One year after Michael Brown's death, America’s most infamous suburb is looking for redemption — led by its very own teens. Here's the untold story.
"Ferguson is certainly a story about race. But it’s also a story about youth."
If you take I-70 a few miles west of St. Louis, exit 241B discharges you into a tidy neighborhood called Country Club Hills, notable for its lush fauna, and, yes, an actual country club. But if you take the left at the four-way by the shopping center, you’ll find yourself entering a very different world — spit right out onto West Florissant Avenue, ground zero of Ferguson, Missouri.
Last summer, Ferguson became the most notorious small town in America after Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager. In the days following Brown’s death, outraged citizens took to West Florissant to protest the killing and demand that the Ferguson Police Department be held accountable for a history of racial profiling and wanton brutality. These protests would provide the contours for a narrative of racially-tinged police violence that has swept the country, from Staten Island to North Charleston to Baltimore.
Ferguson is certainly a story about race. But it’s also a story about youth. Michael Brown was a teenager, and so were many of those who protested, and looted, in his name. Nearly one year after his death, MTV News travelled to Ferguson to find out what was really going down on the ground, in its stores, on its corners, and — in particular — within the minds of its young people.
The future of Ferguson, after all, is predicated on those young people. And, the more I talked to them, the more I learned that making it in Ferguson is really all about navigating the town’s many contradictions. It is, to be sure, a place with a wrong side of the tracks, where the “youth” are monitored by the courts and the police. But it is also a place filled with students who endeavor to envision a better future; a place where people come together to create a strength in numbers — to unify a movement — and, eventually, graduate into a better world.
A new generation of young leaders is now hoping to create this world. One morning, I pulled up to the intersection of Canfield and Copper Canyon, the precise location where Brown was killed.
It was hot and hazy outside. I could feel the skin on my neck turning pink as I looked over an informal memorial festooned with purple gorillas in silk boxer shorts; pink bulldogs in red bow ties and nylon flowers stuffed into traffic cones. Someone had left a Buddah bong and about a dozen people had deposited their shoes — sneakers, mainly, and some rubber shower sandals. Signs bearing inspirational messages lined Canfield for some 25 feet. One, in particular, stood out. It read: “They Tried To Bury Us, They Didn’t Know We Are Seeds.”
Standing beside the memorial, an 18-year-old named Clifton Kinnie was wearing dungarees, work boots, and a Howard University sweatshirt. Clifton told me that he comes to this spot often; it keeps him hungry, he said, for the work that lies ahead.
Over the past months Clifton and other young activists have been planning #FergusonSummer, a series of non-violent demonstrations that will begin around August 9th, the anniversary of Brown’s death. “I spent a lot of time studying the protests of the Arab Spring,” he said. “That was more than protesting. That was a cultural awakening. Those people were ready to stand up against tear gas and rubber bullets — even live gun fire.”
Clifton and his friends want to honor Brown’s legacy by overturning their town’s reputation from a hotbed of racism to a font of hope. That, they hope, will become Ferguson’s real legacy.
"A familiar scene unfolds, one that could appear in any small American town that has known better days."
Ferguson is essentially two different cities, divided by (you can’t make this stuff up) an actual railroad track.
Once you make that stately left onto West Florissant, a familiar scene unfolds, one that could appear in any small American town that has known better days — there is a yellow stucco building with a neon sign bearing the words, “Pawn Center.” Nearby is a Family Dollar and a shuttered mattress store. Strip malls — squat and bleached by the sun — stretch for what seems like eternity.
Then there’s Furniture for Less; The Nail Trap; Primetime Beauty and Barbershop; Checks Cashed & Loans. At the corner of West Florissant and Ferguson Road sits the Ferguson Market & Liquor store where Mike Brown stole the cigarillos and shoved the store-owner.
