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'Things in Ferguson Are Going to Change — For Real'

We spent several days with two young men in Ferguson who believe Michael Brown's death will alter the status quo. But so much history indicates otherwise.

by Danny Gold
Sep 2 2014, 9:15pm

Photo by Cengiz Yar

When Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was gunned down in Florida in 2012, Quinten Baker and Stevon Statom knew it was only a matter of time before something similar happened in St. Louis.

And they knew the uproar it would cause.

"I feel like it was supposed to happen, because all of this stuff has been going on in this city for so long," said 19-year-old Baker, who grew up in St. Louis County and was out protesting in Ferguson. "Now that this happened, everyone is standing up. We've had enough of it."

More telling is what they expected from the criminal justice system: nothing. "Everybody knew that if it happened here, nothing would happen," Statom said. "We knew that the police wouldn't get locked up because we all been through it."

Statom, who grew up in St. Louis, moved into the Canfield Green apartment complex in Ferguson on August 8. A day later, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot six times by officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department. Wilson claimed that Brown had attempted to take his gun. Witnesses said Wilson shot Brown while Brown had his hands in the air, surrendering.

'State of Emergency: Ferguson, Missouri (Dispatch 1).' Watch it here.

When I meet Statom and Baker 10 days after the protests first erupt, they are walking outside Canfield Green pretending to interview people with a CNN microphone they say they picked up during the previous night's chaos. They jokingly refer to themselves as the Central Nigga Network.

They are both wearing homemade "justice for Mike Brown" and "No Justice No Peace" headbands and bandanas. They're instantly welcoming, charismatic and hilarious. For the next few days, I hang out with them in Statom's apartment and tag along at protests. Baker lives about 35 miles south of Ferguson, but he sleeps on Statom's floor so that he can keep attending the demonstrations.

Statom and Baker at Statom's apartment. Photo by Cengiz Yar

Statom is a 21-year-old former member of the Bloods street gang who now works as a daycare provider and certified carpenter. He got his certificate and his high school diploma at a local training program after he decided to leave the gang life at 17.

"I got out because in my generation, it's hard to get a job — I'm not one fixing to live with my mom all my life," he said. "I'm fixing to go to school, get this, get this, get this, put plans in front of you, you know what I'm saying? Make steps."

It's these plans that allowed Statom to rent an apartment with his cousin in Canfield Green. And living in the apartment gave Statom a firsthand look at the scene of Brown's killing — and his body left out in the street for four hours — and galvanized him into joining the protest movement.

"They didn't even cover him up with a sheet, they just left him out there for everyone to see," Statom said of Brown. The message was clear to him and his friends: The lives of young black men are disposable.

* * *

To many in Ferguson and the surrounding areas, police harassment and a lack of accountability are a given. However, Brown's killing was the straw that broke the camel's back — a sentiment echoed by nearly everyone with whom I spoke in Ferguson. After protests and some looting erupted, the local authorities responded drastically. Cops were caught on camera threatening reporters and protesters with physical harm, and training their guns on protesters despite a lack of any violent threats — all with seemingly little regard for the fact that they were being filmed by news outlets.

Flash bangs, rubber bullets, and tear gas were deployed at protestors who were for the most part peaceful. Despite the danger, Statom and Baker returned to the protests every night. "We were trying to get our message across: 'You aren't going to do that anymore,'" Baker said.

"I think I'm immune to it now," he said, joking about the tear gas.

Baker at a march. Photo by Cengiz Yar

For more than a week, Ferguson was described as a war zone. Fergustan, some of the protestors called it. Police patrolled the strip-mall "battlefield" of West Florissant Avenue kitted out like sweaty extras from The Expendables. They looked like they were at war. 

With whom did the police appear to believe they were at war? People like Statom, Baker, and their friends. In turn, some narratives portrayed protestors as gangbangers at war with the police, looters at war with their community, and young men at war with themselves. One officer was caught on camera referring to the protesters as "animals."

By the time I meet Statom and Baker, the most chaotic nights of the protests are over, and the two-block stretch of West Florissant, a nondescript strip of suburban stores and parking lots, has already become a theater of the absurd. Militarized police park their armored personnel carriers in front of closed beauty shops and meat markets. The Revolutionary Communist Party argues with local community leaders, and crust punks chant about smashing the state.

