Police clad in riot gear fired rubber bullets and tear gas at predominantly black residents near a QuikTrip in Ferguson, Missouri. They were protesting the killing of an unarmed black teen shot by police on Saturday. It was the same QuikTrip that was set on fire and looted on Sunday night.
The riots in north St. Louis county have become the dominant news story with little to no focus on the fact that another unarmed black youth in America was gunned down by police. But it is important to recognize who Mike Brown was and who he could have been, as well as the fact that it was police who turned the situation violent first—not the residents of Ferguson.
Brown was 18-years-old and only two days away from starting his freshman year at Vatterott College, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A Ferguson police officer shot him “multiple times outside an apartment complex.” His dead body was left lying in the street for hours.
The family’s attorney, civil rights lawyer Benjamin L. Crump, who previously represented the family of Trayvon Martin, has called Brown’s killing an “execution.”
At a press conference, Crump declared, “You just can’t fathom as a child puts up his hands, and people continue to shoot,” and, “This child was shot multiple times and left on the ground like a dog. It’s a combination of things like this happening over and over and over again, and people are getting no sense of justice.”
Brown had graduated from African-American Normandy High School, which is a school in a district that has a high rate of poverty. While many of his fellow classmates were headed to school with sports scholarships, he wanted to have his own business.
A profile put together by the Post-Dispatch mentions how teachers regarded him as a “gentle giant,” someone who was a big student but did not cause trouble. He “loved music and had begun to rap.” He struggled to get to the point where he had the credits he needed to graduate. He was someone who would give to his friends when they were in need. He also did not want to end up living a life on the streets and was committed to completing further education.
Aisha Sultan of the Post-Dispatch provided some critical context for the killing of Brown:
…Ferguson, a community of 21,000, is an inner-ring suburb, a place where it’s easy for the economic recovery to bypass the poor. It’s a city of 6 square miles, about 10 miles north of downtown. About two-thirds of the residents are African-American. The median income is $37,000, roughly $10,000 less than the state average. Nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty level, compared with 15 percent statewide.
It’s part of north St. Louis county, where whites left en masse beginning over the past few decades. In the ’60s, they began rapidly leaving north city, creating one of one of the most extreme cases of “white flight” in the country. But many who remained in power are still white, including much of the law enforcement. A local lawyer said whenever she goes into courthouses in North County, all the defendants are always black, the cops always white…
Residents gathered on the streets to peacefully protest after Brown was killed. There had been no looting reported as of Saturday night and police were not roaming the streets like a military patrol. However, police deployed dogs and shotguns to control the demonstration.
The images of dogs brought to control a crowd of black people quickly evoked comparisons to the era of Jim Crow, when police used dogs to disperse civil rights demonstrations. In this instance, residents were protesting the fact that police did not think Brown’s life was worth anything; that a police officer found it so easy to fire shots at him and kill him because it would not mean anything to the police if he was dead.
There have since been scenes of raw aggression by police. For example, here is a group of stormtroopers in Ferguson barking at black Alderman Antonio French to “get the fuck out of here.” (French has been covering the scenes in Ferguson through his Twitter account since Saturday.)
Police on Monday did not just fire tear gas at protesters who were nearby the QuikTrip. They shot tear gas at residents who were standing in their own backyards.
The St. Louis area also saw businesses closing their stores early out of fear that riots might spread to their stores. There was no immediate violence that would have required stores to shut down. It seemed to be motivated by a white fear of what black people might do if businesses remained open late into the evening.
Eighty-six percent of stops by Ferguson police in 2013 involved black people. Twelve percent involved white people. The search rate for blacks was nearly twice the rate of searches for whites. Yet, the contraband hit rate was higher for whites than blacks.
The predominantly white police force deployed a tank in the hours after Brown was killed:
The use of military-grade weaponry by local law enforcement has been incentivized by the federal government through programs, which award grants to police departments so they can purchase such equipment. The equipment added to the arsenals of police departments can be equipment the Pentagon no longer needs to deploy in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The armored personnel carrier (APC) in the above photo is a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack (BearCat). As highlighted in the ACLU’s report on the militarization of local law enforcement [PDF], this popular armored vehicle was created to “transport infantry and provide protection from shrapnel and small arms fire on the battlefield.” Department of Homeland Security grants can be used by police departments to purchase a BearCat.
Applications for federal funding are likely to invoke “terrorism” to get such military-grade equipment, but few officers believe they will have to fight terrorism. What the country is witnessing in Ferguson is why police are most likely to want such equipment. The equipment can be used to crack down on citizens who assemble, particularly black residents who white racist police officers fear will do more than stand on curbs and protest like angry white people might do.
This is not purely conjecture. Paramilitary weapons and tactics are disproportionately used against people of color. More often, SWAT teams use such weapons and tactics in drug raids on homes and their tactics can lead to the killing of people in their homes.
The rage being felt by the community of Ferguson comes weeks after forty-three year-old Eric Garner, a black man, was put in a chokehold by a New York Police Department officer and killed.
The killings of Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Jonathan Ferrell, Kendrick Johnson, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, and Trayvon Martin are each examples of how black lives go unvalued in this country and how society can tolerate a lack of justice for white police officers or vigilantes.
In this country, on average, one black man is killed by police or vigilantes every 28 hours.
Brown’s family has called on residents to protest peacefully but continue demonstrations against the police and how they have treated the community. Nonetheless, it should be acknowledged that any violence is the price society pays for tolerating this level of racism and poverty, especially in our justice system.
It is out of desperation for someone to listen, show respect and treat them as human beings that the people of Ferguson came together to protest, and if police try to stop that, they should expect some kind of a backlash. A community can only take so much before enough is enough.
Plus, three days later, the community still does not know the name of the officer who killed Brown.
“We will not ever release the name of the police officer,” said Officer Brian Schellman. “We are investigating the incident, we are investigating the officer, but it is not for us to release the officer’s name. It is a personnel matter. It is up to Ferguson Police.”
So long as police and the wider government continue to deny the community of Ferguson the truth, they can expect the scenes of outrage to continue.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer Robert Cohen has taken some amazing photos, which can be seen by going to his Twitter feed here.
Also, here’s one photo that iconically captures what is happening.