In Brief—The fatal shooting of an unarmed black youth and the subsequent mistreatment of journalists covering the incident expose police policies that urgently need correcting before America descends into a police state.
Killing and Political Arrests Threaten Democracy—
An unarmed black youth lies dead in the middle of the street in Ferguson, Missouri, shot by a white police officer. Witnesses report that the youth, Michael Brown, had his hands in the air and was trying to surrender. The Ferguson Police Department tells a story that is at odds with the witness version.
A Short Note—
Before stating the facts, it must be noted that the Ferguson Police Department has fifty white police officers and only three black police officers in a city that is two-thirds black. Five of the six City Council members are white as is the Prosecuting Attorney.
Now the basic facts. At about noon on August 9, a white police officer identified as Darren Wilson confronted an unarmed 18-year-old black youth named Michael Brown and shot him to death in the street in front of numerous eye-witnesses. It appears that Brown was walking in the street after having shoplifted some cigars in a convenience store shortly before the shooting, a fact Officer Wilson did not know.
When Brown failed to comply with Wilson’s order to get on the sidewalk, the police officer backed up the car he was driving and, according to witnesses, started to exit striking Brown with the car door. Brown lashed out and hit Wilson in the face after which Brown fled. An unverified report has stated that Wilson’s pistol went off in the car. According to the police department spokesman, Wilson exited the car and fired at the fleeing Brown apparently missing him since the autopsy indicated that Brown was not hit in the back. A nearby recording at the time of the incident picked up a number of shots being fired in fairly rapid succession.
According to several witnesses, Brown stopped, turned and approached Wilson with his hands in the air. Wilson then fired several shots at Brown. The autopsy showed that Brown was hit by six bullets, primarily in the right arm. The last bullet struck Brown on the top of the head and, according to the coroner’s report, exited through the right eye lodging in the victim’s collarbone. Two interpretations of the head wound are 1) that Brown was bent forward when he was hit or 2) that Wilson deliberately shot the youth in the head. Brown, undoubtedly dead, lay in the street for at least four hours. An ambulance was not summoned and efforts of witnesses including family members to reach Brown were refused by the Ferguson police. The police department reported that an incident report was not filed.
On August 10, the protests went from a simmer to a full boil. Though the protest was largely peaceful, smaller elements of the crowd became violent, particularly since the Ferguson police overreacted and, suited up in riot gear, began using their government-supplied military equipment, tear gas, flash grenades, police dogs and rubber bullets thereby feeding the anger of the protestors and inviting escalation. The predictable escalation took place along with looting, flying rocks and Molotov cocktails. Although some black residents endangered themselves to protect against looting and violence, Pandora’s Box had been opened.
Among other ill-advised actions, the Ferguson police escalated their provocation by removing their identification tags, threatening bystanders and sending clouds of tear gas into adjacent neighborhoods. As might be expected, the journalists covering the turmoil focused primarily on the confrontations. The police, seeing journalists, even foreign journalists, as the “enemy,” began arresting journalists who were simply doing their jobs. Even a St. Louis politician was allegedly arrested.
The situation became so explosive that the Missouri state police were called in, the FBI was dispatched and, eventually, the National Guard was called in by the governor. Finally, after several days of turmoil, peace was restored and a sober assessment of the turmoil began.
The question of culpability will be decided by the courts, ultimately by the police-friendly Supreme Court, but the real question is whether this will get swept into the memory hole and the nation will get back to its thoughtless business-as-usual mode. I hope not, but cynicism says that Ferguson, Missouri, will be forgotten just as America has forgotten all the appalling acts of senseless violence that preceded it.
The Journalism Story—
Now let’s move on to the subsequent journalist issues as they covered the story of the turmoil that was unfolding subsequent to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. The story of the journalists in Ferguson is intertwined with the Brown-Wilson situation.
The arrests of credentialed journalists, appear to be an ominous piece of a greater policy that threatens the constitutional rights that Americans have too often taken for granted. Let’s take a look at these actions that are already in use by domestic police departments, the military and the government.
Since the police killing of the unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, a number of credentialed journalists have been arrested and jailed charged with such minor infractions as “Failure to Disperse.” According to responsible news reports, the charges have been dropped the next day after the journalists have spent many hours in a jail cell. As can be seen in a widely circulated photograph, in virtually every case the journalists have been wearing fully visible credentials on lanyards around their necks and have identified themselves as journalists.
Some of the arrests have taken place in relatively quiet areas during daylight hours while others have occurred at night in areas of conflict. Journalists have been deliberately targeted by the police and hit by rubber bullets even as they have been complying with police orders. Their identifications have been ignored and, in at least one incident, their professional equipment has been confiscated or, according to the police, taken into protective custody. Is it a coincidence or mistake? As was the case in Iraq, all the indications are that journalists have been deliberately targeted by the police.
What are the implications of this action by the police? The unspoken message is to discourage journalists from doing the essential job of informing America of important happenings, and the situation in Ferguson was certainly a newsworthy event. Although the courts can find the police actions in violation of the Constitution, that will be months or years later, and the Supreme Court conservatives stand in the way. Be sure to read Erwin Chemerinsky’s August 27th article in the New York Times.
With the passage of time, the damage is done and, from the standpoint of the police, their unconstitutional actions have succeeded in depriving the American public of essential information in the workings of their government. If this were the first time it has happened we could say that it was an aberration, but it has happened repeatedly, both domestically and in wartime. Giving the police carte blanche to arrest journalists who are merely doing their job is a profound danger to democracy whether in Ferguson, Missouri or elsewhere in the world.
Another incident of white police officers using unnecessary deadly force against people of color, and journalists being arrested and harassed for doing an essential job. It’s a pattern that must stop before America descends into the Hell of a police state.