In Ferguson, Varying Views on the Legacy of Aug. 9, 2014
Mayor James Knowles III was doing volunteer cleanup work at the Ferguson Farmers Market when he got a phone call that a teenager had been fatally shot by a police officer.
Videographer Chris Phillips, who lived in the apartment complex where 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed, started getting texts from neighbors. Michael’s dad drove to the site hoping beyond hope that it wasn’t his son — until he saw the red St. Louis Cardinals cap next to the body.
Five years later, the legacy of the fatal shooting of the black teenager by a white Missouri police officer depends on who you talk to. Those affected by the shooting and those who have sought change in its aftermath acknowledge that Brown’s death and the upheaval that followed forever changed race relations in Ferguson and beyond. Here are some of their stories:
Michael Brown Sr., Father of Michael Brown
When Michael Brown Sr. got that call about a shooting on Canfield Drive, he tried not to believe that it could be his son.
Brown, now 41, arrived to find a sheet over the body. Maybe it wasn’t Michael, he thought. Then he saw the cap. A month earlier, father and son wore matching Cardinals caps at the father’s wedding. Michael’s cap lay on the ground next to the body.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Brown said he was so angry that every time he spoke, he “started feeling changes” in his body. He eventually turned the anger into activism and today works with young people and counsels others who have lost loved ones to violence.
“I went through those stages (of anger), but what people don’t understand is that being angry wasn’t doing nothing but killing myself,” Brown said. “I can’t just stay angry … I knew I had to get somewhere with a little bit of peace or I would lose, my family would lose.”
Five years later, Brown said he’s “in a little better space.”
“I beat myself up for a bunch of years thinking it was my fault because you vow when the child comes out of the womb that you will protect him,” he said.
Michael was an aspiring rapper. His father recalled that Michael would often say, “The world will know my name.”
He was right, just not in the way that he planned.
“Michael’s legacy is through me,” Brown said. “I am his legacy. We stand in the public, try to do the right thing, keep the work going. Try to pull families and communities together.”
Brown also sees his son’s legacy in reforms in Ferguson, such as community policing and body cameras for officers.
“They could have done more, but, hey, one step at a time, right? So we’ll accept that and work on trying to do better.”
Activist Josh Williams
Josh Williams’ mother drove Michael Brown’s school bus. In 2014, Williams and Brown were both 18 and knew each other, though not well. Williams said he was shaken by his death.
Williams, who is black, took to the streets of Ferguson the night after the shooting and stayed there for the months of protests that followed. He lived in a tent most of the time along West Florissant Avenue.
He said he found his calling in activism. “I really started saying to myself, ‘There’s no turning back,'” he said.
Brown’s death was followed by a series of other shootings in the St. Louis area in which young black men were killed by white officers. Protests followed each shooting. Williams was always there, usually in his signature red hoodie.
In December 2014, Antonio Martin was killed in a confrontation with police at a gas station in Berkeley, near Ferguson. In what he called a fit of anger during a protest, Williams grabbed a few things from the store and set fire to a trash can.
“I was mad that night, and I wasn’t thinking clearly,” Williams said.
The crime was captured by a TV news crew, and Williams was arrested the next day. He was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. His only prior arrests were for disturbances related to protests.
Now 23, Williams is housed in a prison southwest of St. Louis. He said he spends much of his time counseling other prisoners, helping them prepare for life once they get out.
As for his future plans, Williams wants to open youth centers, including one that will be named after Brown. He sees Brown’s legacy in people like him who now devote their lives to helping others.
“He gave me the opportunity to find my calling and be who I am today,” Williams said.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III
Ferguson’s longtime mayor barely blinks an eye during the citizen-comment portion of City Council meetings, even as residents, often one after another, stand at a podium and criticize or berate him.
Nobody said politics would be easy. Especially in Ferguson.
Yet James Knowles III, who is white, was re-elected to a third three-year term last year. He said the election was evidence that despite those who speak out at council meetings, he has plenty of support, including in the black community.
Knowles, 40, is proud of the work Ferguson has done to reform its police and court practices, reforms that he points out began weeks after Brown’s death, long before they were mandated by a 2016 agreement with the Justice Department.
The Ferguson Police Department drew heavy criticism in 2014 for many reasons: It had only three black officers out of 53 in a city that is two-thirds African American. Police were accused of racial profiling in traffic stops, of treating blacks with aggression.
Today, Knowles said, the department is almost evenly split between white and black officers. Officers now wear body cameras. They’re more involved with people rather than just reacting to crime.
“They have certainly made an effort to be part of the community, to engage with the community,” Knowles said.
He also believes the agreement with the Justice Department slows rather than expedites reforms.
“Someone has to stop at some point and ask themselves: Is this effort chasing your tail?” Knowles said. “Why are we still paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in legal bills and monitoring fees” instead of hiring experienced staff and officers?
Ferguson Commission Member Felicia Pulliam
Felicia Pulliam recognizes that more than a half-century after the civil rights movement, race relations in the U.S. have a long way to go. But she believes events in Ferguson helped move things forward.
