BY NATALIE VAN BOOVEN
NOTE: Because this story is still happening (the most recent event being the blockade of Interstate 70), I will focus on the first 17 days of events, from the shooting to the funeral.
The first and most important event is the shooting itself. At noon on Aug. 9, a police officer (later revealed to be Darren Wilson) left a call concerning a sick child. Unaware of the convenience store robbery that allegedly happened 10 minutes earlier, Wilson saw Michael Brown walking in the middle of the road. Depending on the account, Brown might or might not have been stopping traffic, but that did not stop Wilson from confronting and eventually shooting Brown.
After Brown’s death came a series of peaceful memorials. Following one candlelight vigil, however, several people within the crowd made enough trouble to require police in riot gear. In addition to over 12 businesses being vandalized and looted, over 30 people were arrested when a QuikTrip—supposedly the one Brown robbed—burned. Earlier that day, after being asked by Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar announced that his department would analyze the shooting.
If riots in any part of St. Louis, either city or county, seem unusual, then that is because St. Louis is not known for riots. UMSL criminology professor Rick Rosenfeld has said of the events, “Ferguson would not be the first place I’d predict to have this incident or this response.” Having grown up in St. Louis City during the Civil Rights demonstrations in the 1960s, he would know. As Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, Milwaukee, Newark, Washington, Watts and other places burned, St. Louis remained unscathed. While talking with fellow St. Louisan Dick Gregory in 1967, Rosenfeld asked what made their city so apparently immune to the chaos in the rest of the country. Smiling (and joking), Gregory ascribed the apparent immunity to, “The shade trees.”
In a press conference on Aug. 14, calling the change an “operational shift,” Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon said that the Missouri State Highway Patrol would replace the St. Louis County Police Department in Ferguson. Captain Ron Johnson, a Ferguson native, was put in charge of security.
The announcement only added to the ongoing debate about the increased militarization of the police since 9/11. Whereas some veterans pointed out on Twitter and other social-media sites that they invaded Iraq, interdicted Honduran drug smugglers or monitored Korea’s DMZ using less protective gear and simpler weapons than the police in Ferguson used, journalist David Yanofsky (@YAN0) took his observations a step further. Writing for quartz.com, Yanofsky said that the police presence in Ferguson was more militarized in style than in substance.
Using Army Training Publication 3-39.33 (which prescribes how Army personnel should respond to protests and riots) as his guide, Yanofsky recognized several errors on the part of the police. As an example, instead of “conceding some violations for the purpose of avoiding confrontation” by “attempting to help [the] crowds accomplish their goals within the law,” the police in Ferguson appear more interested in the letter of the law than in the spirit of the law. Many of the confrontations that have appeared on social media happened because protesters were in the street instead of on the sidewalk.
On Aug. 15, after many demands, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson finally identified Darren Wilson as the officer who shot Michael Brown. Jackson also released an incident report (Ferguson Police Offense/Incident Report: Complaint No. 12-12388) naming Brown as the suspect in a strong-arm robbery that happened just before the shooting. The security video released alongside the report was not very clear in the first place, but it showed two young men bringing some items to the checkout counter. When the person behind the counter appeared to push the items back to the young men, they appeared to ignore another employee’s protests as they walked out the door with some of the items. Whether or not the items were paid for was not made clear in the video. However, Police Chief Jackson made clear that Wilson’s first contact with Brown “was not related to the robbery.”
On Aug. 16, citing the looting and violence resulting from the release of Wilson’s name (at least three Molotov cocktail were reported thrown), Gov. Nixon declared a state of emergency and implemented a 12 to 5 A.M. curfew for Ferguson. On the same day, Captain Johnson said that 40 FBI agents were canvassing the area for potential witnesses to the shooting, (which would help with the investigation), while attorneys from both the United States Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division also did their bit. Nevertheless, despite all this effort, Congressman Lacy Clay, who represents Ferguson, reported having “absolutely no confidence in the Ferguson police [or] the county prosecutor” when it came to investigating Brown’s death.
The curfew continued for only two days before Gov. Nixon recruited the National Guard, and that only seemed to aggravate the situation even more. Later that evening, in fact, several hundred protestors charged toward a 5-deep-by-60-wide wall of police officers. However, another crowd, containing community leaders and clergy members with interlocked arms, pushed them back.
By this point, Ferguson had made its way around the world. Amnesty International sent 13 activists to meet with officials and teach peaceful protest tactics, while United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon asked “for law enforcement officials to abide by U. S. and international standards in dealing with demonstrators.” If either group worried about what might happen after the National Guard came in, they did not have long to wait. After seeing the unrest in Ferguson mellow, Gov. Nixon withdrew the National Guard three days later.
Observing the upswing in peaceful protests, Attorney General Eric Holder, dispatched by President Obama after the arrival of the National Guard, told The New York Times that ensuring the protests’ nonviolence meant finding out whether police militarization is happening for the right reasons. “Displays of force in response to mostly peaceful demonstrations can be counterproductive,” he said.
Maintaining peace was also on the minds of Michael Brown’s family as they prepared for his funeral on Aug. 25. Michael Brown Sr. said, “All I want tomorrow is peace while we lay our son to rest. Please, that’s all I ask.” At the service, over 4,500 people—2,500 in the sanctuary and an overflow auditorium, plus about 2,000 on Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church property—were present