feature image via Scott Olson/Getty Images
It’s now been over one week since Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, and the level of militarized police activity in Ferguson looks much the same.
On Thursday the 14th, Captain Ron Johnson of St. Louis (and graduate of a high school near Ferguson) was given command of the police in Ferguson. His promise to have officers in the streets without gas masks and his willingness to march with protesters, along with a moving speech about Michael Brown, made some optimistic about a change of climate in Ferguson.
On Friday, the police department released a video that was purported to be evidence of Mike Brown robbing a store of about $50 worth of cigars. At a press conference that followed, many conflicting and confusing narratives were advanced. When angrily questioned about why the video was released at all and whether it was part of a smear campaign to convince the public that Mike Brown “deserved” to be killed, the police claimed the video was released in response to journalists who had been asking for it; so far no journalistic entity has identified themselves as having asked for the video, or even knowing that it existed. Later, the police claimed that the alleged robbery was unrelated to the shooting, and that Officer Darren Wilson was unaware that Brown might have been a robbery suspect, raising further questions about what reason there could possibly have been to release it to the public — a public which was still waiting for an autopsy report or an incident report of the shooting itself. Even later, the story was revised once again, with police now stating that Wilson might have realized Brown was a suspect during the shooting incident. Police incident reports uncovered by the public suggest that police were still on the lookout for a suspect in that robbery well after the shooting of Mike Brown, casting further doubt upon the Ferguson PD’s account.
Governor Jay Nixon declared a midnight curfew for Ferguson on Friday. Despite Johnson’s promises that tear gas would no longer be used — indicated when he literally said “we won’t enforce it with tear gas” — tear gas, armored trucks and other highly militarized methods were used to attempt to enforce a midnight curfew on Saturday.
On Saturday night, protesters deliberately (and nonviolently) challenged the midnight curfew, and were met with tear gas and a very confusing set of conflicting narratives.
Johnson later admitted in a press conference held shortly before 3 a.m. that police had fired both smoke and tear gas, but said that the tear gas was utilized in order to gain access to a man who was shot in the leg by a protester and not as part of the curfew enforcement. Johnson said that another man stepped into the street carrying a handgun and that someone shot at a police car.
In a different report, Johnson said that the tear gas was in response to a possible burglary:
The response by police, Johnson said, was due to reports of a shooting and potential burglary by armed men at Red BBQ. Tear gas was deployed after police heard reports of armed men in the restaurant — the gas was not used to enforce the curfew, Johnson said.
Seven arrests were made, reportedly from the roof of the Red BBQ. It’s unclear whether those arrested were engaged in any criminal activity or were involved with protests. As has consistently been the case, residents of Ferguson maintain that the vast majority of any criminal activity is coming from outsiders who are entering Ferguson to take advantage of the chaos. This is consistent with on-the-ground reports of Ferguson residents taking the initiative to shut down looters and guard local businesses, seemingly in lieu of police.
At least one person was definitely shot Saturday night, a 34-year-old protester who was taken to the hospital by friends in critical condition. Police have argued that the shot came from another protester, although they also say they are “unsure where the shot came from.” The report in the NY Daily News, however, implies that the shooting of the protester was related to the alleged incident at Red BBQ, noting that the protester was shot “near the location.”
On Sunday night, another midnight curfew was set. At 9:30 pm, two and a half hours before the curfew was to start, police deployed armored trucks, tear gas, and riot gear. Allegedly, this was in response to violence from protestors — according to the Washington Post, “police said protesters fired at least 30 gunshots and threw molotov cocktails at officers.” Many reporting from the ground in Ferguson, both citizens and journalists, say this is patently untrue.
A lot of claims that Molotov cocktails were thrown to start this. But some furious, claim they were at the front, nothing thrown. #Ferguson
— Jon Swaine (@jonswaine) August 18, 2014
Lisha Williams, on the front line, says she was marching & peaceful when #Ferguson law enforcement opened fire using tear gas. Sigh.
— Robert Mitchell (RLM3) (@RLM_3) August 18, 2014
Klemko: “Here’s what protesters were doing just before the heavy tear has launch from three armored vehicles:”
There are some reports of gunfire later in the evening, but it’s not clear whether any of them came from before the tear gas and riot gear were employed. At least one of the reports of gunfire were confirmed to be fireworks.
Whatever the impetus (if there was one) for the aggressive display of police force well before the curfew, it definitely escalated quickly into a scene at least as horrifying as the one Wednesday night. Children who were in the streets with their parents — some of whom were not even protesting, but simply walking outside in the neighborhoods in which they live at a very reasonable 9 pm — were injured with tear gas, including at least one eight year old.