The spectacle quickly becomes the story, with less of a focus on the structural inequalities in Ferguson and towns like it, and more of a focus on the here-and-now spectacle.

As a result, voices of people like Statom and Baker get drowned out and reduced to 15-second sound bytes. But long after the cameras leave and the protests fade out, they will still be dealing with everything.

August in St. Louis is hot and swampy, capable of making even young people lethargic. All the more the reason why the lack of letting up with the protests showed just how bad it had gotten for many of the young men of Ferguson — along with their mothers, fathers, sisters, and just about anyone else.

It is not that Statom and Baker and their friends think that they will be killed by the police, or imprisoned unjustly — though perhaps some of them will. It is that even if they avoid those trajectories, they will be harassed and made to feel like they have few rights and deserve little respect.

Yes, tear gas being used in Ferguson is banned in warfare — but not in war zones. Read more here.

As protestors worked so hard to convey, and as so many others have said, to be a young black man in Ferguson — and St. Louis County, and America — is to have the odds stacked against you. The system is not a bogey man; it is real, tangible. People here see it in the police harassment, the long court lines, the fines, the warrants issued over failures to pay traffic violations.

Statom isn't one for complaining. He simply wants the police to leave him alone. In fact, he is confident that after a misguided adolescence, he is now on the right path. "There's only opportunity if you want to reach for it," he said. "You got to want it."

He has six brothers and two sisters, and many of his brothers have served time. He says the 15 year old is the wildest, but Statom doesn't spend time worrying about him.

"He has to learn the hard way," Statom told me.

He repeatedly says he too learned the hard way, though he was never caught for anything he did. "I never got locked up," he said. "I got a clean record. Everything I did was smoooooth, for real." Nevertheless, at 17 he realized that he needed to get out if he wanted to have a future.

He's considering entering the carpenters union but is worried he'll make a mistake. "If you're black, you better be on your game," he said. "Can't make a mistake, once you make one in the union, you're out."

For now, he's too nervous to try.

"I'm not ready for that. I know I'm going to fuck it up."

* * *

Baker — his grandmother lives down the block in Ferguson, though he grew up a bit farther south — echoes a similar sentiment: "You've got to really work hard if you're in St. Louis, or you have to leave this whole city."

Baker is currently unemployed, though he expresses an interest in pursuing photography and journalism. His previous job was at Bob Evans, a regional restaurant chain. He worked for $8.50 an hour. "That was good enough for me — 200 bucks every Friday?"

His child's mother is about to be made a manager at Wendy's, and they had been getting by. One week, though, Baker's check came up short. This happened two more times before he confronted his manager, who admitted he'd dropped Baker's pay down a dollar without telling him. Baker quit the job immediately, citing the principle, not the money.

Photo by Cengiz Yar

He recently completed a short jail sentence for burglary. It was stupid, he admits, the result of him and his friends going too far while celebrating the last day of school. A few weeks ago, he then got pulled over for driving without a license. His probation officer doesn't know this yet, but she'll find out soon. "I don't know what's going to happen the next time I see her," Baker said. "That's why I'm out here supporting, getting my opinion out."

This is the first time Baker has been away from his 1-year-old son for more than a day, but he says the protests were too important to miss. He's worried he will go back to jail because of his probation violation, which will keep him away from his son for far longer.

Baker and Statom repeat the same mantra often during the days I spend with them: We are tired of being treated like dogs.

"This is the first time the media has ever been in St. Louis, but blacks have been getting killed by the police for years," Statom said. "That's why the police don't know how to act. They feel like, 'This is just bullshit, we're still going to do what we're going to do. All these people are going to be gone in a month, we're still going to have our jobs, we're still going to be doing this.'"

Nearly every one of the dozens of young black men I spoke to in Ferguson and in surrounding areas has a tale of police harassment. Statom stressed that the protest is not just about Ferguson, but about St Louis County in general — and even about the nation as a whole.

"Go to Jennings," Statom suggested to me one day, referring to the town next to Ferguson. "Jennings is even worse."

* * *

Jennings happens to be the town where Darren Wilson first got his start as a police officer. Its population is 89 percent black — yet in 2009, only two of the town's 45 police officers were black, according to the Washington Post. It also has a reputation that precedes it, one of police corruption and harassment of minorities.