Beside the liquor store stands the McDonald’s that was featured prominently in the media’s coverage of last year’s demonstrations. Chop suey restaurants are plentiful. Jaywalking is rampant. There are no trees; the only greenery in sight are weeds. A sprawling self-storage facility gives off an industrial vibe. On shutters at Sam’s Meat Market & More, there are posters for menthol cigarettes, light beer, and photographs of two black hands raised in surrender. “No Justice. No Peace” was spray-painted on the outside of Red’s Original BBQ.
I passed an empty lot where the torched QuikStop gas station and mini-mart used to stand. The charred remains were only recently removed, leaving behind a bare paved lot with the words "FUCK THE POLICE" painted in white on the pavement. I could count the number of white folks that I saw on one hand.
But if you don’t make that left onto West Florissant, and instead take South Florissant Avenue, a whole other town emerges. St. Louis and its surrounding municipalities are infamously segregated. Missouri was a slave state, and the first in the country to be segregated by ballot measures.
When a small black section of the town was settled in the 1960s, African-Americans were legally forbidden from entering the main drag after dark. In the decades since, zoning laws, deed restrictions, prejudiced real estate agents, tax code, insurance and banking regulations, among other things, have kept blacks away from whites.
Those practices are no longer upheld but they still cast a very long shadow. The side streets off of South Florissant Avenue feature big craftsman homes with professionally landscaped yards. Many have placards stuck in the lawn that read: “I ♡ Ferguson.” South Florissant Avenue, indeed, seems like Main Street, U.S.A.: there are coffee shops, a bakery, a store to buy frozen custard, which is really just fancy ice cream, a yoga studio, a wine bar, a cigar bar, a brew pub, bakeries and coffee shops, a farmers’ market, and a caravan of high-end food trucks.
It was green and leafy. There was shade. White women in capris and Crocs. One such person said that the whole terrible Mike Brown mess was a tragedy for that boy, his parents, and this town, which finally seemed to be heading in the right direction before the riots. She hadn’t participated in the healing, though. She told me that she didn’t go to any of the vigils or demonstrations.
On this side of the tracks, the police and fire stations were gleaming, modern constructions. January Wabash Memorial Park has a beautiful public pool with a cork-screwy water slide. The park is filled with trees memorializing the dead. Last year one was planted in remembrance of Mike Brown.
In less than 24 hours it was hacked apart and the plaque was stolen. When I tried to find the saplings remains, I discovered that the leaves were brown, the limbs decrepit.
"Cops haven't changed. People in the community changed, though."
The McDonald’s on West Florissant is the primary hangout for many of Ferguson’s young black males, their version of the diner from “Friday Night Lights.” The photographer Drew Reynolds, who goes by D-Rey, and I walked in one morning and sat down at a booth across from two young African-American men. One was tall with broad shoulders, chin-length braids, and indecipherable tattoos on his face. The other one was matchstick skinny.
“Has anything changed around here?” I wondered aloud.
Both guys took a sip from their massive cookies and cream frappés. “It changed everything forever, man,” the skinny guy said.
“Cops haven’t changed. People in the community changed, though. Tryin’ to create more opportunities for us,” his friend noted.
I asked about the opportunities. The tattooed guy told me he worked over at the local Good Will. The skinny guy said he worked at a hotel a few towns over. But really, he said, he’s an artist. He practiced every discipline — illustration, painting, sculpture, even tattooing. “New York’s the dream. I can’t afford art school, though. And I can’t get the sort of job I need to eventually be able to afford art school. I’m stuck.”
It was late in the afternoon. School had let out and the McDonald’s was crowded. Some kids just came in to hangout and didn’t order food. I didn’t argue with the skinny guy about being stuck. As recently as 2009, these guys could have found work at a nearby plant bolting together Fords or Chryslers or Corvettes. Maybe the skinny guy’s dad or grandfather held down one of those gigs. But those, along with thousands of other well paying manufacturing jobs, had moved to China or Kentucky or some little southern town that offered better tax incentives. Others had been replaced by robots or software. What remained were minimum wage positions at burger and fried chicken joints, Walmart, and the laundry room at the local Sheraton. It was heartbreaking but true: he was probably right. He was stuck.
