Why the Fires in Ferguson Won’t End Soon

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Aug. 19 2014 6:42 PM

Why the Fires in Ferguson Won’t End Soon

The tensions have been building for a long time, and even justice for Michael Brown won’t change that.

Ferguson, Missouri August 18, 2014
Demonstrators react to tear gas fired by police during protests over the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 18, 2014.

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

FERGUSON, Mo.—Talk to anyone in Ferguson and you’ll hear a story about the police. “One of my friends had a son killed by the Ferguson Police Department, about 10 years ago,” said Carl Walker, a Vietnam veteran and former parole officer who came to show his support for demonstrators in Ferguson. “They wouldn’t release the name of the officer who killed him. Why wouldn’t you release the name?”

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

“The cops said he shot at them—case closed,” said Al Cole, referring to a cousin who was killed by Ferguson police in 2000. “Even as a teenager, 13 or 14 years old, I’ve been slammed on police cars … now I try to avoid riding through Ferguson.”

“Some police say they saw me at a house, pulled me, said I fit a description, locked me up, and found out I was on parole,” said Craig Beck, who was watching demonstrators under the shade of a burned-out QuikTrip convenience store. “They said I threw a plastic baggie, which they didn’t have when they took me into custody.” He continues: “I beat the case, but you know, this isn’t new. This happens every day.”

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Everyone—or at least, every black person—can recall an incident. Everyone can attest to friends and relatives who have been harassed, assaulted, or worse by the police.

Ferguson, Missouri August 18, 2014
Demonstrators hold up roses while protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 18, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Perhaps one of the most disturbing cases was last year’s shooting of Cary Ball Jr., a 25-year-old black student at St. Louis Community College–Forest Park. The official police report is that Ball crashed his car after a high-speed chase, ran away, and aimed his weapon at officers after they confronted him. Witnesses say Ball had thrown his gun to the ground and was walking toward police—hands up—when he was shot and killed with 25 rounds. A federal investigation cleared the officers. Likewise, that February, surveillance video from a casino showed St. Louis police slamming a black man’s head into the bumper of a vehicle, after a dispute over gambling and trespassing. And in March of this year, a video showed St. Louis police officers beating a mentally disabled man in his home, after the family called police for help.

These weren’t isolated events. A 2012 report from University of Missouri–St. Louis criminologist David Klinger found that, from 2008 to 2011, St. Louis police officers fired their weapons 98 times. “Any comparison across cities right now is still missing the lion’s share of circumstances in which people are shot by the police,” Klinger said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “There are only a smattering of cities that report their officer-involved shootings, and when compared against them, St. Louis is on the high end.” The data on police violence is incomplete, as there is no federal effort to pull together information on unjustified homicides. But the anecdotes of brutality and excessive force out of St. Louis  and St. Louis County are rampant and often startling. In 2009, for example, a man was wrongly arrested, beaten by police, and subsequently charged for bleeding on their uniforms.

This abuse is so ubiquitous that the shooting of Michael Brown might seem like static against a backdrop of awfulness. But even for the area, Brown’s death was brutal. Which is why—in an otherwise quiet town in an otherwise quiet area—we’re dealing with an explosive fire that shows no signs of ending.

Ferguson, Missouri August 18, 2014
Police officers yell at demonstrators during protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 18, 2014.

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

By now, if you’ve followed the news, you know the story has two sides.

Police say Brown resisted arrest and assaulted an officer. “The genesis of this was a physical confrontation,” said St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar during a press conference after the shooting. In the official narrative, a routine stop turned into a struggle with two men, Brown and his friend. As officer Darren Wilson tried to leave his vehicle, one of the two pushed him back into the car and lunged for his gun. During the struggle, one shot was fired, and soon after, Brown was shot multiple times on the street.

To the eyewitnesses, this story is nonsense. Dorian Johnson was with Brown at the time of the encounter. He was the “other man.” In his account, the two were walking down the middle of the street, having a conversation, when Wilson—the shooter—drove down and told them to “get the f--k off the street.” They continued, he drove off, and a few seconds later, he reversed his car in their direction and opened the door. As Johnson describes it, “He was so close to us that [the door] … bounced back toward him. At that point, he reached out the window and tried to choke my friend. We were trying to get away, and he tried to pull my friend into the car.” A few moments later, Wilson pulled out his gun and shot Brown, injuring him. “We look at [Brown], he was shot and there was blood comin’ from him. … We took off running, and I hid because I feared for my life. My friend took off running, too,” explained Johnson.

Wilson then stepped out of the car, weapon drawn, and shot again. “Once my friend felt that, he put his arms in the air, and he started to get down, but the officer still approached with the weapon drawn, and he fired several more shots, and my friend died. He didn’t say anything to him, he just stood over him and kept shooting.” Another witness described a similar scene. “I know he shot that child, and when he shot him, the little boy fell, then he shot him six more times,” said one woman in an interview with local newscasters.

Michael Brown autopsy
Brown family attorney Daryl Parks points on an autopsy diagram to the head wound that was likely fatal to Michael Brown during a news conference in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 18, 2014.

Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

To residents of Ferguson, in other words, the situation is simple. Michael Brown was executed by an angry cop. You can hear their shock and fear in a video recorded just after the shooting. “They killed him for no reason … they just killed this n---er for no reason,” said one man. “Do you see a knife? Do you see anything that would have caused a threat to these motherf--kin’ police? They shot that boy because they wanted to shoot that boy in the middle of the motherf--kin’ day in the middle of the motherf--kin’ street.”

A forthright police department could have calmed these nerves. They could have answered basic questions: Who was the shooter? How many times did he fire? What was Brown stopped for? And why did officers let his body sit in the street for four hours?

Instead, led by Chief Thomas Jackson, the Ferguson Police Department stonewalled at every turn, refusing cooperation and transparency. And when residents began to gather near the site of Brown’s shooting to demonstrate and memorialize, police responded with guns and dogs, sparking a cycle of protest and repression. Nightly demonstrations from residents were met with tear gas and rubber bullets by aggressive, militarized police, which sparked larger, more aggressive demonstrations and harsher, more draconian responses, justified by reports of looting and violence. After an especially bad night of clashes on Sunday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon sent the National Guard to Ferguson to attempt to keep the peace.

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