"You end up in a way almost subliminally conditioned to take some of the disrespect and abuse — you just kind of think that's the way it is and no one is going to do anything about it," said Jennings Councilman Rodney Epps, who is no stranger to dealing with an overzealous police force.

Epps says the day he moved to Jennings in the early 1990s, he had a small gathering in his backyard with his elderly parents and his wife. A police officer pulled up, and Epps approached him thinking the officer had stopped by to introduce himself. Instead, Epps says he was insulted and threatened.

Epps would later play a major role in getting the police department in Jennings disbanded in 2011 — the entire force was effectively fired — and taken over by the county, which he says has led to a noted improvement.

Speaking at the Florissant Avenue barbershop he owns, Epps talked about a 2011 incident in which a Bel-Ridge police officer pulled over a car with expired plates. Two women were inside, along with an 11-month-old. While the officer talked outside the car to the driver, the passenger drove away with the child. Jennings police took up the chase, and at one point, a Jennings police officer shot at the car. (The officer eventually resigned.)

A wall at Rodney Epps' barbershop. Photo by Cengiz Yar

So out of control was the Jennings police department that Epps says he feared for his life when he was pursuing the takeover by the county. "It took maybe months or a year before this whole process happened, and I really watched myself coming home every night," he said.

Some have suggested a county takeover could be part of a solution in Ferguson; others say it wouldn't solve much. Nyran Buchanan, 36, who owns a pawnshop across the street from Epps' barbershop, said that the pervasive fear of law enforcement is still present. "If they pull us over, we're scared to move," he says. "We ask them, 'Can we move our hands, can we get our insurance card?'"

Anthony Pruit lived in Jennings for 18 years before moving further outside the county. He was visiting family in Ferguson when he decided to participate in the demonstrations. In one of the more raw and honest moments of the protests, he confronted Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol — the man placed in charge of the protest response — as he engaged members of the media and protesters.

"We hurt, we broken, and we ain't all criminals," Pruit yelled as a crowd formed. "How can y'all fix this? Cause when the camera gone, when you gone, when you back on your highway, we still out here!" Tears streamed down Pruit's cheeks.

At his mother's house in Ferguson the next day, Pruit said that his anger and feelings of hopelessness had gotten the best of him. He does not expect change to come from the incident. "I don't think there's going to be an indictment, this is what we're used to," he said. "Mike Brown made national attention, [but] Mike Brown happens every week here. It just gets swept under the rug.

"The picket fence community, they don't understand the urban culture, so when they see the police shoot somebody and then they see a tape where he just stole something out of a store, [they say] 'Oh well, he is a criminal, he deserved it.' When a Caucasian man commits a crime, he committed a criminal act. When an African American man commits a crime, he's a criminal."

Johnson had told Pruit the night before that plans were being adopted to hire more black police officers. "The facial look of it means a lot, but it's the structure of the judicial system, period," he said. "And not just our Missouri system but all through the United States. How can you fix it if you don't see there's a problem with it?"

* * *

Missouri's judicial system, especially that of the municipalities of St. Louis county, has come under even more intense scrutiny since the Brown killing. St. Louis County is home to a criminal justice system that routinely issues warrants and sometimes jails people for their failure to pay off minor infractions and traffic violations, which are issued excessively in order to raise budget funds according to many familiar with the system. Black people are disproportionately targeted for these stops and disproportionately searched, according to a recently released white paper by a local legal nonprofit group.

In one noteworthy example, Ray Downs, a journalist with the Riverfront Times, found that in 2013, Pine Lawn, a town that is 96 percent black and has a per capita income of $13,000, collected $1.7 million in fines from such stops. The population of Pine Lawn is just over 3,000 people.

Downs also found that Chesterfield, an affluent white suburb with a population of 47,000 and an average per capita income of $50,000, collected just $1.2 million in fines.

The white paper also found that in the state of Missouri, blacks "are pulled over at a rate 63 percent greater rate than expected based solely on their population 16 and older."

The ArchCity Defenders' white paper

In Ferguson, for example, the town is 67 percent black, and 86 percent of traffic stops involve black drivers. They in turn are almost twice as likely to get searched and twice as likely to get arrested. Oddly, as the paper points out, "searches of black individuals result in the discovery of contraband only 21.7 percent of the time, while similar searches of whites produce contraband 34 percent of the time."