"They got a badge and a gun. It's like permission to act that way."
The Ferguson Youth Initiative (FYI) is a program set up to engage Ferguson’s “youth,” as its teens are generally referred to — to try and prevent them from getting stuck. FYI is located in a loading dock on the backside of City Hall. It’s bright, clean, minimally decorated. The program was established a few years back after Ferguson failed to win a contest aimed at crowning America’s greatest city. Now, kids can come here to make candles, play Xbox, shoot hoops, sing karaoke.
Gail Babcock, the director, pulled out the individual letters to a massive, colorful mural that read "One Love" that the youth painted. Many have been assigned here by the courts after brushes with the law. Other kids, like a young guy we met named Tyrone, show up on their own to help with younger kids, perform community service, and hangout.
On a Saturday morning, a handful of kids were preparing to go volunteer at the Ferguson farmers’ market. Gail assembled the youth on hand for a chat. There was Parris and George, and Stephanie and Jacoby.
I asked the kids: What would you be doing if you weren’t here?
One young man, George, who had an Afro, shrugged. “I’d be locked up. I’m always in trouble. I got anger problems.” He said that he’s been arrested. He was charged with “Failure to Comply.”
What did you learn from the Mike Brown shooting, I asked them?
Jacoby, whose countenance and posture makes him look far older than his real age, replied, “I didn't learn nothing.”
Parris, a junior at McCluer South High, right downtown, disagreed. “It brought us closer together. We were able to raise money for a senior formal that we have scheduled for next school year.”
I asked them if they felt angry at the police. Did they believe that African-Americans were being unfairly targeted?
Stephanie answered this time. “They’ve been getting away with so much for so long, maybe they don’t know what they’re doing is wrong. They work at the station. They got a badge and a gun. It’s like permission to act that way.”
Jacoby and Stephanie are boyfriend-girlfriend. They live together over by Canfield, not far from where Mike Brown was shot. As we talked, he played with her hair.
“What’s your dream? What do you want to do with your life?,” I asked them.
George: “I want to be a rapper.”
I asked what he was doing to follow his passion.
“For now I’m just cooling.”
Jacoby: “I’ve been wanting to be a rapper for a minute now. Or a baker. Or help kids with anger problems.”
"How are you chasing those dreams?," I asked.
Jacoby said that he taped videos of himself rhyming and posted them to YouTube and Facebook.
Stephanie: “I want to be a motivational speaker.”
What would you speak about?
Stephanie shrugged. “I dunno. Been through some stuff. Guess I could talk to that.”
Pariss: “I want to go to college and study sociology. I want to be a teacher. When I’m in school, I pay close attention to what my teachers say, how they say it. I pay particular attention to the ways that they fail to connect with us. I’m working on college applications already. I want to have them done by the time the next school year starts. My mother wants me to go out of state. If I don’t, she says I’ll never get out of Ferguson.”
"Ferguson's cops can literally stop you if they don't like the manner in which you're walking."
As I met dozens of teens, I attempted a mental calculus that went something like this: how does the skinny guy from the McDonald’s get to New York and make it as an artist? What kind of job would he need to find to save the money to move there and find an apartment? Who does he know that can help him with a job? What are the chances that a clip of George rhyming blows up on YouTube and he becomes the next Nelly? How many hours of writing, of practice, are required? What are the odds the right person will see the video? The numbers never compute.
There is also another, more subtle but very real problem: jail. Even if Ferguson’s town manager and police chief have been replaced in the wake of Mike Brown’s death, and even if FYI administrators try to help kids get their lives on track, the town has long leaned on the police to make up for tax shortfalls by creating revenue. One option: targeting African-Americans for needless tickets and fines that the officials know their citizens can’t pay.
Data collected by the FPD from 2012 to 2014 shows that African-Americans account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests, according to a Department of Justice report issued this past spring. When the citizens can’t pay those fines, the municipal courts impose unduly harsh penalties. These people wind up going to jail for minor infractions; the court issued 9,000 arrest warrants in 2013, most of them coming from unpaid parking tickets and housing code violations. That’s almost half the people that live in Ferguson.
