While we may never know exactly what happened between Darren Wilson and Mike Brown on August 9th, there are many lessons to take from Ferguson.
What do we know? Mike Brown and Dorian Johnson were walking down the middle of a residential street when approached by Officer Darren Wilson in a squad car. There was an altercation while Wilson was still in the car, at least one shot was fired at close range. Mike Brown was killed roughly 50 yards from the squad car, shot at least six times, including twice in the head.
Mike Brown’s body lay face-down in the streets for four hours. A crowd gathered. Family was on the scene even before homicide detectives were notified. No information. Frustration from the beginning. As we would come to learn, frustration was growing in the community long before the fateful events of August 9th.
Ferguson, Missouri was about two-thirds black, yet it’s mayor, police chief, and five-of-six city council members were white. The police department had only three non-whites, including a single black male. Eighty-seven percent of traffic stops were of black drivers. Traffic fines had dramatically increased in prior years, up to $2.6m in 2013. To the point that in 2013 alone, Ferguson’s population of 21,000 was issued nearly 33,000 warrants for non-violent offenses, mostly for unpaid traffic fines.
Protests in the initial days following the death of Mike Brown were marred by isolated incidents of looting and vandalism. Looting attracted cameras. Cable news shows interviewed witnesses before investigators bothered – including Dorian Johnson, who claimed that Mike Brown had his hands raised in surrender when he was killed. Protests grew, along with media presence.
Law enforcement responded heavy-handedly. Riot gear & urban tanks. LRADs. Snipers trained rifles on crowds of citizens. They fired tear gas in the streets, even onto private property. They put a curfew in place, and used force to break up protesters (violating 1st Amendment rights). They attacked entire crowds if one person was out of line. They put a no-fly zone in place to keep out the media. They physically assaulted journalists. They teargassed journalists and took their cameras down. They threatened to kill protesters.
They refused to release a police report of the shooting. Chief Jackson chose instead to release a video of Mike Brown roughing up a convenience store clerk, supposedly in response to Freedom of Information Requests by media outlets. They later admitted that convenience store tapes had not been requested by anyone at all, that the FOIAs were actually in regards to a possible police report.
County Prosecutor Bob McCullough’s father was a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. The Brown family called upon Governor Jay Nixon to appoint an independent prosecutor. McCullough has an ongoing relationship with local law enforcement, as they are often his witnesses in prosecutions. Nixon refused.
While it seemed the state could not have handled the situation any worse, there were few bright spots.
Captain Ron Johnson was a hero. When he was allowed to lead, law enforcement deescalated provocations, and protests were in kind peaceful. Captain Johnson walked among the crowds, allowed Americans to exercise their rights to assemble and protest.
Young community leaders also emerged. Images emerged of protesters arm-in-arm guarding local businesses from out-of-town looters – and cleaning up afterward when they couldn’t.
But mostly ugliness. Cops wearing I am Darren Wilson bands, and t-shirts selling out. Let’s go Darren chants at a Cardinals playoff game. Far more money raised for Wilson than the Brown family. As is often the case, racial disparity of opinion is stark.
The case, or lack thereof, is now at hand. The grand jury will announce whether there will be charges any day now. Usually the prosecutor simply files charges on their own. McCullough has chosen instead to go to the grand jury. Not only is he going to the grand jury unnecessarily. In this very unusual case, Prosecutor McCullough has taken the very usual step of not recommending charges to the grand jury. And instead offering the entire range of possible charges. Veritably teaching the grand jury a crash course on criminal law, pushing vast amounts of unnecessary information to consider on their plates. Even more odd, McCullough chose to provide a defense as well his prosecution (yes, the prosecutor argued against his own case). Officer Wilson exercised his right to testify as well. Add to all of these oddities, the fact that McCullough has never in his career went to the grand jury in a case where an officer killed an unarmed black man – and came away with charges. Never once.
Two defenses, to but one (possibly half-hearted) prosecution. With no recommended charges, seemingly meant to confuse jurors. Stands to reason that hardly anyone anticipates that Wilson will in fact be charged. The Brown family is calling it a secret trial. Hidden from public view with no witness testimony (save Wilson).
Gun sales in Missouri have gone through the roof. The KKK have been distributing flyers, warning of “lethal force” against protesters. Governor Nixon has ominously warned protesters as well – eerily reminiscent of George Wallace in the 1960’s. Nixon has preemptively declared a state of emergency, and readied the National Guard. St. Louis County police have spent over $172,000 preparing for war against it’s own citizens. Since August, they’ve bought 650 teargas grenades and 6000 Live X pepper balls (among other goodies).
Shit is real in Ferguson.
If only Missouri were an outlier, rather unfortunately, it is microcosm. Not only of a long and ugly tradition of mistreatment of the black community (for that, click here). And the way white America views black protest. Ferguson exemplifies a disintegrating relationship between an occupying and militarized police state, and the people they are supposed to be protecting. (They’re doing it to us now, too! I digress.) And also exemplary of the disintegration of civil liberties in modern American life.
In the wake of 9/11, and with two wars (hopefully, eventually, someday, maybe) winding down , congress decided to hand down military-grade equipment to local law enforcement (defense contractors are fantastic campaign donors). To the point that small town have armored urban tanks. The only catch is that they have to use it within a year, or give it back.
So they are using it. On us. A lot. SWAT teams in Florida raid barber shops for operating without a business license. SWAT has thrown a flash grenade into a crib, burning through to the ribs. SWAT is used to serve warrants. Often no-knock warrants. They raid the wrong addresses, kill countless house pets. SWAT have even claimed corporate status (after all, corporations have less oversight than government these days).
NSA (et al) revelations have shown us myriad ways in which our Fourth Amendment rights are systematically and universally tossed asunder in the name of security. Our calls, emails, and online activities are being seized without reasonable suspicion. They monitor video game chats, porn habits, searches, texts… One warrant can gain access to say, Verizon. They exploit the vulnerabilities in our devices, they can hack into computers through the freaking motherboard!
Press freedom is under attack like never before. Also in the name of security. Obviously. Obama has used the espionage act against journalists more than all previous presidents combined. Journalists facing prison time for refusing to reveal sources. FBI impersonating journalists and planting fake stories. Media either dutifully churns gov’t approved propaganda, or is cracked down upon mercilessly.
Remember Occupy? Leaderless college kids and homeless people who blocked traffic? We saw the teargas and the arrests, but it was far more interesting than simply busting the heads of protesters. The FBI & Department of Homeland Security commiserated with local law enforcement in a coordinated effort to shut down protests. Pepper spray. Tear gas. Arrests. Heavy-handed suppression. Occupy may well have collapsed under it’s own weight, but the federal government and the banks were too cozy to let that play out.
Our rights are a nuisance. Inapplicable on both public and private properties. Inapplicable certain hours of the day, and at certain volumes (both numerically and audibly).
American citizen have been executed sans trial, because “due process does not mean judicial process” anymore. Signature strikes means we don’t know who we are even killing. Imminent no longer means imminent. Threat no longer means threat. It’s getting awful Orwellian around here.
Shit is real in America.