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Five Years After Ferguson, and “Not Much Has Changed”

Johnetta Elzie

One of the original protesters, Johnetta Elzie, reflects on the day she lost her friend, Michael Brown—and the movement born afterwards.

Five years ago, Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by a white Ferguson police officer which sparked conversations about race relations, weeks of protests, and unrest.

On Friday, the fifth anniversary of the shooting, some protesters and civil rights activists attended ceremonies and remembrances with Brown's family to remember the slain teen.

Brown's father, Michael Brown Sr., called on Wesley Bell, St. Louis County's newly elected prosecutor, to reopen his son's case. "Five years today I lost my first-born, my only son. It was a day I thought I would never see, a day that has changed my life forever," he said in front of three dozen supporters.

"I am demanding evidence to be re-analyzed and accountability to follow. As a father I vowed to protect my children, but on August 9, 2014 that was not the case. I could not protect him that day and that breaks my heart."

Wesley Bell is St. Louis county's first black prosecutor, he took office in January after winning a victory over seven-term incumbent Bob McCulloch.

Former prosecutor Bob McCulloch drew outrage for his mishandling of the investigation into the Michael Brown shooting, with activists saying he guided the grand jury into its decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson three months after killing Michael Brown.

Among those at a gathering on Friday was Johnetta Elzie, who has become one of our generations leading civil rights activists after being arrested along with activist DeRay McKesson for filming officers interacting with protesters on her cellphone in Ferguson. She was released four hours later, and no charges were filed.

Along with McKesson, Elzie is one of the leaders of the activist group, We The Protesters, a group that is dedicated to racial justice and protesting against police brutality -- and co-founder of Campaign Zero, a police reform campaign associated with the Black Lives Matter movement

Out spoke to Elzie fresh off her St. Louis flight where she paid respects to Michael Brown and his family, and asked her about her reflection on the 5th anniversary of his death.

I saw that there was a gathering for Mike Brown on your Twitter on Friday and Mike Brown's dad and his younger sister released doves. How was it?

It's a lot of things, you feel all kinds of things. You feel angry, I was reminded of why I was so mad five years ago. I looked over at the spot where I saw Mike stored at underneath this light, like that was the first time where I felt like there's some type of connection or something like that. So just being there and seeing that.

I don't really try to go down Canfield [Drive] at all -- I drive down West Florrisant everyday, just because of the trauma of it all. So just seeing all of these things that inspired me to keep going after that first night being out there five years ago was really inspiring and seeing all of the people and everyone from the movement checking in on people, asking them how they're doing, how can I help, what do you need, that was good. Felt good. And was good. And just seeing Cal who is Mike Brown's stepmother -- we chat every once in awhile, and being able to hug and pay my respects to Mike Brown Sr. that was very important for me. So I was just honored to be in that space.

What has organizing in the social media age taught you? What are your favorite and least favorite parts about it?

My favorite parts are the immediate ability to reach and connect with the people that I'm looking for or the immediate way to distract the police in whatever action that we're planning. My least favorite part would probably just be the trolls and racism that comes with black people being killed. I think my least favorite a few years ago was how much I let what people were saying to me affect me mentally.

The thing I love about Twitter is I love that we were able to shift the entire narrative --- it was obvious that the news had their own narrative and the local news was definitely going to feed the police narrative to the country as if that would justify this murder. Now it's just not allowed when there are thousands of people who can literally counter everything that you're trying to say in real time, and show photos or videos, all kinds of ways to hold them accountable and they can't take it, and I love that. We can never downplay that. Ever.

Do you think politics and policies have changed at all in the five years since Mike's death? Or how far do you think we still need to go when it comes to police violence against unarmed black men?

Oh we're beyond a long way to go -- St. Louis City itself is not the county where Mike was killed. St. Louis City is a different municipality. They have a black police chief at the moment and it just seems like everyone is running amok. Shootings are happening and police are killing people.

Essentially what they're saying is "oh well the police chief is black so he must not see nothing wrong with it -- he's the police chief." Black people and blackness is, I guess you can say, like a bumper or like a filter as if that makes up for how trash the police are in St. Louis.

They were just uncovered for having police officers in a white supremacy group on Facebook. So what has changed? Their attitudes have not changed at all. And by the rates of how police are killing people in St. Louis and how crime is happening in St. Louis, really not much has changed.

St. Louis County police are doing their big to-do over them having 700+ body cameras and it's like ok it took you five years to get 700 body cameras? That the police still have the option of turning off whenever they feel. They can turn it on and off so I don't see how that's exactly a solution.

We do have small wins like getting Bob Mcculloch out of office. I'm 30 years old and Bob Mcculloh was in office as a St. Louis County prosecutor for more than my whole life. And he's so delusional and so out of touch. He called it his "retirement" but black people organized to get him out of office -- he was voted out by people who told him that he wasn't good at his job.

At the same time I could tell that there are some changes in how St. Louis County police are interacting with people. I think a part of that is in conjunction with Wesley [Bell] being the St. Louis county prosecutor. Even with the recent shooting of the police officer in St. Louis county, the fact that the person who killed him was not also killed dead in the street that day... that is new. I would not have expected that five years ago.

They know there's some type of accountability that will be available if you use excessive force underneath this new county prosecutor. Now granted, he is new -- we're not sure what Wesley is going to do and I'm not saying he is going to be the be-all and end-all because again, if he takes the trend of turning the guns to people who voted for him, I'm so certain they would all be able to organize and get him out of office just as they got him into office.

There's a few things that are notable and are being talked about that are different and then there's just a lot where you're just like not much has changed.

In what ways can people give as far as resources for Mike Brown's family and Ferguson as a whole?

With all the funds that have come and flown over Ferguson for the last five years, I would give to grass root organizations -- so the Chosen for Change Fund would be my first thought because that's Mike Brown Sr.'s organization and they are doing good work in the community. After that I would encourage people to give to places that are on the ground specifically -- not big name places that get large dollars on the regular anyway. Chosen for Change is asking for $5 donations which adds up but they could also use large donors.

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