FERGUSON, Mo. — David Morrison carries the scars of Ferguson’s upheaval. A veteran protester, he has fled gunshots and tear gas, marched, waved signs and played dead on the asphalt in years of activism that unspooled after a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. “I’m so angry!” he shouts.
He is 7 years old.
This is the inheritance of Ferguson’s children. Five years after they lay in bed listening to sirens or tiptoed outside in their pajamas to see police officers in riot gear battling protesters, a generation of largely African-American children in Ferguson has been molded by the unrest of 2014 and a messy epilogue of halting progress and still-raw racial divides.
“They’re not just kids,” said Raychel Proudie, a state legislator who represents Ferguson and interviewed students for a dissertation project. “They’re kids from Ferguson.”
Ferguson has become their shared birthmark, a source of pride and stigma. They write college-entrance essays about growing up here. At out-of-town debate tournaments or school-theater festivals, some defiantly announce their hometown. Others just say “St. Louis” to avoid the inevitable looks and follow-up questions about growing up in a city of 21,000 that is now synonymous with America’s racial chasm and pent-up anger over policing tactics in black communities.
Ferguson has made some visible changes to its government and criminal justice system in the wake of a federal review that found rampant racial bias and constitutional violations against its majority-black population.
More than half of Ferguson’s City Council members and police officers are now African-Americans — a dramatic shift from the nearly all-white leadership and police force in 2014. The aggressive ticketing and municipal prosecutions the city used to pad its budget, largely on the backs of black residents, have decreased by as much as 80 percent.
But some residents say Ferguson is not moving quickly or aggressively enough to undo long-running racial inequities. They say city leaders are still not addressing crime, poverty and a lack of opportunity in largely black neighborhoods, where even public parks are scarce.
Many of Ferguson’s young residents threw themselves into new currents of student activism. Khaliah Booker, 18, went to countless meetings and organizing sessions as a leader with the Ferguson Youth Initiative, an effort that predated the tumult. She said an array of new programs seemed to come and go without connecting with classmates who were preoccupied with everyday life.
“We’re living our lives to survive,” said Ms. Booker, an incoming freshman at Fontbonne University, near St. Louis. “It’s hard to be concerned about the craziness of politics and local government when you’re trying to make sure your little brother takes a bath every night and your mom gets up for work in time every morning. Those things cloud your mind.”
Others pulled away from the rising movement, resentful of how much time their parents spent protesting.
Children watched their friends stream away from Ferguson after buildings were looted and burned. In a place that is younger on average than the rest of the country, student numbers have dropped by 12 percent since 2014, and schools are closing.
‘He Was Too Young’
One gray July morning, David sat silently in a therapist’s waiting room, watching rain bead down the window. His mother, Aminah Ali, 30, filled out forms explaining why they had come. She worried about the anger that sometimes boils up in the son she is raising on her own. Anger over not seeing his father, over dead family and friends — including David’s favorite uncle, and an activist, Darren Seals, whose body was found in his burning car in 2016.
David’s mother got involved in a citizen-journalism project after the shooting of Michael Brown and took David along to protests when he was a preschooler. But one night, after she had to scoop David into her arms and race to her car when gunfire erupted, she began to notice the toll. He jolts awake from nightmares on the living-room couch where he often sleeps, and then cracks open her bedroom door to reassure himself she is still there.
“I overexposed him,” she said. “I just felt like, my son needs to be out here. He needs to be exposed to what the police are doing to us. But he was too young.”
Therapists in Ferguson say they see trauma’s fingerprints on young patients. One student who was outside on the steamy afternoon when the body of Mr. Brown, 18, was left for four hours in the middle of a Ferguson street told Ms. Proudie, who was a school counselor at the time, that he felt sick whenever he walked into his middle school cafeteria. There was something about the smell.
David and his mother were driving on a summer afternoon when the conversation turned — as it often does in Ferguson — to race and injustice.
David piped up from the back seat: “I can fight the police.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Yes, I will.”
“David!” his mother said. “You’re going to end up dead if you do that. Quit using your imagination. It’s time to use reality.”
David, who loves splashing into swimming pools and is scared of spiders in the basement, went quiet and turned back to watching a Pink Panther video.
‘The Police Can Hear You’
In August 2014, Ryann Louris was 20 years old, barely older than the teenager whose death set off protests outside her front door. Her home was so close to the chaos of the marches and the tear gas, she could hear the police even with her windows shut. When she pushed her tiny daughter, Journey, in her stroller, she could see enormous military-style vehicles that looked like tanks, things that she thought belonged in Iraq, not with local law enforcement forces preparing for protesters in the parking lot of a Target in suburban St. Louis.
Now she lives with her two daughters — Journey, 6, and Joi, 4, in a two-bedroom house a few miles away from the protests, near a small park with a playground and a tennis court. Her block is usually quiet, except for the comforting chatter from her neighbors on their front porch across the street.
Sometimes it seems too quiet. Down the block, houses are empty, boarded up, weeds sprouting where neat lawns used to be. Blight and abandoned houses have become a problem in Ferguson. Many people who have the means to move are simply leaving, and homes that go on the market often sit for long stretches; who wants to buy a house in Ferguson?