To fill its coffers, Ferguson’s cops could literally stop you if they don’t like the manner in which you’re walking. They could ticket you for trespassing for cutting through a parking lot to get to a bus stop. Many stops resulted in multiple citations, like Jacoby’s vague “Failure to Comply” penalty. (From 2012-2014 the cops issued four or more citations during a single stop 73 times.)
Over time, this profit mongering led to recklessness. I heard, over and over again, that Mike Brown wasn’t the first case; it was just the one that we all learned about. According to the Department of Justice’s investigation, the FPD’s method of policing was illegal and unconstitutional. They routinely violated the Fourth Amendment rights of their citizens with illegal stops and searches and the use of excessive force. They violated the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. And they broke the Fourteenth Amendment, and a whole mess of federal laws, for basing police practices, “in part,” as the D.O.J. put it, on discriminatory intent.
A brief case study in the department’s report illustrated how the FPD functioned: In the summer of 2012, a 32-year-old African-American man sat in his car cooling off after playing basketball in a Ferguson public park. An officer pulled up behind the man’s car, blocking him in, and demanded the man’s Social Security number and identification. Without any cause, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile, referring merely to the presence of children in the park, and ordered him out of his car for a pat-down — even though the officer had no reason to believe that he was armed. The officer also asked to search the man’s car.
The man objected, citing his constitutional rights. In response, this officer arrested him, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code. One charge, “Making a False Declaration,” was for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”). Another charge was for not wearing a seat belt. (His car was parked.) Because of these charges, he lost the job he had held for years as a contractor with the federal government.
I called the police department multiple times to schedule a meeting or an interview with someone, anyone — any cop would have been fine. I wanted to know if, and how, the FPD had plans to change their method of policing. I requested to go on a ride along on a Friday or Saturday night; I thought it might be valuable to see what the police are dealing with night in and night out. I wondered if it might be possible to meet the FPD Explorers, local kids who intern at the police department; I was told, however, that there were only three of those kids. (If I wanted to meet with the fire department’s explorers, though, that could probably be arranged.) Nevertheless, I was rebuffed each time I asked. They refused to speak with me.
"We decided to be the change."
Last year, after the protests died down, a race summit for St. Louis-area schools was announced. There was room at the conference for seven students from McCluer North High School, a predominantly black school on the very northern edge of Ferguson. Teachers and administrators were tasked with picking seven student-leaders.
They selected Thomas Justin, who spent the last days of the summer before his senior year protesting Mike Brown’s death. Thomas is soft-spoken but fierce. He told me that over the years he’d witnessed both of his parents mistreated by the police. Once, as a kid, he had been left in a parked squad car for three hours. “My parents always told me that in Ferguson and around that area — Berkeley, Hazelwood, Riverview — the police department has never been fond of black people. If you get caught outside, when the sun is going down, they’ll find a reason to mess with you.” His parents told him never to fight back if he was stopped by the police.
Another student chosen for the summit was Jacquez Webb. When the protests started he wrapped his shirt over his face and rushed right into the fray. One night he saw an officer mocking the demonstrators — throwing his hands up in the air and begging another officer not to shoot; both police laughed. Jacquez, though, didn’t find it funny. “The cops sit there and they smile at you. That’s why we come up to them in their faces and look them directly in their eyes. It’s like a face-to-face confrontation. I’m gonna look you back in the eyes and smile and if you try something, I’m gonna try something. I’m not gonna just let you do something.” Jacquez has been reading about social issues like the school-to-jail pipeline and the prison-industrial complex. His idol is Marcus Garvey, the Black Nationalist leader.
Ksean Collard, another student leader, learned about Mike Brown via social media. He went to community meetings and vigils and church services and absorbed the wisdom of clergymen and leaders. “This wasn’t an isolated incident,” he told me. “This was just the first time there were witnesses. The first time the media found out.”
