I tried, I really did. When I first heard about the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt.
A lot of police shootings are perfectly legitimate, stopping bad people from doing bad things. Beyond that, there are cases where the victim didn’t deserve to get shot, but you can understand why it happened — people who were holding toy guns, cops who mistook a harmless object for a gun, accidental discharges, confusing situations, shots that miss the target and hit someone else. These may involve various degrees of recklessness or risk on the part of the shooter, but they aren’t straight-up murders.
The most prominent witness, Dorian Johnson, describes something that sounds an awful lot like a murder:
Brown made it past the third car. Then, “blam!” the officer took his second shot, striking Brown in the back. At that point, Johnson says Brown stopped, turned with his hands up and said “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!”
By that point, Johnson says the officer and Brown were face-to-face. The officer then fired several more shots. Johnson described watching Brown go from standing with his hands up to crumbling to the ground and curling into a fetal position.
That sounds pretty bad, but there’s no way for me to tell if Johnson is mistaken or even lying. For all I know, he never even met Brown; it wouldn’t be the first time a supposed witness had completely fabricated a story to get attention. It was certainly possible that this was just a terrible mistake. In theory.
Then we all got to see how police work is done in St. Louis County, and in Ferguson in particular. For several nights, peaceful protesters have been met with heavily armed riot cops. On Wednesday, police announced that protests would be allowed during the day, but that a curfew would be enforced at night.
Why? Why should people not be able to go outside late at night in their own neighborhood? As Lt. Max Geron of the Dallas police says,
“Most protesters will meet, protest, and go home when they feel they’ve made their point. If they aren’t breaking any laws, they can be left to express themselves.” Establishing a dispersal time then gives protesters something to rebel against. “When you establish arbitrary rules that have no basis in law, the police then feel they have to enforce those rules or they look illegitimate. They can set these rules with the best of intentions, but they just end up creating more problems for themselves.”
The police in Ferguson did set a curfew time, and to deal with the problems they created, police sent about a platoon of SWAT (-ish) officers, complete with armored vehicles and a sniper on the roof, as seen in this shot by The Huffington Post‘s Ryan Reilly:
As night fell, the police tried to move the protesters off the streets. They started with a sort of Jedi mind trick, thanking the protesters for leaving before they actually left, and then telling the protesters that they should join their friends who had left. It was pretty funny in a sort of creepy not-getting-the-joke kind of way. (“You should probably leave now. All the the really cool people have left. You don’t want to be a loser by staying…” wasn’t actually what they said, but that was the undertone.)
Then came the teargas, followed by a handful of Molotov cocktails from the protesters, followed by more teargas. For an example of what that’s like, check out this video taken a little later in the night by Polarbear Productions of the police trying to drive off a crowd standing in the street. It starts with the loud chirp of an LRAD crowd control weapon in warning mode — followed by a barrage of smoke or teargas and rubber bullets.
This is no way to treat people who are just hanging out in their own neighborhood. “Not disbursing,” regardless of how they charge it, isn’t what you’d call a real crime.
The police in Ferguson also expended a lot of effort trying to stop people from recording them or reporting on what they were doing. Ryan Reilly was detained with Wesley Lowery from the Washington Post while they were hanging out at a McDonald’s restaurant tweeting and recharging their phones. (For God’s sake, somebody get these people external battery packs!) The police told them they were being arrested on trespassing charges, but after Matt Pearce from the Los Angeles Times called the police chief for a statement about it, they were kicked loose without any paperwork.
I think it was probably arresting the reporters (and also St. Louis Alderman Antonio French who was tweeting from the scene) that drew a lot of mainstream media attention. More politicians have weighed in on the matter, and the Missouri State Police have moved in to replace the St. Louis County police.
