A Comprehensive Timeline of the Police Mistakes in the Latest Round of Michael Brown Protests

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 25 2014 2:48 PM

Everything That’s Going Wrong in Ferguson

Documenting the police response to the latest round of Michael Brown protests.

Ferguson, Missouri August 20, 2014
Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, reacts to hearing a grand jury decision to not press charges against the white police officer who shot dead her unarmed 18-year-old son, on Nov. 24, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Photo by Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

After the announcement that a grand jury had declined to indict Darren Wilson, Ferguson, Missouri, was the site of “many fires, frequent bursts of gunshots, looting, and waves of tear gas,” in the words of the New York Times. Before the night was out, “West Florissant Avenue—the epicenter of the summer riots after the shooting—was again in flames,” reports the Washington Post. According to the Associated Press, “Monday night’s protests were far more destructive than any of those that followed Brown’s death.” More than a dozen businesses were burned, at least 14 people were injured, and 61 arrests were made in Ferguson, with an additional 21 in nearby St. Louis. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, speaking at a press conference at 1:30 a.m., said that he personally heard at least 150 gunshots in the Ferguson area.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

The grand jury’s findings were never going to settle the debate about Wilson’s decision to open fire on the unarmed Michael Brown—an indictment simply would have pushed prosecutors to move forward with a trial. What’s happening now isn’t just about the decision not to charge Wilson. It’s about how the community is voicing its frustration and how—or perhaps whether—authorities are allowing them to do so. When the unrest began this summer, police escalated confrontations on the ground, brandishing military-grade riot gear in response to both the largely peaceful protests and the occasionally violent ones. That crackdown was greeted by an aggressive response from protesters, which in turn brought an even harsher crackdown from police. That cycle repeated itself on a nightly basis for more than a week.

In the wake of this summer’s most heated protests, we offered our best attempt at a comprehensive timeline that documented law enforcement behavior that ranged from rational and possibly justified to highly questionable and downright unconstitutional. The question this time is whether authorities have learned from their mistakes or are doomed to repeat them. Below, you’ll find our latest installment documenting the interplay between how the protesters are protesting and the police are policing. We will continue to update the timeline in the days to come. Our original timeline is also reprinted below the rundown of more recent events.

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THE LEAD-UP

Monday, Nov. 17: Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declares a pre-emptive state of emergency.

The governor, who was criticized this summer for his slow response to the original protests, was eager to avoid being caught flatfooted again. “Regardless of the outcomes of the federal and state criminal investigations, there is the possibility of expanded unrest,” Nixon said in his executive order, which authorized the deployment of the National Guard to Ferguson. “The state of Missouri will be prepared to appropriately respond to any reaction to these announcements.” Not everyone was pleased with the plan to declare an emergency before anyone had done anything, particularly given how the police’s aggressive response this summer fanned the flames of unrest. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie reminded us: “[A]t first dozens, then hundreds of people gathered to peacefully protest the shooting and demand answers for why Brown’s body was allowed to lie in the sun for four hours before police took action. If there was unrest that day, it was less because of the protesters and more because of police.”

THE ANNOUNCEMENT

Monday, Nov. 24: St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch schedules a prime-time press conference to announce the grand jury’s decision.

Community leaders had asked that McCulloch provide a 48-hour warning before announcing the grand jury’s decision in hopes that the delay would help keep the peace. Not only was McCulloch unwilling to wait two days—he scheduled the announcement for 8 p.m. local time, ensuring that the early demonstrations would occur overnight. The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery pointed out on Twitter that “Announcing at night allows for rush hour traffic to clear, schools to get all children home.” Still, it’s hard to image that an 8 a.m. press conference, followed by hour upon hour of daylight, could have made things worse. McCulloch’s announcement itself, meanwhile, was lengthy and yet somehow still frustratingly vague.

THE DEMONSTRATIONS BEGIN

Monday, Nov. 24: Protests begin in earnest.

Small groups had been demonstrating in and around Ferguson for days ahead of the decision, and a large group had gathered at the Clayton courthouse to await the grand jury’s announcement. Almost immediately after McCullouch announced there would be no charges for Wilson, the protests began in full force. While many of the protesters behaved peacefully, some demonstrations devolved into violence. News cameras captured a group of protesters vandalizing a police car. Before the night was out, several buildings were burned and some businesses were looted.

Monday, Nov. 24: Local authorities deploy tear gas to break up demonstrations.

According to CNN, officials suggested prior to the grand jury announcement that they would not deploy tear gas as they had this summer. That promise quickly went unfulfilled. Shortly after the demonstrations began, police began firing tear gas canisters into the crowds of protesters, small groups of which had already turned destructive. As Dahlia Lithwick and Daria Roithmayr previously explained in Slate, the use of tear gas by police for crowd control is generally unconstitutional. The due process clause of the Constitution bans officers from using excessive force even when they are attempting to control a crowd or arrest a suspect. “And tear gas is in a category all its own,” Lithwick and Roithmayr wrote. “Not only is unleashing it into a crowd an unconstitutional exercise of excessive force, but its use is banned by international law.”

