Ferguson’s Next Chapter

Can a town turn a tragic moment into a lasting movement?

The funeral at friendly temple missionary Baptist Church was billed as a celebration of Michael Brown’s life, which ended Aug. 9 in a hail of bullets fired by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo. But it was also a chance to send a message to the thousands of mourners in the pews and many more watching on TV. “We are required,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in his eulogy, “to leave here today and change things.”

If Brown’s burial on Aug. 25 closed one chapter, it opened a new period of uncertainty. The worst of the unrest appears to be over, and the protests are beginning to subside. Now a town that has become a byword for America’s racial divide is left to figure out how to translate the chants into change.

The problem is that nobody is quite sure how to do it–or what that change would even look like.

To some, solutions are found at the ballot box. Locals lament that Ferguson is a city that is two-thirds black and led mostly by whites. Changing that would require boosting an anemic voting rate among African Americans: just 6% in 2013 municipal elections. “It’s those local elections that really affect our lives,” says Larry Jones, bishop of Ferguson’s Greater Grace Church. “We do have a voice, and we need to use it.”

To others, the answer is erasing the pattern of improper police behavior that has plagued this St. Louis suburb. President Obama has ordered a review of the policies that allow local police forces to acquire military gear, which Ferguson turned into a touch point nationwide. Missouri’s attorney general announced workshops to diversify the state’s police departments, a necessary step in repairing the broken trust between a mostly black community and the nearly all-white police force paid to protect it.

How quickly Ferguson recovers–if it can–is even harder to predict. The suburb is more than a protest zone: other parts of town bear such signs of reinvention as a wine bar, refurbished loft apartments and a farmers’ market. In 2010 it was a finalist in a national All-America City competition. “We don’t ignore the fact that there’s racial tension and segregation,” says Brian Fletcher, a former mayor and the founder of a committee called I Love Ferguson, which is raising money to repay the businesses that suffered in the looting and hopes to raise enough to incentivize others to move in. “How we responded to the tragedy will become the real legacy.”

This appears in the September 08, 2014 issue of TIME.
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