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Aug 31

Ferguson, Missouri, Business-As-Usual

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.

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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.

Basic Facts—

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.

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  1. Dave Meyers

    There is an odd disconnect in this country even among generally right-thinking intelligent people who believe in the law. And that is that when this sort of thing happens, there is often very little compassion for the victim if he has even a single social or behavioral flaw.
    In this case, Mike Brown is a black thug…..plainly seen on video tape strong-arming a store owner over some cigars he’s stealing. He’s tattooed, he’s arrogant, he’s a bully. Those things are all most likely true. But death by an overzealous cop is not what he ‘deserves’. Under our system, even the most hardened criminals get their day in court with all the same rights that any everyday, common, law-abiding citizen is entitled to. If this where not the way it should be, then vigilante justice would be the law of the land and no one would be safe. “He deserved to die”, would be the sentiment. Unfortunately, as it turns out, that sentiment is often true regardless.

    1. Don Bay

      You point out the two key features that will be argued in the court case that is sure to arise out of this incident: Michael Brown’s flaws and Darren Wilson’s response.

      Brown’s lawyers will contend that his thuggishness is not important since Officer Wilson was unaware of these, but what is overwhelmingly important is Wilson’s itchy trigger finger in a situation where the victim was unarmed and reportedly surrendering. By contrast, Wilson’s defenders will argue that not only was Brown a thug, he struck Wilson who acted in reasonable fear for his life and the lives of others. Their position will be that Wilson’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances. I hold the view that Wilson will ultimately be exonerated despite the fact that his actions were excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances. We’ll see how this turns out, but it’s too late for Michael Brown.

      You are absolutely correct that this was the equivalent of “vigilante justice.” “Injustice” would be a more appropriate word in this and other cases of police overreaction. Michael Brown most assuredly didn’t deserve to die.

  2. Donna

    The whole Michael Brown event was evidence of a poorly trained, poorly disciplined, but more than well-armed police department. Warren must have fired all those shots out of panic, but why was Brown allowed to lie in the street for so long? The police force that responded to the protests was more appropriate for Iraq than Ferguson, Missouri – tanks, riot gear, rifles pointed at, not away from, the protesters, and not even wearing their badges. thank goodness, the state police and/or national guard were called in to keep/restore order.
    As for the protesters, I feel sorry for the ones who were committed to keeping it an orderly, peaceful, protest, only to be infiltrated by looters, rock throwers, etc. The protesters had a right to protest and a cause for which to protest. I’ll never get the phrase “hands up, don’t shoot” out of my head – very appropriate for the Brown shooting.
    As for the journalists, what were the police afraid of? that the truth would be reported? Eventually, of course, it probably was. However, I think this was another symptom of panic and lack of discipline on the part of the police department in Ferguson.

    1. Don Bay

      Your points are echoed by responsible law enforcement sources throughout the country who have described the Ferguson Police Department as dysfunctional and provocative. The Ferguson police overreacted from the beginning. Not only that, but Officer Wilson was said to be a former member of the Fleming P.D. that was both racist and dysfunctional. This raises the question of whether Wilson was negatively influenced by his previous employment.

      On the issue of looting, rock and Molotov cocktail throwing, peaceful protestors claim that the violence was committed by agitators from outside Ferguson. I take that claim with a big pinch of salt. Violence will always result from such a flagrant use of force by the police, so it is just not believable that outside agitators alone were the culprits. To their credit, most protestors were peaceful. It is to be hoped that the Michael Brown tragedy will see the protest carried forth into the voting booth in November and the future. That is the positive legacy that must grow out of Michael Brown’s needless death.

      The Ferguson police action directed at journalists is only the latest instance of attempting to remove honest and essential reporting on newsworthy events from the sight of the citizenry. A quick googling of the subject reveals a disturbing picture, both domestically and internationally, of preventing the police and the government from being shown in a negative light. “Embedded” journalists is one subtle but effective way of influencing what we are allowed to see or read, but a cruder and even more effective way at depriving us from seeing important events is to use force—even deadly force, in some instances (Iraq comes to mind)—to keep journalists from doing their job. What is alarming is that it happens repeatedly. Ferguson in August of 2014 is only the latest outrage. That it occurred in connection with the police shooting of an unarmed black youth makes it even more outrageous. Unless we stop this, America will see its Constitution reduced to a meaningless scrap of parchment.

  3. Linda

    Speaking of affecting change by voting, when voter registration tables were set up in and around Ferguson, the Missouri Republican Party Executive Director remarked that it was “disgusting” and “completely inappropriate.” He felt registering voters would merely fuel the political fires. Yes! Hopefully, it lit enough fires under people that come November, their voices will be heard!

    1. Don Bay

      You put your finger on one of the ways that the Ferguson injustice can lead to a positive outcome: VOTING! The Republicans who are doing their level best to diminish voting can whine all they want about how “disgusting” it is to register voters, but the people of Ferguson are responding to the Michael Brown killing in one of the best ways possible: by registering to vote.

      America has a deplorable record for voting, and the Republicans are adding to that shame by attempting to restrict it still further. They should be ashamed of themselves. Americans across the country should follow the example of the folks in Ferguson and register to vote in November and thereafter. Voting is supporting democracy. I plan to blog on the issue in the very near future, so thanks for commenting on it.

  4. Don Bay

    This pingback give me the opportunity to remind readers that the discrimination continues and the fight must go on.

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    […] Ferguson: Business as Usual— […]

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