a white police officer in Cleveland in November. The boy had been in a park with a toy gun.

▪ Walter Scott, 50 and unarmed, shot by a white police officer in the back while he ran through a Charleston, S.C., park. Scott had been stopped for a nonfunctioning brake light.

▪ Freddie Gray, 25, died from a spinal injury in Baltimore on April 12 after being taken into police custody and placed in the back of a van.

One month ago, Sandra Bland, 28, was arrested in Waller County, Texas, after arguing with a white police officer who had stopped her for not signaling a lane change. A dashboard camera recorded the arrest.

Three days later, Bland, who had been driving through Texas on her way to a new job, was found hanged in her cell, the result of what police said was a suicide. The death is being investigated as a possible murder.

Three weeks ago, Samuel Dubose, 43, was killed by a white University of Cincinnati campus officer who had stopped him for not having a front license plate. Police video shows that Dubose, who was unarmed, was attempting to cooperate with the campus officer. The officer has since been indicted for murder for what a prosecutor called “a senseless, asinine shooting.”

Earl Smith, a stylist at JoeyCuts, 1805 Vine St., said the overarching feeling since Ferguson has been unease, mistrust of police and an unnerving sense of what could happen at any time on any day.

“Usually, here is what I would see,” Smith said. “I would see a traffic stop and think, ‘Oh man, you got pulled over. You’re going to get a ticket.’ Now when I see a traffic stop, I think, ‘Where’s my camera phone? Where’s my phone? I need to watch this.’”

Khalila Smith, 23, a customer and no relation to Earl, said her father is a retired state trooper. Her brother is a police detective. For her, the legacy of Ferguson is not better relations with police but a greater realization of the dangers she faces.

“You see Sandra Bland and the other cases,” she said. “The police are literally getting away with murder. A year ago maybe I was ignorant to it because citizens were not taping things.

“A year ago I felt comfortable. I felt safe walking the streets. Now? No. You don’t feel the sense of security that the police are going to come and protect me, they’re not going to calm the situation down. Now I see it in a whole different light. It’s scary. It’s scary.”

Said Leek, her stylist, “Honestly, now I’m scared to get pulled over.”

A year ago?

“I wasn’t,” she said.

Different experiences

Recent polls on trust in police bear out a decline.

A June Gallup poll shows that 52 percent of Americans polled reported having either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in police. Since 2005, when 63 percent reported such confidence, the number has fluctuated but has been trending down.

Meanwhile, the percentage of those who report having “very little” confidence now stands at 16 percent, up from 14 percent last year and 7 percent a decade ago.

Broken down by race, the numbers offer dual realities. Whereas close to 60 percent of whites routinely report having high confidence in police, the number for blacks is about 37 percent.

These numbers are bolstered by others that highlight the difference in white and black experiences.

In March, Tammy Kochel, a criminology researcher at Southern Illinois University, released data based on interviews of residents who lived in 71 high-crime areas in St. Louis County, including those adjacent to Ferguson, during the riots.

Among black residents, trust in police in response to the riots fell more than 25 percent. But among nonblack, mostly white residents, trust rose 2 percent.

“These are not middle-class whites compared to low-income African-Americans,” Kochel said in a telephone interview. “These are people in similar situations to their neighbors, only different by race.”

Her explanation is the tendency of the white majority to give the benefit of the doubt to white police officers.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research just released numbers based on a national survey of 1,223 adults showing that 50 percent of black people — and 60 percent of black men — thought they personally had been treated unfairly by police because of their race. The number for whites: 3 percent.

“First and foremost, I pretty much believe there is still a high respect for police officers in this country. Unfortunately, there has been a decline,” said Chuck Canterbury, a retired police major and national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Because of Ferguson and other events, he said, police have an even greater obligation to become part of the neighborhoods they patrol rather than being apart from them.

“One of the things we have been trying to tell commanders for years is that we have to be part of these communities. … You have to let us out of our cars. For the longest time, they didn’t want us doing that. And what they didn’t realize is that we didn’t know our neighborhoods.”

Shortly after Ferguson, a Pew Research Center poll showed that 90 percent of blacks and 86 percent of whites favored greater use of body cameras by law enforcement, a move that police generally support, although with reservations.

Body cameras pick up much, but they don’t pick up everything an officer experiences, police groups say. Nor might it be appropriate, it’s argued, for police to have them on at all times or in all places, such as in private homes.

“I think, overall, it is a very good thing. But there’s pluses and minuses,” said Maj. Dawn Layman of the Lenexa Police Department, which has used body cameras since 2009.

Layman said she supports using methods that build trust and transparency and that help the public understand police work. But one of the consequences following the death of Michael Brown and others, she said, is that without video, the veracity of police accounts is being questioned.