Monday, Nov. 24: Police justify calls for dispersal by pointing to traffic.

Local authorities had suggested they would give demonstrators a relatively wide berth to voice their frustrations. The one catch? Protesters are not allowed to disrupt traffic—a requirement that led even the most peaceful demonstrators to run afoul of the ground rules.

Monday, Nov. 24: The Federal Aviation Administration places temporary flight restrictions over Ferguson after deeming it a hazardous area.

The restrictions bar media helicopters and commercial planes from flying within a 3-mile radius of the city if they’re flying under 3,000 feet. According to the Los Angeles Times, the “no-fly zone is the strictest kind legally available to the FAA.” The agency issued the same restriction this summer at the request of local police, who claimed at the time that the ban was needed because one of its own choppers was shot at “multiple times.” Despite those ostensible safety concerns, audio recordings show that “local authorities privately acknowledged the purpose was to keep away news helicopters during violent street protests,” according to the Associated Press.

Tuesday, Nov. 25: Gov. Nixon orders more Missouri National Guardsmen to Ferguson.

Shortly after 1 a.m. local time, the Missouri governor announced that he had ordered the deployment of additional guardsmen. “The Guard is providing security at the Ferguson Police Department, which will allow additional law enforcement officers to protect the public,” the governor said in a statement.

Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 25: Gov. Nixon triples National Guard presence.

At an afternoon press conference, Nixon announced that there would be 2,200 guardsmen available Tuesday, more than triple Monday’s total. “Last night was a disaster. It’s very disappointing,” Nixon said. “Criminals intent on lawlessness and destruction terrorized this community.” The governor’s announcement came after Ferguson Mayor James Knowles complained that state officials had been slow to deploy the National Guard on Monday. "Unfortunately as the unrest grew and further assistance was needed, the National Guard was not deployed in enough time to save all of our businesses," the mayor said at his own press conference.

Tuesday night, Nov. 25: Second night brings skirmishes, but less destruction.

The second night of post-grand-jury protests was significantly less chaotic, a result that officials and some observers credited to the heavier law enforcement presence. Still, there were a handful of flare-ups and skirmishes, including several instances of people throwing “rocks, tents poles, and bottles—some containing urine—at officers,” according to the Associated Press. Some demonstrators took their anger out on a police car, breaking its windows, flipping it, and ultimately setting it on fire. A second blaze was set at a local Walgreens.

The most significant confrontation occurred outside Ferguson City Hall, where several windows were shattered—an act that prompted police to deploy tear gas for what officials said was the only time that night. Shortly before midnight local time, police instructed the crowd to leave the area, an order that was eventually imposed with physical force. “It took about an hour for the authorities to clear the street, by charging into the crowd with shields and clubs, and spraying some people with pepper spray,” according to the New York Times.

All told, officials said they had made 45 arrests overnight, seven for felonies with most of the rest for failure to disperse. “I think, generally, it was a much better night,” St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said.

* * *

THE ORIGINAL FERGUSON POLICE TIMELINE, published Aug. 21, 2014

THE SHOOTING

Saturday, Aug. 9, early afternoon: A white Ferguson Police officer, later identified as Darren Wilson, shoots and kills Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old.

Two competing narratives quickly emerged about the incident, one from police who say that the officer acted in self-defense and one from several witnesses who have said that Wilson was the aggressor. What both sides agree on is that Brown was unarmed at the time of the shooting. County prosecutors began presenting evidence to a grand jury 11 days later, but it will likely take months before jurors reach a decision on whether Wilson should be charged. If he ultimately is, many details of the official investigation could remain sealed until trial, making it likely that questions about what happened in the moments before Wilson opened fire will remain unanswered for the foreseeable future.

THE CRIME SCENE

Saturday, Aug. 9, early afternoon: Wilson allegedly does not alert dispatch to the shooting.

This detail remains unconfirmed. It stems from comments made by the attorney for Dorian Johnson, the friend who was with Brown during the confrontation with police. The lawyer complained to the Washington Post that in the immediate aftermath of the shooting the “officer doesn’t attempt to resuscitate [Brown]. … He does not call for medical help. The officer didn’t call it in that someone had been shot.” But, as PunditFact has explained, there is reason to doubt that claim. Incident reports later released by Ferguson police indicate a prompt response, and an audio recording from the St. Louis County dispatch also suggests that police requested assistance with crowd control in the area.

Saturday, Aug. 9, afternoon: Brown’s body remains at the scene of the shooting for several hours, a large portion of that time uncovered.

This grisly detail is undisputed. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson told reporters that one reason for the delay in processing the crime scene was that officers at the scene heard gunfire nearby (although those shots were never confirmed). Adding to the community’s anguish at seeing Brown’s body in the middle of the road was the fact that his mother, Lesley McSpadden, was at the scene pleading with police. “Why y’all got my son out in the street?” McSpadden told the officers, according to a neighbor who was present. Even Jackson would later admit that he was “uncomfortable” with how long Brown’s body remained in the open.

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