ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
How much has Ferguson changed since the day Michael Brown was shot and killed? Well, Kevin McDermott is a political reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Like many of his colleagues on the paper, he has been covering Ferguson all year, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.
KEVIN MCDERMOTT: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Last summer, Ferguson, Mo., was a mixed-race, majority black, working-class town of 21,000 people. And as we later learned, it was a place where relations between residents and the nearly all-white police force were terrible. A year later, are those relations any better?
MCDERMOTT: Well, it depends on who you talk to. If you talk to African-American residents in Canfield Apartments, which was the area where the shooting occurred a year ago Sunday, they will tell you that nothing's changed. I talked to one young man who said that just the day previously he had watched police officers stop two young African-American men and essentially tell them you fit a description for a robbery. And they had them out there for half an hour and ended up not even arresting them. He says this sort of thing happens all the time. If you talk to white residents of Ferguson, you get a different story. They're very proud of living in a diverse community. There really isn't the kind of tension which you might expect between whites and blacks in Ferguson. The issue has generally been between police and blacks. And I think, in a lot of ways, the white residents of Ferguson maybe, even though they live there, haven't really seen that side of it.
SIEGEL: This past spring, the U.S. Department of Justice, which had found no cause to prosecute Officer Darren Wilson, did find lots wrong with local law enforcement. And one key finding was that the need for revenue for the town from fines and fees, rather than public safety, was producing a huge volume of traffic stops - disproportionately of black drivers. Is that still the case?
MCDERMOTT: That is an issue that is presumably getting better. The governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, just last month signed a law which limits the percentage of revenue that cities and counties can collect for minor traffic violations and other things, and it was exactly because of the Department of Justice report. It really shined a light on a practice that most people weren't aware of and that really did hit the poorest residents of places like Ferguson, where they would get trapped into a spiraling set of fees that might've begun small, and next thing you know, they owe thousands of dollars because of missed court dates and other things. And the city was relying on this for a huge part of its income. And what the report made clear was that they had come to rely on this so much that officers were under incredible pressure to fine people for every little thing they could fine.
Now, when you consider that this whole issue began with a confrontation on the street between an officer and a young man who was walking in the street and the officer was telling him to get off the street, well, this is exactly the kind of small thing that might begin with a, you know, issue about, well, is there going to be a fine? Is he breaking some kind of a minor law? And then, all of a sudden, we're here a year later talking about everything that's changed. So yeah, that part of it, assuming that this law works, is something that, I think, you could say could has changed.
SIEGEL: Do you get the sense that all this publicity and the protests in Ferguson have made it a less desirable place to live in or a place in which to run a business?
MCDERMOTT: You know, it's hard to see how it wouldn't. A lot's been made of, well, what about the homeowners who want to sell their homes? Are they going to be able to do that? We had a lot of businesses destroyed. Many of those businesses obviously are not going to be coming back. On the other hand, there's kind of a charming story about a cake maker in Ferguson who - there was a picture of her standing in front of her looted shop crying. And that picture went global, and she began getting contributions from all over the country. She's reinvested those back into the shop, and now she says that most of her business is from out-of-state people ordering her cakes because she's become something of a folk hero for keeping her doors open in Ferguson.
SIEGEL: But in your one-year review that was published in the Post-Dispatch, you noted that more than two dozen businesses were damaged or destroyed in the violence that occurred in the city. There were millions of dollars in property damage. Does it look like a place that's been through trouble? Can you see that damage, or do you have to go searching to find it?
MCDERMOTT: You know, it surprisingly is not as obvious as you would think. I think most people, if they drove through Ferguson today, wouldn't necessarily have any sense that anything was amiss. It actually is a surprisingly nice little place. The downtown area's a clean and bustling little area. The one thing that gives it away is that you do see yard signs - I love Ferguson. You see a lot of these little shops that'll sell coffee mugs - I love Ferguson - and talking about people getting along, I mean, there is a sense that they are aware of their own place in the national conversation about race, and I think a lot of residents want to make it clear that, you know, that they at least are willing to have that conversation.
SIEGEL: Kevin McDermott, thanks for talking with us.
MCDERMOTT: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Kevin McDermott, political reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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