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National

6 Months After Protests, Ferguson Businesses On Path To Rebuild

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Six months ago today, Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. The death of the unarmed, black 18-year-old sparked protests for months and some were violent. The incident also put the city of Ferguson under a microscope with its law enforcement courts and public officials all coming under criticism. St. Louis Public Radio's Emanuele Berry has been spending time in Ferguson and reports that there is a new normal emerging.

EMANUELE BERRY, BYLINE: Last August, West Florissant Avenue was lined with protesters waving signs and chanting for justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mike Brown.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Justice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Now.

BERRY: Fast forward six months, and the only sign being waved doesn't have anything to do with Michael Brown.

JASHAWN SHOTWELL: It say, give me liberty or give me death, and then the other signs say, honk freedom honk.

BERRY: That's Jashawn Shotwell. He's dancing and waving a sign to promote a nearby liberty tax preparation business. He says the street feels drastically different than it did in August.

SHOTWELL: Oh, it was way different because it was so many people in the street, and they were doing so much. And look at it now. It's, like, peaceful.

BERRY: The line of media trucks is gone. Demonstrations are now sporadic and smaller, and it almost feels like any other town. But the charred remains of businesses like Juanita Morris's boutique betray that.

JUANITA MORRIS: The only thing left of my building that I still cherished is my logo, the lady on the pink wall. Out of all that's around her, all that destruction, everything that's torn down, she's still standing tall.

BERRY: Morris's store was set on fire in November after a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown. Recently, Morris watched as curators from the Missouri History Museum searched through the remnants of her store for artifacts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Here's part of her computer keyboard.

BERRY: Parts of the structure's pink walls remain, but the interior is mostly piles of ash and metal. More than 20 businesses were completely destroyed and many still sit in ruin. Through crowdfunding, Morris is continuing her business at a temporary location. She's among the business owners here trying to rebuild and stay in the community.

MORRIS: With me in the process of rebuilding, I don't have time to be mad at anybody, and the only thing I can see is good coming out of it.

BERRY: Not everyone has such a positive outlook. Walking around the neighborhood where Michael Brown was shot, nobody wanted to be interviewed. There were lots of nos, no thank yous, door slams and demands that I go away. Eventually, Willis Brown agreed to talk, and I asked him why nobody else would.

WILLIS BROWN: They're tired of the whole thing because as far as they're concerned, nothing really happened. You know, even when we took it to the extreme to the point where people marched and people, you know, stood their ground about this and wanted to see justice then, nothing happened.

BERRY: He says the media attention has changed little. The police force here remains mostly white. The same government officials are in charge. His neighborhood remains isolated. It leaves him feeling pessimistic.

BROWN: You know, it's just a bunch of smoking mirrors, for real. You know, basically, OK, we'll satisfy the people and we'll let it go hush and then everything will be fine. OK. That's the way you do.

BERRY: But there are a number of efforts underway. In November, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles announced plans to create a civilian review board and recruit more black officers. More African-American candidates have petitioned to run in the next Ferguson City Council election. State and city commissions are discussing how to improve economic and social conditions in the region. There are even efforts in the state legislature to address Ferguson-related issues. A lot of these efforts are just in the talking and planning phase. Alexis Templeton, who's protested since August, says so far people have changed, not policies.

ALEXIS TEMPLETON: And so now we're taking steps to organize and to demand the change in that in a way at a table instead of per se on the street.

BERRY: Templeton and others hope six months from now those efforts will lead to real reforms. For NPR News, I'm Emanuele Berry in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.