— Amanda Terkel (@aterkel) August 18, 2014
Arrests continued, including arrests of journalists. Several journalists reported being arrested for a short period of time, a few minutes to a few hours, and then being released without an explanation or charge, something which is widely being regarded as an intimidation tactic.
Cops stopped us. We explained ourselves. They said to walk away. We said why. They said command center was attacked. I said no it wasn't.
— robertklemko (@RobertKlemko) August 18, 2014
Capt Johnson said walk away or be arrested. I started walking away. They followed and arrested us.
— robertklemko (@RobertKlemko) August 18, 2014
Arrests as media intimidation would be consistent with reports of reporters and cameramen having guns pointed in their faces and being physically threatened, especially black journalists. Now-famously, one media cameraperson was threatened with shooting by a policeman on live video. When he refused to turn off his camera and tried to ask for the threatening officer’s identification, he was denied that information and told to stop pointing his finger, ostensibly because the police felt threatened by it.
There are also reports that streetlights were intentionally turned off to discourage or make impossible amateur video recording. Later in the evening, journalists were restricted to small enclosed areas and refused entry to areas where actual police activity was taking place. There are also a number of reports of racially segregated treatment of reporters, with white reporters granted more access than black or other POC reporters.
White press is allowed back in. White. Press. They are fucking profiling the fucking press. Openly. #Ferguson
— Josh Melnick (@joshez_) August 18, 2014
“Looting” at the local McDonalds was widely reported; documentation from those on the ground makes it clear that while windows of a McDonalds were broken, there was no looting; instead, protesters were trying to escape from tear gas for their own safety, and to find milk to use as topical relief from the painful burning tear gas causes.
Ultimately, Governor Nixon called in the National Guard, a move which was accomplished without the notification or participation of the White House and which many have regarded as a dangerous move which would increase militarization rather than de-escalate. Ultimately, the National Guard operated to build up increased defenses around the Ferguson PD command center, although it’s not clear to what degree it was ever in danger.
In the midst of all this, a second expert was called in by Michael Brown’s family to perform a second autopsy, and the results were released to the public by the New York Times on Sunday night, a few hours after the police’s assault began. Many have pointed out that the injuries Brown sustained, which included two shots to the head, aren’t consistent with how police officers are trained to shoot when in danger from a suspect, which is usually at the chest and torso. Instead, Brown’s entry wounds are generally on the inside/underside of his arms and head, and did not appear to have been fired at close range. So far, the privately performed autopsy reports seem to be very consistent with witness reports, which say that Brown was kneeling and attempting to surrender when shot. Particularly the fact that one bullet seems to have entered through the top of Brown’s head has led many to conclude that he was already on the ground as shooting continued, especially since Brown was 6’4″.
Brown family attorney Daryl Parks says that he feels the autopsy results should be “ample evidence” for Wilson to be arrested. Although this seems objectively true, there are likely to be significant legal and legislative hurdles to seeing any action taken against Wilson. St. Louis Public Radio has helpfully outlined the ways in which, while Governor Nixon has authority over the police force and can be ultimately held responsible for their actions in at least some respect, he doesn’t have any jurisdiction over the judicial process. Only St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch has the power to charge Wilson with a crime, and alarmingly, that seems to be entirely up to his personal preference.
“The prosecutor of any jurisdiction has sole discretion to bring charges against a potential defendant,” said Marcia McCormick, a professor at Saint Louis University Law School. “Nothing can make that prosecutor bring charges when he or she does not want to.”
The fact that McCulloch’s father was a St. Louis police officer killed in the line of duty raises some doubt as to his personal interest in pursuing this case, but “the death of McCulloch’s father does not pose a legal conflict of interest or require him to step aside, lawyers agree.” On the whole, it seems unlikely that the state of Missouri will find Wilson guilty of much — the legal counsel consulted by St. Louis Public Radio seems to agree that prosecution of police officers for line-of-duty shootings is very rare, especially since “while Ferguson is two-thirds African American, the jury that would hear the case would come from St. Louis County as a whole, Goldman notes. The county is 70 percent white.”
However, there is still a federal line of investigation; the Department of Justice is looking into whether the shooting constituted a civil rights violation, which does hold the possibility of prosecution for Williams. For the time being, though, Williams is still on paid leave, and his whereabouts are unknown. It appears possible that his online presence has been scrubbed, since at-home activists have been unable to find any social media accounts attached to him. Journalists have been unable to contact him in any way.
In the meantime, it’s possible to help by donating to the legal fees and bail fund for Ferguson protestors.