A year ago today, a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, catalyzing a firestorm of protests and re-animating national conversations on issues of race, policing, and violence in the US.
Michael Brown's bleeding corpse was subsequently left facedown in the middle of the road for four hours on the afternoon on August 9, 2014 — exposed to the midday summer sun and eyes of residents, a few of whom snapped cellphone images that would eventually spread across social media, the nation, and the world. At Brown's funeral, two weeks later, the Reverend Al Sharpton remarked that the 19-year-old was left laying in Canfield drive like his "life… didn't matter" — an observation that protesters set out to disprove when they took to the streets en masse over several months to declare that Brown's and all "black lives matter."
The protests, die-ins, and marches proceeded throughout the winter and into what some have called a "Black Spring" — a new civil rights movement led by a by a social media-wielding youth contingent. Occasionally, as more incidences of police killings came to light, the actions broke out in violence in Ferguson and in Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray's spine was crushed while in police custody in April.
Since then, the rallies for justice have not abated, and neither have the number of deaths at the hands of police. At least 1,083 Americans have been killed by cop since August 9, 2014, according to comprehensive research and data collected by VICE News — an average of nearly three people a day.
While the bulk of those killed from August 2014 to August 2015 were white, black people per population were more than twice as likely to be killed by cops than any other race, the data showed. African Americans are also more than three times as likely to be killed by police than white people, according to the statistics.
Brown's death was a seminal moment in arousing US consciousness of structural racial bias in police departments around the country, and the grand jury's decision three months later not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who killed him, proved to many that that bias permeates every facet of the criminal justice system.
"We need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation," President Barack Obama acknowledged at a press conference immediately after the Ferguson grand jury decision in November. "In too many parts of this country a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color. Some of this is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country."
Since Brown's death, there have been signs of progress. In the wake of the nationwide protests that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement, roughly 24 states have instituted at least 40 new laws or policies in place to stem officer-perpetrated violence and killings. In some cities, police departments have outfitted officers with bodycams to increase accountability, while in others, cops have been trained in impartial and community-based policing.
The fast indictments of the cop who shot and killed Cincinnati man Sam Dubose last month, and of the six Baltimore officers involved in Freddie Gray's death, were also welcomed by activists across the country. But in the data gleaned on civilian deaths by police in the last 12 months, VICE News came across only 22 cases where officers were indicted or charged with crimes for killing citizens, while a significant number more — at least 257 deaths — had been either ruled an accident or investigators found the officers were justified in their use of fatal force. The majority of incidences are still under investigation.
Change has also been sluggish in St. Louis and the surrounding suburbs. After months of demonstrations, local authorities are only now working with rights groups to set up a Civilian Oversight Board that would independently investigate police misconduct. Ferguson has been slow to address a scathing Department of Justice (DoJ) report released in March, which found evidence of pervasive racial bias and excessive violent practices within the Ferguson Police Department (FPD). Negotiations for changes to the FPD in light of the report have largely been hashed out behind closed doors despite activist efforts to insert a "civilian" lawyer into the consultations, according to the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS), a group that has been working to end police violence for nearly a decade.
At a recent press conference last month, Ferguson's mayor announced the hiring of interim police chief Andre Anderson — the city's first-ever black chief — and the future rollout of bodycams for all officers in the department, but gave no timeline for the deployment of the officer-mounted cameras. A year after Brown's death, the FPD remains disproportionately white. Only four out of 54 officers are black in a community that is more than 65 percent African American.
A memorial in memory of Michael Brown is seen in a sidewalk near where Brown was shot and killed as a parade in honor of Brown passes by Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo. Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP
Tory Russell, co-founder of Hands Up United, a Ferguson-based social justice nonprofit set up in the wake of Brown's death, told VICE News that the response to calls for accountability have been lethargic and lukewarm in the city.
"On the police side there's been zero accountability," Russell said from the sidelines of a peaceful march led by Brown's father, Michael Brown Sr., in St. Louis on Saturday. Hands Up United has come together with a body of other groups to coordinate four days of events and civil disobedience actions, which began Friday. Organizers have dubbed it the "Ferguson Uprising Commemoration Weekend."
"All that DoJ report did was put our grievances and our pain on paper," Russell said, adding that he found VICE News' figures on the number of people killed by police "just staggering."
"If any other place [outside the US] were killing three of their citizens a day, America would go over there and go rescue them," he said. "It's scary — with so much technology and money — that the government can't even collect the data on how many people its police are killing every year."
Despite Obama's recent announced reforms to the country's criminal justice system across America's "communities, courtrooms, and cellblocks," many civil rights groups are calling for even greater pushes from the nation's leaders to bring about police accountability and prosecutorial justice.
"It's high time our national leaders — President Obama and Attorney General Lynch — match the courage of everyday people risking their life and liberty to end discriminatory policing," Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, said in a statement Friday. "Why is there still no national database on police use of force? Why are indictments of those responsible for the tragic deaths of victims like Sandra Bland still so rare?"
Thousands will attend concerts, prayer services, silent marches, and a day of civil disobedience in Brown's memory this weekend, with similar actions in at least 32 states across America, Russell told VICE News.
The coalition of organizing groups, which includes the Don't Shoot Coalition and the Organization for Black Struggle, have also enlisted activists across the world, and expect people to rally in solidarity in the UK, France, South Africa, Brazil, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields
VICE News' Aliya Iftikhar and Tess Owen conducted the research for this report. Infographics by Sarah MacReading.
Topics: michael brown, black lives matter, americas, police, police brutality, accountability, criminal justice, crime & drugs, anniversary, hands up united, ferguson, missouri, freddie gray, sam dubose, race, biased policing, officer involved, ferguson uprising commemoration weekend, civil disobedience, protests, st. louis, shooting, police killings