For a year now, Ferguson has served as shorthand for racial conflict in the United States. The death of teenager Michael Brown at the hands of police, and the protests that followed that death, not only changed the small working-class Missouri town, they changed the whole country.
Yes, black teens had been shot by police before. And racial conflicts were also a painful, open wound for which there seemed to be no relief.
But the clashes that followed Michael Brown's death, with images of police in riot gear attacking protesters, and evidence exposing systemic racial prejudice among city police officers, deeply disturbed many Americans. Though many had previously tended to instinctively side with the state in conflicts between authorities and black youths, after Ferguson they were less willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt.
Racism and police violence
Since Ferguson, it has become much harder to separate the smoldering racial conflict in the United States from the noxiousness of police brutality. The entanglement publicly claimed more lives in Cleveland, North Charleston, Baltimore and elsewhere throughout the course of the year. The fact that more than half of the 50 US states intend to equip officers with body cameras, make extra police training mandatory and have begun to call for independent investigative commissions provides hope that perhaps a learning process has begun.
The year has seen changes in Ferguson, as well. The first city council elections to take place after the unrest produced remarkable results: Voter turnout more than doubled, and the number of black representatives elected to the six-person council went from one to three.
In the meantime, Ferguson has a new chief of police, a new city manager and new judges - all of whom are African-Americans, and therewith representatives of the city's majority black population. And another piece of good news is that, in the wake of a damning report prepared by the US Department of Justice, the provocative practice of ticketing and fining poor blacks to generate income for floundering city coffers has also been reduced.
Nevertheless: Today Ferguson is more divided than ever. Mistrust between some groups of black and white residents has gotten worse since the unrest. Despite the fact that the police are now involved in neighborhood projects and are wearing body cameras, they are far from having gained the trust and acceptance of the city's black residents.
From words to deeds
Ferguson not only changed the country, it also changed the nation's first black president. Barack Obama had hesitated to side with the black community in questions of racial conflict until well into his second term. After Ferguson he took a clear position, and openly criticized a criminal and justice system that treated young blacks and Latinos very differently than similarly aged whites. His recent pardoning of young nonviolent drug offenders and his proposals for judicial reform show that he is looking for more than just eloquent announcements.
Racial conflict has been a part of America since its very beginnings. It is deeply ingrained in its DNA. In order to get to the root of the problem the country will finally have to get serious about the issue. Tackling that problem remains one of the last major challenges for a president who seems to be getting stronger as his tenure wanes.
Perhaps President Obama will feel encouraged enough by the successes of recent months to finally do what his supporters have been expecting him to do for a long time: give a major speech on racial conflict. A speech that will not solve the problem overnight, but one that could change the United States and the world.
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