Police deployed to Ferguson to supposedly keep the community safe and control demonstrations calling for justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson, arrested at least forty-seven people on Tuesday night. The arrests mostly occurred after midnight.
Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol told media the number of arrests and also claimed that police had seized three handguns at the protests. However, that number has been known to be inaccurate, and this statement about police seizing handguns has yet to be independently confirmed. (No reporters witnessed police remove handguns during any arrests last night or that would have made headlines.)
Johnson further stated, “‘Criminals and agitators’ threatened police, threw glass and plastic bottles — some filled with urine — at officers and hid behind members of the media covering the protests.”
As far as press could tell, a single water bottle was thrown by a protester. That water bottle set off police, who mobilized very quickly and surrounded the demonstrators about 12:15 am. The police ordered “credentialed media” multiple times to go to the media zone—and then, eventually, ordered “credentialed media” to go back to a “command center” setup in the parking lot of a Target, where media trucks and vehicle have been parking.
Matt D. Pearce, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, reported that media were caught in the middle of all this action and the police actions actually drove protesters into the media zone. Police had to then try and separate media from protesters at this point.
Media were caught in the middle of a situation where they could stay and capture how the police targeted, arrested and dispersed the rest of the few remaining individuals—but they would be opening themselves up to the possibility of being picked off and arrested by an officer for “being in the way.”
Pepper spray was used in the process of arresting and dispersing people. One woman, Jameila White, who had been handing out free water to people, was sprayed.
There were people who chose to hide in the media zone. Some younger people were present, who did not know where they could go to leave. They were afraid of being shot by police and were not necessarily “criminals and agitators.”
Notably, as this journalist observed from the scene last night, there was next to no tension until about 11 pm when police formed a line cleared on parking lots in front of stores that line the street. They had on helmets and vests, which suggested that something more was going to happen. Surprisingly, after clearing the lots, the police almost seemed to tolerate people milling about on the sidewalk for about a half hour. There were no moves and a police officer even thanked a protester with a first aid symbol on his arm for his help today.
“Suit up! Let’s go!,” police shouted. “Son of a bitch,” one officer said. They were hearing reports from down the road that someone had thrown something and it was now time to deploy.
Armored personnel carriers and police vehicles with police in riot gear swiftly moved out of the storefront parking lots and onto the street. They parked and then unloaded and formed lines with their rifles drawn. In the lots, police in vests had their rifles out too. That was all it took to send the situation spiraling out of control.
There was a level of inevitability to the way people were cleared, like no matter how peaceful people were the night was going to end in arresting a group of people. The question was how violent would those arrests be.
The night stood in stark contrast to the previous night when tear gas was fired by police by 10 pm. The police had formed lines and a standoff had taken place that was much more intense.
Still, officers lost control and were pointing weapons at media shouting things like, “I’ll fucking kill you, get back.”
A legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild, who was wearing a green hat that signaled to police she was a legal observer, was arrested. Plus, Rosa Clemente described this harrowing scene that unfolded when she was dispersing—or fleeing:
Jessica Care Moore, Talib Kweli, folks from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Philip Agnew of Dream Defenders, Bgyrl ForLife, Malik Rhasaan from Occupy the Hood and Trymaine Lee from MSNBC and many others were chased like animals by the cops.
We ran to get away and were surrounded on a small path on bridge, surrounded by all types of police and told to lie down and put our hands up. We complied and we were told if we did not stop moving we would be shot. We were breathing. The young brother lying on my feet, as I was holding him, was not able to control his breathing he said “I’m choking” the cop told him to stop or he would shoot him.
I told him “try not to move, just lay still I got you.” The gun was at his chest. I looked at the cop and said “please, he is not doing anything”
Finally, a black officer said they had the person they wanted and people were allowed to leave.
The above leads to one observation: With so many security forces there, the potential for some small little thing to escalate everything is vastly incredible and can set off a chain of events similar to last night and previous nights in Ferguson.
A fight broke out nearby Pearce, Intercept journalist Ryan Devereaux and myself. It was something that probably could have happened during any summer night between two young men, one of which had a problem with the other and wanted him to leave the parking lot as he demanded. The one man shoved this man around until someone came out of the Burger Bar and tried to resolve the issue without police getting involved. (Up to this point, none of the hundred or so police nearby realized a fight was beginning.)
Then, punches were thrown by the man. Bodies slammed into a car. People started reacting and moving out of the way and police across the street rushed over. Four police vans pulled and made a circle. They arrested the two men. Protesters crowded around, only to be told it was a one-on-one altercation and they did not need to stop marching.
Protesters de-escalated the scene by removing themselves from the lot area. Police were not going to back off until the crowd returned to marching and, again, an officer brought out a dog for crowd control.
This could have been what the thrown water bottle was last night. That is to say that police were going to eventually find some incident, significant or minor, to latch onto and use as a pretext to swiftly and aggressively clear out people. And, since all these forces have previously never worked with each other and lack coordination, what they planned to do would be difficult to figure out if one was observing and people caught in the middle would simply be taken to jail.
All of which makes it even more critical to constantly remind one’s self that protesters are here because a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. That he was killed is the issue, not the few acts of “agitators,” which will almost always push police to respond in a disproportionate manner to everyone present at the scene.