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Ferguson Protesters Take It Off The Streets To Take On The System

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's death comes as the activism his death inspired is shifting. In the days after the 18-year-old was killed by police officer, hundreds of protesters descended on Ferguson, Mo. They called for police accountability and social justice. St. Louis Public Radio's Emanuele Berry has been talking with some protesters about how their approach has changed.

EMANUELE BERRY, BYLINE: Last August, activists joined in the course of protest at demonstrations all around St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) We young. We strong. We marching all night long.

BERRY: A year later, some activism in St. Louis sounds more like this.

BRYAN MAYNARD: In our HTML document here, what do we have? Do you guys want to go through...

BERRY: That's Bryan Maynard teaching a dozen people the foundations of Web development - so CSS, HTML - things like that.

MAYNARD: But really the main idea behind this is really to empower them and to give them some general knowledge about entrepreneurship.

BERRY: The class he's leading is designed to help minorities succeed in the tech community. These students are attending a six-week workshop run by Hands Up United, a social justice group that formed shortly after Ferguson unrest last year. The program is aiming to give people like 27-year-old Raymond Harrell a digital voice.

How tall are you?

RAYMOND HARRELL: Six-seven.

BERRY: Harrell wants to use his skills from the workshop to help with a business he's hoping to launch, a clothing line for tall guys.

HARRELL: If you want black businesses to be heard, I think this plays a big part because technology is the next big thing.

BERRY: Tara Thompson is a program director for Hands Up United. She thinks the tech program is a logical extension of last year's protest.

TARA THOMPSON: Really, it's not that far of a jump from protesting to coding, or from protesting to filling any void that is present in our community.

BERRY: Although activists may not be protesting in the streets of St. Louis like they were last August, they are still fighting for social justice. Some are focusing on community programming, others are lobbying for legislation to guide police conduct and training. And not everyone has continued to dedicate their time to activism. There's a predictable protest fatigue. People have returned to their jobs, their routines, limiting their involvement. And some have left St. Louis, like activists from out of state who came here to support protest in Ferguson.

DERAY MCKESSON: I've stood alongside protesters in Houston, in Waller County, in McKinney, Texas, in places like Baltimore...

BERRY: That's DeRay McKesson, who says he traveled across the United States documenting protest because the struggle that started in Ferguson goes beyond one location.

MCKESSON: So the movement began in Ferguson. It began with people coming out of their homes and saying, enough is enough. And it begin with no committee, no one leader, no (unintelligible), it was people who came outside said, no more. And then other people joined and stood by them. And it sustained. And it was that spirit of unrest, it was a spirit of unrest that started in the streets of St. Louis, in the streets of Ferguson, that spread across the country.

BERRY: Longtime activist Michael McPhearson says the movement is not only transforming geographically but also trying to focus on solutions.

MICHAEL MCPHEARSON: The fruit from the killing of Michael Brown is all these people deciding that they want to make a difference in their communities, coming together, creating networks, you know, working on things together. Those things weren't happening before. And in a democracy and in the United States, that's how change takes place.

BERRY: McPhearson says sustaining the movement and creating lasting change will take a different type of skill set.

MCPHEARSON: That stuff just doesn't happen. There has to be planning, there has to be preparation, there has to be training, there has to be thoughtful, strategic movement to make all that happen.

BERRY: And that might be difficult. The movement surrounding police violence has been described as fluid or leaderless. There are lots of different voices and groups around the country, which can make organizing and working towards collective goals difficult. But McPhearson and others are hopeful. While they're not sure how long change will take or ultimately what it will look like, they are sure change will come. For NPR News, I'm Emanuele Berry in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.