“The vast majority of officers are doing what they are supposed to do every day,” Layman said. “I think, in general, law enforcement feels that if an incident occurs and I don’t have video, someone is going to question that incident. … If you don’t have video, some people are like, ‘Why don’t you have video?’”

Video accounts can be misleading. Such was the case in late July when a bystander uploaded video of white Lenexa police officers struggling on the ground to handcuff and place a black man under arrest after a traffic stop. The short video on YouTube showed the police yanking at the yelling man’s legs and pressing him to the ground.

In response, Lenexa police released longer body camera and dashboard camera video footage of the same arrest, showing the motorist, who had been stopped for not wearing a seat belt, swinging his fist at police, unprovoked, while they were placing him under arrest on an outstanding warrant.

“Only a little bit of the story was getting out,” Layman said.

Among the most positive outgrowths of Ferguson and similar events, observers agreed, has been the education of white America.

“Awareness of the issues. Body cameras. Dashboard cameras, although I don’t feel like anything concrete has been done yet,” said Paula Matthews, a Leawood mom who was having lunch at Crown Center with friend Patty Sullivan. “I feel like I’m personally more aware of it.”

Across the food court, Cassie Meyer of Shawnee was having lunch with her younger brother, Andrew.

“I was under the impression that it used to happen way back when, when films were black and white, and that it didn’t really happen except in isolated incidents somewhere,” she said. “I didn’t think it was as common as it is, as close to home.”

Gallup also found that a year after Ferguson, black, white and Hispanic respondents all report being less satisfied with how blacks are being treated in society compared with two years ago.

Whereas 67 percent of white respondents in 2013 thought black people were being treated well, 53 percent now think that is the case. Among Hispanics, the number plummeted from 61 percent to 44 percent; among black respondents it fell from 47 percent to 33 percent.

A new Pew Research Center poll also shows that 53 percent of white Americans now think more needs to be done to improve civil rights for black people, up from 39 percent one year ago.

New awareness

Will positive change come from Ferguson and all that has happened since?

Hunt of UCLA is hopeful. He said he saw improvements in Los Angeles after the riots of 1992 with more community policing and changes among police leadership with the rank and file.

Damon Daniels, executive director of Kansas City’s Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, said he is heartened by wave of grass-roots organizing that erupted with Ferguson, such as the Black Lives Matter movement nationally, and in Kansas City the group One Struggle KC.

“I think that Eric Garner, Michael Brown, these young men who lost their lives, I believe that they did not die in vain,” Daniels said. “They sparked a movement that has been carried out around the country as well as around the world. … I feel that folks don’t feel like they’re alone any longer.”

Seft Hunter, chief operating officer of the social justice group Communities Creating Opportunities, spent a week in Ferguson soon after Brown’s death.

“I was there when you walked by the apartment complex, and you could still see the blood pattern on the ground,” he said.

One result of Ferguson he sees: Political involvement to change the status quo.

“I think the way the civil rights movement activated people,” he said, “Ferguson, in some ways, has activated people. Many folks woke up to the fact that local elections actually matter.”

In April, voters in Ferguson, which is about two-thirds black, added two African-American members to the City Council. It’s the first time the six-person council has had three black members.

More, Hunter said, he believes Ferguson has raised public consciousness.

“Prior to being confronted with this, there were some people who probably said this kind of thing does not happen in society anymore,” he said. “We have a reflexive trust in law enforcement and, in many cases, that is deserved. … But now that trust does not mean we shouldn’t be asking questions.”

Or at least talking.

Kellie Cornley and husband Gannon Cornley of Stilwell, who are black, always told their teenage son to mind his manners, keep his hands on the steering wheel and say “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” if he were stopped by police.

“We keep it real in our household,” said Kellie Cornley, a former teacher and now coordinator for a children’s ministry at Graceway Church in Raytown. The Cornleys have made it clear to their son that as a young black male, he will not always be treated the same by police as young white males.

“We told him, it is what it is, but we are not going to wallow in the injustice of it all. Our song has been, ‘Son, you do right no matter where you are.’”

When son Gannon Cornley Jr. was stopped a year ago on his way to his Blue Valley High School prom with his date in a rental car, the teen called home to his dad the minute he saw lights flashing in his mirror.

“His dad told him, ‘Leave the phone on and lay it down so we can hear,’” Cornley recalled. “The officer was very nice, even showed him how to turn on his lights. We heard it all and we were proud of our son. That was before Ferguson.”

Since Ferguson, Cornley said, she doesn’t worry more about her son, who recently headed off to Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan. Nor does she worry less.

“What did change is that it got my son and his friends — most of them are Caucasian — talking about it more. The young people are talking about this all the time. … He’s even gotten friends to see the privilege they have that he doesn’t. Before, we — society — just ignored that. Not anymore.

“Some of them get it, and I think that is a good thing.”

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