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'Movements take generations': What has changed in Ferguson?

Assessing the hope and heartbreak of a movement born in Ferguson, one year later.
Local resident Ken Kendricks Jr. puts his hands together in prayer at a makeshift memorial at the site along Canfield Road where unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 22, 2014. (Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters)
Local resident Ken Kendricks Jr. puts his hands together in prayer at a makeshift memorial at the site along Canfield Road where unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 22, 2014. 

FERGUSON, Missouri — A memorial has been rebuilt in the middle of a residential street here, marking the ground where unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer last summer. Teddy bears and candles cover the spot where city officials paved over Brown’s bloodstains after his body was left laying in the streets for hours on the hot summer day that he was killed. Nearby, steps from the epicenter of the demonstrations that broke out in the wake of Brown’s death, buildings that once burned during the height of unrest have since been razed, leaving few traces behind.

“This is the moment where a year later we analyze where we’re at ... from a realistic lens, and not this trendy pop-culture lens about creating a movement.”'

Outside of the region, Ferguson is a symbol of revolution and activism — a city that embodies the need to address racist policies embedded in political and criminal justice institutions. Across the country, local and state leaders have learned from the events in Ferguson, ushering in an era of new policing reforms. The protests that upended life here last year caught the attention of the highest offices in the U.S. government and galvanized thousands of activists to unite under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter.

But not much has changed in the day-to-day lives of many residents here, even while many will never be the same after a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who fired the fatal shots that killed Brown. The steps toward change have been slow and incremental. City leadership has changed, bringing greater diversity to the city council, but so far, ousted officials have only been replaced with interim leaders. Some landmark legislation has brought concrete reforms, while others have been left in the dust. 

“This is a long march,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Friday. “This is not just walking up a series of steps or climbing up a ladder to another level.”

‘Movements take generations’

Nixon, who faced criticism for hitting the wrong notes in his response to the unrest, is now trying to reverse course. He visited the St. Louis region just days ahead of the anniversary of Brown's death, meeting with the Ferguson Commission he convened last October to begin a conversation about how to create lasting change.

“The events of last August 9th galvanized a number of voices that have not been heard for too long,” Nixon said. “And those voices, while sometimes raw, are yielding concrete actions in the government structure, are yielding concrete action in the work of our region.”

TIMELINE: How the Ferguson crisis unfolded

But while the Ferguson community is hungry for results, the purpose of the commission is merely to provide recommendations. Of the 16 commissioners -- a diverse mix of people with backgrounds in law enforcement, business, religion and even the protest movement -- not a single one holds statewide office or could play an active role in actually implementing reforms.

Instead, it was Missouri state legislators who pulled off the most substantial piece of reform in the aftermath of Brown’s death. Senate Bill 5 uprooted a regime in which Ferguson residents were aggressively fined for minor infractions in order to fund the city’s coffers. The bill capped the amount of penalties a municipality could draw from residents, ending a practice that was specifically cited by the Department of Justice as the keystone of a racially discriminatory policing and court system. 

“To note that the most significant piece of municipal reform in the state’s history has been passed in a year is significant,” Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chair of the Ferguson Commission said. “It altered how policing happened in communities that were largely minorities, largely black, largely poor, so it disproportionally impacted police and community relations.”

“White legislators had an impression of what they think will benefit black people and black people have an entirely different idea.”'

The problems within the municipal courts were one part of the systemic disparities in Ferguson identified by the Department of Justice in its scathing review of the city’s policing. Lawmakers were able to address one component of the city's flawed version of “law and order” — but a solution to the latter part of the equation is yet to be seen.

Even officials in the legislature were surprised to see bill after bill introduced into the legislature fizzle out or fail outright. One such bill, which would require all police to wear body cameras, failed to move forward in the legislature. Another, which would establish protocols after police use deadly force, didn’t have life in the legislature either.

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who represents Ferguson and championed the bill, said she was frustrated to watch deep-red states like Texas pass body camera legislation, while the birthplace of the Black Lives Matter movement could not do the same. 

“White legislators had an impression of what they think will benefit black people and black people have an entirely different idea,” she said. “This is part of an oppressive structure. This is the new Jim Crow in actuality.”

The DOJ report was thought to have provided necessary ammunition for lawmakers to effect wholesale changes to policing in the region. It unearthed brutal examples of police brutality in Ferguson, rooted in a pattern of discriminatory practices against black residents.

RELATED: Selma's lesson for Ferguson: Protest and voting must go hand-in-hand

"I think the importance of that report was that it showed the world what people in Ferguson and similar situations had been saying for years, but they just weren't believed, because it was outside the consciousness or outside the reality of people who didn't share the situation, or didn't share their background, or hadn't had those experiences happen to them,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch told msnbc’s Melissa Harris-Perry this week.

In the immediate aftermath, the report’s release did have a significant impact. Ferguson’s city manager, John Shaw, was the first to step down from his post. Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned soon after. Interim officials have stepped in to replace them, but so far, changes in leadership has been musical chairs. An effort by activists to formally recall Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III failed to garner enough signatures. 

During local elections, two African-American candidates were elected to the city council, an incremental step for a majority-black community that is run almost entirely by white leaders. Voter turnout reached nearly 30%, more than doubling the percentage of people who cast a ballot in the municipal election held the year before. 

Community members are pressing for patience in moving the needle further toward long-term reform.

“If it is the case that this is a movement and not a moment, movements take generations,” Wilson said.

Assessing success, one year later

In the year since hashtags gave rise to a national movement, organizers have been conflicted over the best methods to implement change. Some appear skeptical or even unwilling to work within the system by mastering the game of politics to get their agendas accomplished. 

“We thought we were in a really good place for the local elections,” activist Kayla Reed said. “And to see so many of the same faces that were a part of the problem or introduce new faces that didn’t have the same theory of change as us was a hit that we didn’t expect.”

The movement has since evolved along two parallel tracks — one a local effort refusing to lose sight of the concrete changes needed in Ferguson, and the other a national movement to elevate the stories of black victims who just a short time ago would have gone unnoticed by mainstream media.

The movement itself has developed at lightning speed, able to draw tens of thousands of people to a march in New York City, earn the legitimacy to hold a national convention and the political clout to disrupt a major progressive gathering of presidential contenders. 

“This is the moment where a year later we analyze where we’re at, whats going on, and we really look at this thing from a realistic lens, and not this trendy pop-culture lens about creating a movement,” said protest organizer Tef Poe. 

“How do we really sit down and become a principled movement?”

Additional reporting by Trymaine Lee.