Niger Moore was also picked for the race summit. She had a strong interest in social justice. Ksean called her and asked her what she was going to do about it. “‘If I’m old enough to die, then I’m old enough to lead a group of people,’” she said. She went out to the protests and left feeling as though singing and chanting and marching was good for very little. Unarmed black people were still going to be killed. She wanted to find other ways to manufacture change.
At the summit, last January, the kids from McCluer sat with students from Parkway North, a white school twenty minutes away. They spoke for hours about segregation, institutionalized racism, privilege, and bias. The kids from Ferguson described what it was like living there after the riots, about fires and street closures. They identified problems, and drummed up solutions. When they saw self-segregation in the lunchroom, for instance, they vowed to make other students aware.
“On the bus ride home, we were talking about how if you wanna see the change, you need to be the change. We decided to be the change,” Ksean told me. “We came up with a mission: Better ourselves, better our school, and watch that spread out to our community.” They called this movement, “The Vision.”
Over the following months, the students led a well-attended walkout, and met with exchange students to talk about the demonstrations. They attended the National Youth Summit, a conference sponsored by the National 4-H Council. They met with business leaders, entrepreneurs, even an ambassador. They went to a nearby middle school to speak to younger students. When McCluer North was on the verge of losing its accreditation, The Vision started talking to their classmates about going to class, completing homework, trying harder on the standardized tests.
“I lost a lot of friends,” said Jacquez. “We tried to mobilize people and get them talking about what was going on and we heard a lot of, ‘I don’t care. It’s over. Why you still doing this stuff?’ There’s a reason why things don’t change. People stop.”
I met with the Vision on a Thursday afternoon mid-May. All five of these kids were graduating in two days. They were all headed to college in the fall, which was a tremendous accomplishment. Data compiled by the U.S. Education Department showed that black and Latino kids are the least likely to be taught by qualified, experienced teachers; they are the least likely to get access to upper level science and math courses, and to have access to technology.
School segregation exists in America. It’s not something that used to be very real and now only lives on in history books.
Over the past fifteen years, hundreds of school districts across the country have been released from court-enforced integration and have subsequently resegregated. Normandy school district, the one Mike Brown attended, is among the poorest and most segregated in Missouri, according to a ProPublica investigation. It ranks last in Missouri in overall academic performance. Its rating on an annual state assessment was so bad that last year the district lost its accreditation. (A representative from Normandy school district failed to answer my requests to visit with students and administrators).
Right down the road, at Clayton, a predominantly white school, almost 100 percent of students graduate and 84 percent go to four-year colleges.
Convincing kids to go to class and care about standardized tests--that’s the sort of change that doesn’t happen overnight. The members of The Vision learned big lessons about failure and persistence. “It causes more of a problem if we don’t at least try. If I can’t change the whole group’s mind, maybe I can change two or three people’s minds,” Niger told me. “They can probably change two or three minds. The cycle will repeat itself. We’ve accepted that it’s going to take time.”
As the end of the school year approached, they made a visit to a local middle school to talk to 8th graders about keeping The Vision alive. Everybody in the group says they’re going to keep fighting next year, albeit from afar. Niger is headed off to Washington D.C. to go to Howard, where she says she’ll be involved with social groups. Thomas, Jacquez, and KSean were all headed to a local community college and all of them wanted to move onto a four-year school afterwards.
“I’m different now,” Ksean said. “A teacher told me the other day, ‘You’ve grown. You’ve changed. You’re not just a kid who goes to school here. You’re a kid who is involved.’ ”
"This movement is going to create the next generation of leaders."
A year ago, Clifton Kinnie was home, grieving the recent death of his mother, a social worker, when a photo of a face-down, murdered Mike Brown appeared on his Twitter feed. Clifton was an honor student, a member of the student council, and class president. He’d long had an interest in social justice but never did anything about it. “It’s like I was pushed out there,” he said.