Pulliam, who is black, is a longtime advocate for racial equity and unity. She was among the 16 people appointed to the Ferguson Commission convened by then-Gov. Jay Nixon to address the racial problems in the St. Louis region that were thrust into the spotlight after Michael Brown’s death.
The commission’s report “is being used across the country to help us better understand the disconnects that we have and new approaches to conversations, building community, reimagining safety and dismantling racism,” said Pulliam, 54.
As saddened as Pulliam was by Brown’s death, she said the unrest that followed and the willingness of young activists to take to the streets were exciting “because it meant that people were not willing to languish and be abused.”
“It was really eye-opening, and it changed the way a lot of people see things — they just didn’t know,” Pulliam said. “And now they know the truth, and things are beginning to happen. People are beginning to address the need for equity, more diversity, and authentic relationships, and also healing the heart. Because people have been hurting for a long time.”
Filmmaker and Videographer Chris Phillips
As unrest grew in Ferguson, many people across the country were getting their news not from traditional media but from online video, including livestreaming.
Filmmaker Chris Phillips was among those providing that content, in part because, for him, it was personal: He was black and lived at the time in Canfield Green Apartments, near where Brown was killed.
Phillips, now 38, didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the shooting until the next day.
“I was out on my balcony and I heard this faint, distant noise, chanting and things like that,” Phillips said. It proved to be the first of hundreds of protests in Ferguson.
For the next several months, Phillips and other videographers were a constant presence at the protests, capturing images of police in riot gear and armed with military weapons clashing with demonstrators.
“I just think that the big presence of heavy artillery, with that kind of response, really upset people,” Phillips said. “I think a different response could have really controlled the situation a little bit better. I don’t think people would have stopped being upset but I think that really enraged people.”
Phillips said he felt a calling to “tell that narrative about what really contributed to this because it was more than just the shooting death of a young man, which is definitely tragic,” Phillips said. “It was decades of abuse, systemic abuse, that has existed hundreds of years.”
Phillips’ documentary, “Ferguson 365,” has won several awards.
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell
Wesley Bell lived two blocks from the Ferguson Police Department in 2014. As an angry crowd began to surround officers barricaded in the police parking lot the day after the shooting, Bell and a small group of other black leaders got in the middle and urged calm.
Bell, who worked at the time as a municipal judge and attorney, understood both sides.
“From a perspective standpoint, my father’s a retired police officer,” Bell said. “But growing up in that area, I’d been pulled over many times, especially in my younger years.”
Bell, now 44, decided to run for the City Council in April 2015 and won easily. His time on the council was a period of massive change, as Ferguson confronted racial disparities after years of “kind of sweeping those issues under the rug, not having open, honest discussions about them,” Bell said.
“Some people had to be pulled kicking and screaming to having those conversations, but they were actually occurring.”
Bell said he felt compelled last year to run for prosecutor of St. Louis County, Missouri’s largest jurisdiction. His stunning upset of seven-term incumbent Bob McCulloch led to big reforms in the way the office is run, with more focus on alternatives to incarceration and a special unit to investigate officer-involved shootings.
“I think when you look at criminal justice reform, the movement if you will, I think many would argue it started in Ferguson,” Bell said. “People are aware of how courts were acting effectively as debtors’ prisons” and of the high percentage of traffic stops for black and brown people.
“I think these were issues that needed to be addressed,” he added. “And if you don’t address them, you’re heading down the same path to another seismic event.”
Ferguson Resident Susan Ankenbrand
Susan Ankenbrand and her husband were living in nearby Hazelwood in 1975 when they did the opposite of what many other white families were doing: Instead of moving further into the suburbs, they moved to Ferguson, where a school busing program had just begun.
“We really were hopeful that our children would benefit from going to integrated schools,” Ankenbrand said.
Ferguson became their home. She ran for the City Council and served 16 years. Her husband served on the school board.
Both remain active, but the changing dynamics of Ferguson since Michael Brown’s death have created a chasm in relations between black and white residents, she believes.
“I think we passed beyond Michael Brown’s death, but we can’t get beyond the anger, perhaps of generations of mistreatment, and I don’t know how to do that,” said Ankenbrand, 76. “We’ve tried different things, and it just hasn’t worked well.”
Ankenbrand once approached a black woman she had known for years and asked her what she saw as Ankenbrand’s role as a white woman.
The woman told her to “step aside,” Ankenbrand said. “It was terrible, it really was. I have no intention of doing that. I’ve never stepped aside from anything in my life. But I question, still, what my role might be, and I haven’t found it.”
She also wonders when the rest of the nation will see the Ferguson she knows — the rows of pretty homes, the sense of community — not the images of looting and militarized police. She recalled how the community recently came together to raise money for a black police officer in need of a kidney; how when a black woman lost a toe while mowing her yard, a white officer stepped in and finished the job for her.
“We’re not giving up on Ferguson,” Ankenbrand said. “This community has meant too much to us.”
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