Ferguson: The Incident and the Impact

On October 13, police in Ferguson, Missouri, arrested at least 50 protesters from a 500-person gathering outside a Ferguson police station on charges of civil disobedience. These protestors were continuing the demonstrations that began over two months ago, after Michael Brown was shot by Officer Darren Wilson. The shooting again focuses Americans’ continuing Civil Rights struggle, drawing attention to policing policies and the ethos of the American law enforcement system.

Lick students in The Center enact the "don't shoot" posture adopted by Ferguson Protestors photo by Eleanor Sananman

Lick students in The Center enact the “don’t shoot” posture adopted by Ferguson Protestors
photo by Eleanor Sananman

In the past two months, news outlets and social media around the world have been abuzz with stories relating to the death of a young black man at the hands of a white police officer in the small Midwestern city of Ferguson, and the events and discussions the death sparked. This article chronicles these events from the moments before the death up until today.

On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. The exact series of events that took place during the shooting is disputed between the Ferguson Police Department and eyewitnesses to the scene, but a few facts are clear: one shot was fired from within the police car, the others from outside the vehicle as Wilson pursued Brown as Brown ran. Brown was shot a total of six times, including once in the head. Now, as more is known of the autopsy, it seems that Brown was hit at least once at close range, in the hand. This information could potentially corroborate part of Wilson’s story that Brown struggled with him in the car, and attempted to grab the officer’s gun. Brown’s blood was also found within the police car and on Wilson’s uniform. Despite these new leads, the rest of the story remains the same. Brown was shot numerous times after surrendering to Wilson. Brown’s body lay in the street for four hours after he was shot.

The shooting of Michael Brown sparked immediate outrage in both the Ferguson community and across the country, an outrage, which intensified as the Ferguson Police Department, placed Wilson (whose name was not released until days after the event) on paid leave. In the days following the shooting, this outrage gave way to protests against racism and police brutality across the country, from Oakland, CA, to Austin, TX, to Washington, D.C.

In Ferguson, peaceful protestors were met by police officers decked out in full riot gear with tear gas, who arrived in response to reports of looting. Tensions mounted

between the public and the Ferguson Police Department as the FPD deployed rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters; Missouri state Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal confronted Ferguson Police Chief during a press conference, asking if she would “be gassed again” for protesting peacefully, as she had on the previous Monday night. The protests continued, and in the following days, many people were arrested. Some were jailed and released without explanation. Highly publicized arrests included those of a reporter from the Washington Post, one from the Huffington Post, and that of a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor.

The deployment of riot police and the arrests of protesters and members of the media were not the only actions taken by the Ferguson Police Department that called to mind a totalitarian police state. Journalists and news reporters in Ferguson were instructed by police not to record anything or take pictures, and were herded into a “press area” removed from the protests; a student reporter for a local, volunteer-run news station was threatened at gunpoint by a police officer. One reporter recalled a young woman in the crowd begging him to remain with the protesters, out of fear that if the police were to cause any further harm, reporters would be needed to make the truth visible to the rest of the world.

On August 16, the same day a protester was shot, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon imposed a curfew on Ferguson, but protests continued. SWAT teams and the National Guard were called into the area. Because of the authority’s response to the protesters, Amnesty International deployed human rights teams to Ferguson, the first time they had deployed the teams in the United States, later issuing the statement that the “US can’t tell other countries to improve their records on policing and peaceful assembly if it won’t clear up its own human rights record.”

Other nations, many of whom the United States government has criticized in the past, reprimanded our country for the events occurring in Ferguson. Russia chided “our American partners to pay more attention to restoring order in their own country before imposing their dubious experience on other nations.” The Russian ministry for Foreign Affairs also tweeted a picture of Hedy Epstein, the arrested Holocaust survivor, with the caption “#US should mind its own problems, not meddle in others’ affairs” followed by the hashtag #Ferguson. Xinhua, a Chinese news agency the US has accused of censorship, stated that “Obviously, what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others.” The Official Islamic Republic News Agency declared that “violence has become institutionalized in the United States in recent years.” Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for American Affairs, criticized the US for “racist behavior and oppression.” The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted, “Today the world is a world of tyranny and lies. The flag of #HumanRights is borne by enemies of human rights w/US leading them! #Ferguson.” Perhaps the most stinging remarks came from the Egyptian government, just days before the anniversary of the Egyptian government’s massacre of peaceful protestors; a spokesman for the foreign ministry told the news agency MENA that the Egyptian government was “closely following” the events in Ferguson. According to the New York Times, the state-run Egyptian news agency, Ahram Online, “called on U.S. authorities to exercise restraint and deal with the protests in accordance with U.S. and international standards.”