Complicating matters, the county is divided into 90 municipalities, and the municipality system itself lacks effective oversight. Many activists and people in the criminal justice system refer to these municipalities as fiefdoms, where law enforcement and judges operate with relative impunity. "Some of them are just strip malls with a mayor," said a former probation officer who spoke with VICE News on condition of anonymity. "Once you're elected into a position, you're above the law."

Police officers in the municipalities are also seen as being relatively unaccountable. "Eighty-three municipalities have their own police department, some consisting of four guys," said a St. Louis city police detective, speaking on condition of anonymity. "[With] those guys, there's a lot of power."

The detective also said that among city and county police officers, there's a belief that the "muni cops" lack professionalism. According to Epps, many of the municipalities hire officers who don't make the cut in city or county police. Why? Because they've been through the training academy, and that saves the municipalities money because they don't have to send the officers themselves.

The criminal justice system in Ferguson and towns like it, then, becomes a system that punishes poor people, and especially poor black people, with little accountability for those enforcing and running it.

'Everyday there's something on the front page of the paper that says, "You're the problem," or "We don't care about you."'

"I don't think they ever anticipated the havoc that they're wreaking on poor people's lives, and I know they don't have an understanding of how these courts are pushing poor people further into poverty and pushing people on the margins off the edge," said attorney Thomas Harvey, executive director of the ArchCity Defenders and one of the authors of the white paper.

The ArchCity Defenders is a nonprofit group that helps the disadvantaged navigate the legal system in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Harvey and two law school friends founded the organization five years ago, and since then they've worked to try to get their clients out of what they call the "muni shuffle."

Some of the municipality courts meet only once a month, and stories abound of people sitting in jail for weeks at a time over warrants issued for unpaid traffic violations. In addition to the financial burdens imposed by the fines, court dates, appointments, and jail time jeopardize employment and put stress on family situations. As Harvey points out, the only interaction most people in communities like Ferguson have with law enforcement is through this process.

"If we don't do something to change the system, we're still going to be vulnerable to a flashpoint," Harvey said.

In the year prior to Brown's killing, Harvey and his coworkers researched the courts system in the county and focused on three municipalities, of which Ferguson was one. In the subsequent white paper, they found that "by disproportionately stopping, charging and fining the poor minorities… and by incarcerating people for the failure to pay fines, these policies unintentionally push the poor further into poverty."

The paper describes the criminal justice system employed as a "product of a discorded, fragmented, and inefficient approach to a criminal justice in St. Louis county."

In the wake of the Brown killing, the ArchCity Defenders, along with the St. Louis University Legal Clinic, wrote an open letter asking for a general amnesty for outstanding fines and warrants in Ferguson. The letter notes that the municipality of Ferguson has more warrants issued than it has residents.

It also states, "For many young people, these warrants act as a barrier to employment and housing. Just as importantly, the psychological trauma of spending each day subject to arrest and incarceration is debilitating."

According to Harvey, the court system and police harassment are just two factors in a systemic failure to address the needs of communities like Ferguson. He cites other examples, such as the failure to route certain public transportation through comparatively wealthy white neighborhoods, and a recent uproar over black students from a failing school district being bussed into a predominantly white school.

"It's the schools, it's the public transportation, it's the courts… everyday there's something on the front page of the paper that says, 'You're the problem,' or 'We don't care about you,'" Harvey said.

Harvey thinks that Brown's death will lead to intense scrutiny of criminal justice practices, but worries that when federal funding or private donations come rolling in, the people who are actually affected by the system will not get a voice. "If the same people that have been sitting around that table in Clayton [where the county government is located] for 40 years just line their pockets with the money, there will be no structural change," he said. "If these kids aren't brought to the table, nothing will change."

What Ferguson police really got from the Pentagon's infamous 1033 program. Read more here.

Statom though, is still hopeful that Brown's death was not in vain. "Things are going to change — for real," he says back in his apartment while getting ready for another night of protests.

Baker nods his head in agreement.

"Yeah, that man was born for that," he says. "Mike Brown was born to make that change."

"Nobody was born for that," Statom responds. "Nobody was born to get shot like that."

Follow Danny Gold on Twitter: @DGisSERIOUS