Brianna West stepped before the judge as her daughter Morgan, 3, fidgeted beside her. Ms. West had waited weeks to get this case behind her, facing citations that included failure to comply with a police officer. She worried about steep fines, even jail time, on charges she felt were baseless. But the hearing brought relief.
A newly appointed judge, Donald McCullin, who like Ms. West is African-American, ordered her to spend 10 hours performing community service. “He was trying to help me,” Ms. West said, clearly surprised.
It was a starkly different scene from what Ferguson residents faced in this municipal court a year ago before the city was torn by unrest after a white police officer’s fatal shooting of a black, unarmed teenager named Michael Brown, before it became a symbol of racial inequities, before a Justice Department investigation concluded that the city unconstitutionally targeted black people for an array of fees and fines largely intended to raise revenue. The department also concluded that the shooting did not warrant criminal charges.
Yet if Judge McCullin seems a burst of fresh air for Ferguson, he is only a temporary one. Under Missouri court-retirement rules, he must step down in about eight months when he turns 75. And he is not the only change that may prove fleeting. The city just hired a new police chief and city manager — also African-Americans — to replace white officials who had overseen operations that came under scathing criticism in the Justice Department report. But they, too, are interim hires that may end in a matter of months; the new chief is merely on a leave of absence from his department in another state.
As it prepares to mark a year since Mr. Brown’s death this Sunday, Ferguson, a mostly black community of 21,000 in the patchwork of suburbs north of St. Louis, remains very much a halting work in progress. In recent months, it has taken steps toward repairing racial scars, rebuilding its battered commercial areas and diversifying its once white-dominated government.
Yet like so much that was exposed a year ago, Ferguson remains divided — this time between those who think its progress is real, and those who believe that little beyond the superficial has changed.
“This was a real tearing of the fabric,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri. “A lot of pent-up frustration has now really come forward, and that doesn’t get well in 12 months. This isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s not even going to be over 365 nights. It’s going to be years.”
Nightly protests here have faded in recent months, but law enforcement officials in the region are bracing for a new wave of memorials, concerts, demonstrations, road closings and acts of civil disobedience expected this weekend in commemoration of the anniversary. The family of Mr. Brown has called for peaceful vigils, but the police in the region appear to have prepared for any outcome.
Improvements here are undeniable. The local, state and federal authorities point to new programs and new laws enacted since the unrest, including increased funds for job training and college assistance, and legislation lowering the percentage of revenue Missouri cities can make from traffic fines and fees — described by Gov. Jay Nixon as “the most sweeping municipal court reform in state history.”
Even the Missouri National Guard, which responded to unrest that grew violent at times last August and November, plans to convert a shuttered building into an armory where it would try to recruit more Guard members from urban areas, federal officials said.
Perhaps most significant, city leaders say they have revamped their municipal court system, replacing the longtime judge, and two widely criticized practices: holding people in jail for days on minor offenses when they could not post bonds, and piling on new “failure to appear” charges against those who miss court.
“Look, I want to be clear in no uncertain terms — this city has improved,” said Wesley Bell, a newly elected City Council member who is black and represents the neighborhood where Mr. Brown died.
Just below the surface, though, some of the city’s biggest problems remain as daunting as ever. The police force, overwhelmingly white when Mr. Brown was killed, remains overwhelmingly white today. Efforts to institute “community-based” policing to improve relations with African-American residents appear to be only in the early stages.
A sea of ideas considered by a state-appointed Ferguson Commission, including raising the minimum wage and consolidating tiny police departments, remain proposals. Similarly, the Missouri legislature considered more than 20 bills to change law enforcement policies, but only one — the new cap on traffic ticket revenues — passed.
Perhaps most telling, on the streets near the apartment complexes where Mr. Brown died, people say they feel just as estranged from the police as they did a year ago, just as skeptical of this city’s leaders — black or white.
“The mind-set is still that it’s normal to have the police stop African-Americans and harass us and shake us down,” said Phil Gassoway, a Ferguson resident and regular at local demonstrations. “That’s the norm — still is. There’s no change nowhere.”
Nearly all of Ferguson was upended by the months of unrest that followed Mr. Brown’s death. But the widely televised looting, fires and violent clashes between the police and protesters left the largest bruises in two of the city’s distinct commercial districts, less than two miles apart.
Along South Florissant Road, a quaint thoroughfare, frequent confrontations took place between demonstrators and officers in riot gear outside Police Headquarters. After a grand jury chose not to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson, in November, businesses here were looted and vandalized.
In the other commercial district, along West Florissant Avenue — a grittier, wide strip of telephone stores and beauty supply companies close to where Mr. Brown died — the damage was worse. Officers in large military-style vehicles clashed with large groups of marchers and, in August and November, some businesses were looted or burned to the ground.
The recovery, like so much else here, seems uneven.
Along West Florissant, several stores have shuttered for good, stray garbage blows across lots filled with broken glass and graffiti covers the wooden boards. Many of the shoppers here come from nearby apartment complexes that house some of the city’s poorest residents. Among them: Canfield Green, where Mr. Brown died and where demonstrations boiled over night after night. It has not helped West Florissant that some of the complexes have lost occupants, their residents fleeing to get away from the discord.
“Business is absolutely not back,” said Jay L. Kanzler Jr., a lawyer who represents some shop owners. “The people who have come back are there only because they put their blood, sweat and tears into it.”
Charles Davis, a Ferguson resident who owns Ferguson Burger Bar & More with his wife, Kizzie, opened his doors for the first time the day before Mr. Brown died. The restaurant was never boarded up, or harmed, during the unrest. “I have a protector that’s bigger than me,” Mr. Davis said.
But images of police officers in riot gear linger.
“We never owned another restaurant before,” Mr. Davis said. “We don’t know what to expect other than this. We don’t have a history that doesn’t include all this.”
On the other side of town, along South Florissant Road, fewer traces of the violence remain. Owners here say business is returning, and that a developer has even pitched a project of apartments and stores in the area. Already home to a wine bar and bakery, a cigar bar moved in not long ago. So did a new restaurant, J&C BBQ and Blues.
One of the newer storefronts offers a counterpoint to the once-nightly protests outside the police station. The I Love Ferguson store is jammed with merchandise that declares just that: “I ♥ Ferguson” shirts, caps and cups, even a children’s photo book, “Painting for Peace in Ferguson” (for $15.95), of murals painted on boarded-up businesses here last year.
Run by a nonprofit that donates its proceeds — more than $100,000 so far — to community causes, the group began with simple yard signs promoted by a white former mayor who in April won a spot on the City Council. Some demonstrators and black residents see that message as a rejection of urgent calls for change, but group members see things differently.
“We love Ferguson and we are here to do anything we can to keep our Ferguson the way it is,” said Barbara Tipsword, a volunteer at the store.
Ms. Tipsword, 85, was stunned by the angry protests after Mr. Brown’s killing, having long thought of Ferguson as a model of integration. Over the last 25 years, Ferguson has shifted from nearly three-quarters white to two-thirds black. In the 1990s, a group formed here called Proud, which stood for People Reaching Out for Unity and Diversity, to promote integration. Some here say they had forgotten all about the group largely because its goals, they thought, had long since been met.
“We integrated so well, I had thought,” Ms. Tipsword said. “I just didn’t know.”
“I guess the people of Ferguson were complacent,” she said. “There was another thing going on for some people.”
A New Public Face
As children gathered for day camp in a room down the hall last month, Andre Anderson, a black police commander from Glendale, Ariz., took to a podium in front of television cameras to be introduced as this city’s new, interim police chief.