He made his way to where we were standing, by the teddy bears and flowers on Canfield Drive. “You would have thought it was 1965 and we were in Alabama,” he said. “Police killings are like modern day lynchings. They leave the bodies out to strike fear into the community.” A crowd formed. FPD officers managed the scene with German Shepherds. “How can a community remain calm when our kids are being murdered?” Clifton asked rhetorically. “You kill our kids and expect us not to take the streets?”
For years, racial profiling and brutality at the hands of the FPD have been a routine parts of growing up black in Ferguson. Clifton was eight years old the first time he was profiled. He was en route to a playground with his five-year-old brother when a cop ordered them to hit the pavement. There had been a break-in; Clifton and his brother were suspects, the officer said. Clifton’s brother was terrified. There have been reports of unprovoked FPD officers beating people, choking them, and, in one case, hog-tying a 12-year old boy and filing multiple charges against him.
Profiling and brutality are not conditions you outgrow here; they get worse the older you get. Clifton took to the front lines last August when the first wave of protests kicked off. He protested all night. He was sprayed with tear gas (“I felt like my organs were throwing themselves up”). He was pelted with rubber bullets. Still, he didn’t back down. “I’m sure Martin Luther King was scared on the march from Selma to Montgomery. I’m sure John Lewis [the Freedom Rider] was scared. But they just did it. I think about them ninety percent of the time I’m out there.” In the morning, he helped with clean-up.
Not long afterwards, he decided to put his leadership skills to true use. He founded Our Destiny STL, a student-based group. He reached out to kids all over St. Louis, creating a network of roughly 30 schools. Together they focused on community outreach, youth leadership, youth voter registration drives, community service, mentorship, organizing demonstrations like a massive walk out in September. They held a fundraiser for Ferguson Burger Bar, a black owned restaurant--with exceptional chow--that remained open and unscathed during protests and has served as a meeting point for those hoping to partake in the #FergusonSummer.
“That was phase one of Our Destiny STL. Phase Two isn’t about protesting the police. It’s about creating engagement between North County police and our youth. If they get to know us, maybe they won’t think we’re all thugs.” Clifton also does work for Teach for America and Show Me Fifteen, a campaign to have the minimum wage raised to $15.
One morning, Clifton, D-Rey and I proceeded along West Florissant to the former location of the QuikStop filling station. As we arrived, Clifton suddenly became quiet and emotional. He learned a lot about himself last year, discovered a strength and a courage he didn’t previously know he had, he told us. He stared down angry cops and police supporters who threatened to kill him if he didn’t go home. He became so dedicated to the #FergusonSummer that his sister gifted him a gas mask for Christmas.
In July, Clifton was asked to attend to the Aspen Ideas Festival — a conference run by the Aspen Institute, a big-time think tank — to give presentations and sit on panels. He’s also the subject of an upcoming BBC documentary. This fall he’ll leave Ferguson to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. He’s already working on trying to balance his studies with the full-time demands of a growing leadership role in the #FergusonSummer movement.
“I have to get my degree so that I can come back and help save Ferguson,” he said. “I’m not worried about keeping the movement going. The cops are going to do that for us.” As he spoke, a police officer rolled slowly by glaring at us. “They know me,” Clifton says. “They know me.” It’s been reported that since the November riots the FPD has been brazen in its attempts intimidate and discredit protesters. “I do get a little PTSD everytime I see the police,” he allowed.
He pulled his arm from his sleeve and showed off a thick, scarred gash on his shoulder where he got hit with a rubber bullet. The protests “brought out so much untapped potential in the youth around here,” he said. “We’re just seeing it now unleashed. This movement is going to create the next generation of leaders. You’re going to see a better St. Louis in ten or twelve years because of this. We’re building a stronger community. Anger doesn't sustain the movement. Love does.”
"When I tell people at college that I'm from Ferguson, they look at me like I'm from Afghanistan."