Stunningly, that seems to have changed everything. The state troopers are led by Capt. Ron Johnson who (a) is black and (b) has really good leadership skills. He seems to have taken a page out of Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank’s protest playbook, because he and his men showed up in regular uniforms rather than riot gear, they didn’t bring rifles or armored vehicles or tear gas, and they just began mingling with the crowd, talking to them and marching down the street with them. (From some of the reports, it sounds like the police are staged nearby and are keeping an eye on the area, because there were a few minor incidents and the cop cars showed up immediately to deal with the problem.) After a while, a lot of the cops just left the area, and the residents of Ferguson had their streets to themselves. Just a bunch of people hanging out at an outdoor event in the neighborhood.
Maybe I’m just fooling myself, but based on what I’m reading on Twitter, it felt last night like the situation had settled down. The reporters gave up hunting for conflict and shuffled off to their hotels. Obviously, things could still have gone wrong — there are rumblings on Twitter all the timee — and it could still slip out of control with another fatal gunshot, but it no longer feels like that fatal gunshot is imminent.
So the immediate threat of violence has abated, and the long-term solution to American race relations is still a work in progress. That just leaves the original problem that started it all: The circumstances of Michael Brown’s death. To give you some idea of where I’m going with this, up until last night — before Capt. Ron Johnson filled the world with brotherly love — my original title for this post was “Fuck Tha Ferguson Police In Particular.”
Given how badly the police have handled everything else in Ferguson — and I realize it was the St. Louis County cops who deployed their SWAT team, not the Ferguson cops, but it’s all happening on Ferguson’s patch and to the people the Ferguson cops are supposed to protect and serve — I don’t see any reason to think they give a damn about the people of Ferguson. At least not the black ones. This seems like exactly the kind of environment that would tolerate the kind of cop that would someday lose his temper and execute a young black man. And then try to cover up the crime.
At this point, I’m pretty sure the Ferguson police are capable of anything. We know they attack peaceful protesters, I think they’re harboring a murderous cop, and frankly, I’d like to know where all of them were when Biggie and Tupac got shot.
This tweet actually sums it up pretty well:
On the one hand, named witnesses on camera saying what happened. On the other hand, mysterious cop in hiding saying "nuh uh." Tough call.
— Kaili Joy Gray (@KailiJoy) August 15, 2014
I had to go to sleep before I could finish this post, and now I see that the night was fairly peaceful, and that the Ferguson police department has made good on their promise to reveal the shooter’s name, which is Darren Wilson.
They’ve also picked this moment to reveal that they believe Michael Brown was a suspect in a what is either a strong-armed robbery or shoplifting at a nearby store. Obviously, as everyone is tiresomely point out, that’s not a reason to kill him. However, if it’s true, it makes it more plausible that he responded violently when confronted by Wilson. Ferguson police also say Dorian Johnson was involved in the same robbery/shoplifting incident, which would cast doubt on his credibility as a witness.
That said, the Ferguson police have not, as far as I know, said anything to contradict Dorian Johnson’s account of the shooting, which is that Wilson shot Brown in the back from some distance and then shot him again while he was surrendering. Nothing Brown did beforehand could possibly justify that.
Which makes it kind of weird that the police would release the report about Brown at this time. It’s almost like they were pissed off at having to reveal the shooter’s name, so they decided to smear Brown’s memory in retaliation, even though it has very little to do with officer Wilson’s behavior.
You know, after Capt. Johnson’s performance at calming things down last night, I was wondering how the Ferguson police would attempt to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Sigh. Hopefully the peace will hold for another night.
One other note: Police initially refused to name the officer who shot Brown, claiming there were security concerns, and earlier I said that sounded reasonable. But now that I think about it, I’m not convinced. We’ve known that NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo apparently killed Erik Garner in New York for weeks, and he’s still okay. Out of all the thousands of officers who have killed people, how many times have any of them been the victim of retaliatory violence? Heck, FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi shot and killed Victoria Weaver at Ruby Ridge, an event which angered an awful lot of people, including a large number of well-armed right-wing nut jobs, and he’s still fine 22 years later.