I was on the phone with a friend when the news came up, almost off-hand. He mentioned a police officer had just shot a teenager right down the street. Hanging up the phone, I walked outside to see a crowd moving up the road. I followed, and as we walked, more of my neighbors streamed out the door into the humid air, thick with apprehension of the tragedy we expected to find at the end of our procession.
That quiet march would become a weeklong protest, our community’s grief and frustration capturing the attention of the world. I joined to demand justice for Mike Brown, for his family, and all of us who, for so long, have felt shut out and voiceless in a region that refused to pay us any attention otherwise.
Since then, our community has come together in ways I never imagined. We elected Wesley Bell as St. Louis County prosecutor, hoping he can put our justice system on the path to reform. But I don’t see the tremendous change I marched for. I still feel profiled by law enforcement, and communities like Ferguson still suffer from a lack of opportunity and investment after our leaders swore, five years ago, to fight the root causes of our divide.
When you think of laborers, most people probably think about plumbers or carpenters or construction workers, not the janitors, the fast food workers, the healthcare workers and all the service workers who move in the background keeping St. Louis running. When everyone clocks out at 5 p.m., we clock in, an invisible workforce moving our region every day.
But at the end of our shifts, we return home to some of the most distressed neighborhoods. I take the bus from Ferguson into the city for my job as a janitor, which pays $11 an hour. I have to travel far because there aren’t enough good-paying jobs in Ferguson. I used to work at McDonald’s right down the street, but I couldn’t make less than $16,000 stretch across all the bills, groceries and rent payments. My neighbors can’t either.
The Ferguson Commission noted a living wage of $15 would make our region more equal across racial lines, giving us the ability to invest in neighborhoods, build local businesses and create safer communities. It’s a first step in making sure working families can actually support ourselves on the paychecks we take home. Washington University is moving their housekeepers and workers to $15 an hour, as is Treasurer Tishaura Jones’ office. It’s time others take the Ferguson Commission’s recommendation to heart.
We can put our region on the right track. Justice means valuing both the lives and labor of black residents with respect and a living wage. It means real opportunities, real infrastructure in our neighborhoods to make them stronger and safer. It means reform of our policing system and an end to profiling. We cannot solve one without addressing the others.
Our spirit moved, but our region has remained stagnant. Mike Brown and our protests moved the world, and forced it to take notice. St. Louis leaders have the power to create the tremendous change our communities demand and need. Five years later, it’s time they use it.
Mark Oliver works as a janitor and lives in Ferguson, Missouri.