Published May 03, 2016
EDITOR'S NOTE — A year ago, most Americans had never heard of the St. Louis suburb called Ferguson. But after a white police officer fatally shot a black 18-year-old in the street, the name of the middle-class community became virtually a household word. From the first hours after Michael Brown's death, Associated Press reporter Jim Salter watched as a neighborhood protest launched a national movement.
Until August 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, wasn't the kind of place that generated much news. It was a mostly quiet suburban town of 21,000, a mix of beautiful old homes and working-class neighborhoods. Like a lot of communities in north St. Louis County, it had seen significant white flight and was now two-thirds African-American.
My wife's grandmother lived in Ferguson until she died in 1991, so I spent some time there as a young man. But since joining the St. Louis office of The Associated Press in 1993, I had never been to Ferguson as a reporter.
On Aug. 9, I returned home from a bike ride to learn that a young black man had been fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer. By that humid Saturday evening, hundreds of people were congregating near the scene where Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson. The crowd was angry. Some witnesses said the 18-year-old had his hands up in surrender when he was shot.
The next day, as Ferguson police prepared for a news conference to explain what happened, I was among a crowd of reporters who heard distant chanting. As I walked toward the noise, I could see in the distance hundreds of people, many holding signs. The chant soon became clear: "Hands up! Don't shoot!"
That would become the rallying cry in the unrest that followed. It was also the first evidence that Ferguson would be a far bigger story than we initially imagined.
Shootings by police are not uncommon, a sad reality of urban life. In April last year, about four months before Brown died, a mentally ill man was shot in a Milwaukee park. A few days before, a man waving an air rifle was killed in an Ohio Wal-Mart by police.
So what was different in Ferguson? Brown and Wilson had their fatal encounter in the middle of a street surrounded by apartment buildings. It was almost noon on a Saturday, and many people — residents, construction workers, visitors — were outside.
Word quickly spread from witnesses who believed the shooting was unjustified, that Brown was trying to surrender. What we didn't know at the time was the depth of mistrust between black residents and the predominantly white Ferguson Police Department, a level of suspicion that no doubt fueled what happened next.
On Sunday evening, thousands of people crowded the same street where Brown was killed for a vigil. The anger was evident, but the event was peaceful. Suddenly, a young woman came running: "They're rioting on West Florissant."
I ran the three blocks to the busy four-lane street lined with retail businesses. My attention was drawn to a large group of people cheering and yelling obscenities in the direction of a QuikTrip convenience store.
By the time I got there, it was on fire. People were running out, their arms full of stolen goods.
Never before had the anger been as intense as in Ferguson. Young men began hurling bricks through store windows, kicking in doors, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at police cars.
The destruction that night led police to adopt a tougher stance. By Monday, hundreds of officers in riot gear, some in armored trucks, lined the streets. Now police were becoming more aggressive. Some aimed their threats and angry words at protesters and journalists.
AP reporters, photographers and videographers from around the nation arrived, and the words and images we helped capture became part of the national debate about police interaction with black communities, the police response to protests and economic disparity between the races.
It was often harrowing work. Our journalists faced threats from protesters and police. Gas masks and bulletproof vests arrived, but many of us on the front lines of the riots felt the sting of tear gas when we failed to deploy the masks quickly enough.
The unrest lasted for months, worsened by a series of fatal police shootings in St. Louis. Most of the protests were nonviolent.
Meanwhile, local authorities had released virtually no information about when the grand jury considering potential charges for Wilson would render a final decision.
The announcement that Wilson would not be charged finally arrived on the evening of Nov. 24. The night produced striking visuals of buildings engulfed in flames and riot police massed under a "Season's Greetings" banner.
The next morning, the AP team was back out on the streets of Ferguson as the National Guard rolled in and the community assessed the damage.
Ferguson became the impetus for a national movement. Soon, other fatal police encounters with black suspects drew similar scrutiny.
After Ferguson, old presumptions are gone and new questions asked. The events there intensified how the nation looks at law enforcement, the use of deadly force and the inflamed relations between blacks and American police.