Protest and discussion were not the only responses to the shooting of Michael Brown. Fundraisers were set up on behalf of Wilson (though it is unclear what the money would go to, as Wilson did not have charges filed against him, and was on paid leave from the Police department), and for the Brown family. There has been over $235,550 raised for “Support Officer Darren Wilson,” and $197,620 for “Support Officer Wilson.” The first site is not affiliated with any organization, and it is unclear who started it, but the second is run by a police charity called “Shield of Hope.” the “Support Officer Darren Wilson” campaign has been shut down, but their Facebook page urges viewers to contribute by buying t-shirts and merchandise instead, as well as petitioning against the fund for Michael Brown’s family.  $316,194 has been raised for Michael Brown’s family, in a fund started by the family’s attorney. A memorial was set up in the location of Brown’s shooting. On September 23, an unknown offender burned the memorial to the ground. Community members quickly replaced the charred remains of the flowers and pictures with an even larger display of gifts in remembrance of Brown, but the sickening act served as a reminder to many of how little the lives of young black men are valued in our country.

As time goes on, the news coverage of the protests has decreased, but the protests are far from over. The Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, in an announcement on September 24, said that police will continue to respond in riot gear if protests escalate. In an announcement the following day, Jackson apologized to the Brown family, saying he was “sorry for for the loss of your son. I’m also sorry that it took so long to remove Michael from the street.” He then went on to declare that he would refuse to step down as police chief. Needless to say, the Brown family and protestors were not impressed with the apology. On September 26, eight protesters were arrested under suspicion of being involved in an incident that took place at a community center (not located near the site of the protest) the night before, when a police officer was shot in the arm. On October 7th, a federal judge ruled that the FPD had violated the constitution by making protesters continue walking. Protests flared up again, after Vonderrit Myers Jr., an 18-year-old black teen, was shot 16 times by a white, off-duty police officer in St. Louis on October 8. Myers was killed, and the St. Louis Police Department has since placed the officer on paid administrative leave and released two differing reports of the event. The SLMPD claim Myers was armed, and fired shots on the officer. His family disputes the claim, stating Myers did not own a gun.

In addition to the protests, discussions continue across the country, including here at Lick. On Friday, August 29, the Center hosted a community discussion about the impact of the events in Ferguson on the LWHS community, the country and the greater communities to which we belong. On September 18, the Center also hosted a performance by New Wilderness Project, a musical group devoted to social and natural justice. Many who attended the discussion in late August spoke about how the shooting in Ferguson was not an isolated incident; it came at the hands of years of racial tensions and police brutality, of predominantly white police forces in predominantly black communities. Officer Wilson had previously belonged to police department in Jennings, MI., as a part of nearly all-white police force in a community that was 89% black.The Jennings department was disbanded after years of corruption; complaints and lawsuits were frequently filed against officers and the department. The final straw was the shooting of an unarmed black woman; soon after the shooting, the entire department was shut down and St. Louis County was brought in to run a new one. The Ferguson Police Department has a record of brutality as well.

What happened in Ferguson reflected what happens on a near-daily basis across the entire country.  In the United States, an average of 400 civilians are killed by police each year. Between 2005 and 2012, two black people were killed by white police officers each week. These killings happen all over the map, even in our own backyard. In Oakland, the NAACP reported that between 2004 and 2008, out 45 of those killed in Officer-involved shootings, 36 were black and none were white. Plastered along the fence of the freeway ramp behind Lick are posters in remembrance of Alejandro (“Alex”) Nieto, a Latino resident of San Francisco, whose death at the hands of SFPD in March of 2014 was only ruled a homicide this September. The events in Ferguson have certainly sparked a greater awareness of the great prevalence of racism in our society and the extent to which it is institutionalized, especially within the justice system. Wilson finally testified before a grand jury about the shooting more than a month after Brown was killed, but the date for the grand jury proceedings has been extended until January 7, 2015. The US Department of Justice is also investigating the shooting independently, but it will still be a long while before Wilson is brought to justice (if he ever is). Now, the question remains: what changes, if any, will be made to prevent deaths like that of Michael Brown (or Alex Nieto or Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner or any of the hundreds of people of color killed by the police each year) from happening again?

 

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