Ella Jones, a City Council member, said more than 600 houses stand empty, according to 2017 data. In apartments along Canfield Drive, a winding road dotted with low-slung rental buildings where Mr. Brown was killed, former residents said nearly everyone they knew had moved away.
Ms. Louris, who works in a warehouse that manufactures coffee machines, said she was still haunted by Mr. Brown’s death, rooted in a new physical place but unable to put aside images of those weeks in 2014.
He was killed on a hot Saturday in August, and she was watching online as people posted live videos of the scene of his death.
“I kept looking at my Facebook,” she recalled, which was filled with videos and photos from Canfield Drive, where Mr. Brown’s body lay on the pavement. “I kept thinking, ‘He’s still there, he’s still there, why is he still there?’ I’ve never seen people treat the dead so ill.”
Months later, a St. Louis prosecutor announced that a grand jury had not indicted Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Mr. Brown, setting off a new round of protest.
A detailed federal review also cleared Officer Wilson — who later left the department — of any civil-rights violations and largely supported the officer’s version of the shooting. Investigators concluded that Officer Wilson had confronted Mr. Brown in connection with a theft at a nearby convenience store. Then, the report found, Mr. Brown attacked Officer Wilson while the officer was seated in his S.U.V., and struggled for control of his gun. After a brief chase on Canfield Drive, the report said, Mr. Brown was moving toward Officer Wilson on the street when he was fatally shot.
After the shooting, Ferguson officials entered into a contentious agreement with the Justice Department, promising to overhaul its court process, make new guidelines for stops and searches, give police officers more training and require them to wear body cameras. But progress has been agonizingly slow.
This year, the lawyer appointed to monitor the process, Natashia Tidwell, appeared impatient, telling a judge at the most recent status hearing in early July that the city had worked to collect data on officers’ use of force and developed policies to improve community policing, but had failed to carry them out. There is an “absence of forward thinking and planning,” the monitor found.
Ms. Louris wants her children to have a kinder relationship with the police than her generation does. If they walk past officers on the street, she urges Journey to give them a high five or wave.
But she is still wary of risks, Mr. Brown’s death an indelible memory. “I say, ‘If Mommy gets pulled over, I need you to be very quiet, very still. Sit back and be very, very still,’” she said. “They know what to do.”
Journey, sitting on the front steps and nibbling pistachios, turned and gave her mother a warning look. “Mommy, the police can hear you,” she said.
“It’s O.K.,” Ms. Louris said, her voice going soft. “She thinks that because they drive down the street sometimes. She thinks they’re all around.”
‘I Know It’s Not Safe’
Kameran Toran, 17, spends his days in the long shadow of Michael Brown’s death, beating a path down a wide commercial street that was gutted by looting and arson in violent demonstrations five years ago. West Florissant Avenue, his street, is a jumble of progress and decay.
A new Boys & Girls Clubs facility is being built, workers in hard hats and vests scurrying around. There is an Urban League building where a gas station had been burned. A couple of miles from the unrest, but technically within Ferguson city limits, a Starbucks. But storefronts are still abandoned husks, and many residents loathe the dominance of liquor stores and fast-food joints.
Kameran lives in an apartment a few blocks from where Michael Brown was killed. They attended a common high school, where Kameran says he was kicked out two years ago after he was caught smoking marijuana in a bathroom. He later got his diploma through an alternative high school program. His dream job is driving a forklift in a warehouse. But until he turns 18 and can afford a car, West Florissant marks a border of his world.
“It was more of a city that was going down, basically,” said Joshura Davis, the president of the West Florissant Business Association, remembering what it was like to try to lure new businesses there after the unrest. “The perception was that it was an unsafe place, that it was a place where there weren’t a lot of thriving businesses.”
Now he can point out small advances. Mr. Davis is hopeful that an application for a federal grant will be accepted this time, allowing for more greenery and crosswalks on a stretch that has too few businesses and too much pavement. Violent crime in Ferguson shot up in 2015, and then began to decline, but it has not yet returned to lower, pre-2014 levels. “Here we are five years later,” he said. “That there would be such a long tail on recovery, I wouldn’t have thought that. That’s what frustrates me.”
One coppery July afternoon, Kameran and a friend passed Sam’s Meat Market, where a friend from the neighborhood was shot dead in an argument in the parking lot two days earlier.
Across the street were the decaying Park Ridge apartments, now sitting half-occupied, where Kameran lived with his mother and little sister until someone broke in and stole their cash, he said.
“I try to stay away from people I don’t know,” he said. “They take what they want.”
They passed the gleaming new Ferguson Community Empowerment Center run by the Urban League, where Kameran attended a month of job-skills classes under a program, Save Our Sons, that taught about 750 people in response to overwhelming complaints about the persistent lack of job opportunities for black men. After five years, it is a rare new community-service center operating along West Florissant. He recently got a job at the McDonald’s on West Florissant after an Urban League worker took him to buy the requisite pair of black dress pants.
At home, in the basement bedroom where he has decorated the wall with the shoe boxes from his favorite sneakers, Kameran writes rap lyrics about taking flight. Actually leaving is another thing.
“I know it’s not safe, I know it’s bad,” he said. “But I’ve adapted. I don’t know where else to go.”
Frances Robles contributed reporting from San Juan, P.R. Jack Begg and Susan Beachy contributed research.