The next day Cliff introduced us to Daniel, his classmate. He was stylishly dressed in olive green pants, silver high tops, and a black t-shirt that says “Chosen” in day-glow green graffiti letters. Daniel’s father is a pastor. He’s off to the University of Central Missouri in the fall where he’ll study psychology. “I’m interested in how people think and what they feel,” he told me.
Last summer, just a few weeks before Mike Brown was killed, he started Chosen, a teen group that talks to kids about their self-worth. He had some self-esteem problems when he was younger that he figured out on his own. All of the profiling and brutality — that can have a profound impact on people in a community, not just on the victims.
Now he’s putting together a seminar on how to handle racial profiling. His mom, a manager at Express Scripts, the pharmaceutical benefits manager, didn’t want him out during the protests. So he chipped in by delivering supplies — food, water, cartons of milk — to protesters so that they could wash the tear gas from their eyes.
“I want people to see that their self-worth has nothing to do with other people put on them. It’s something you put on yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re born with a deficit. You determine your own self worth.”
As spring turned to summer, the ranks of #FergusonSummer movement — from Kinnie to Daniel, The Vision, and all the other members of the summit — began to swell.
During our time in Ferguson, D-Rey and I met with J. Fresh at the Ferguson Burger Bar. He’s a musician. He sings, raps, makes beats. On the cover of his first album, which he made entirely by himself, the title “Motto of My Life” is scrawled next to a roll of golden toilet paper. He does a kind of Dirty Mid-South thing. His second album, “Motto of My Life 2” dropped in early June. He’s entering his sophomore year at Murray State in Kentucky.
“When I tell people at college that I’m from Ferguson, they look at me like I’m from Afghanistan or Iraq,” he says. “I was thinking of ways that I could contribute and decided to make a protest song. It’s called ‘Rise Above.’ I wanted people to feel uplifted. I wanted them to be reminded of what they’re fighting for.”
"These kids are so resilient. Whatever you throw at them, they'll fight."
On May 17th, all three of the Ferguson-Florissant district schools held commencement ceremonies at Family Arena in nearby St. Charles, Mo. After we had spent time with student leaders at McCluer North, we decided to attend the McCluer South-Berkeley High ceremony.
The boys all looked dapper, wearing well tailored suits under their gowns. And D-Rey and I had never seen a more beautiful group of girls — their hair and nails were perfect and they were all seemingly wearing vertiginously high espadrilles. The senior class had only one white student. We met Akilah, who was going to Western Illinois University in the fall. And Alexis who was ready to study to become a nurse. Steven, who was off to the University of Central Missouri, declared: “I asked my mom, ‘What you want for Christmas this year?’ She told me, ‘I just want you to graduate.’ I did this for you, mom!’ ”
Then there’s Tyrone, who will study music at Webster State. And Yamani Dyson who was going to study marine biology in Florida. We met Marquis; he made a four-year commitment to the United States Navy and Jerrod Blanchard who was going to star at defensive tackle for the Independence University football team. We watched as the school’s principal walked up and down the line shaking hands and giving hugs. They could hardly stand still. They hugged. They cried. They leaned on each other. They wore irrepressible smiles. Once the ceremony started I sat among the parents and every one of them looked so proud.
During his speech, the school principal didn’t address Mike Brown by name, but he did talk about all of the things that these students had to overcome. The academic year started late, sports teams couldn’t practice and then there was the stress of what was going on in their community. He didn’t even mention that fact that these kids had been dealt a bad hand all along. That a great many were poor and black and going out into the world with a substandard education. (On statewide standardized tests, students from the district have historically scored lower than the state average in every single subject.)
But more important, perhaps, they had grit. According to McCluer South’s principal, the students’ reaction to the events of last summer had been the most telling, and most important, indicator of their futures. Their teams fought valiantly, the students posted the highest standardized test scores in school history, and they found a way to reach out to the FPD to try to find ways to improve relations between cops and kids. At the ceremony I sat next to a teacher who told me, “These kids are so resilient. Whatever you throw at them, they’ll fight.”