Michael Brown: What the Ferguson riots tell us about race in America today
Another shooting, more riots – and again, the US is torn apart on racial lines. Rob Crilly reports from Ferguson
By Rob Crilly
7:05AM BST 24 Aug 2014
They came to demand justice as the sun set over the Missouri suburb of Ferguson. Dawn and Chuck were white, like many of the other marchers parading up and down the town’s main strip, past looted, burnt-out shops and dozens of police officers.
What set them apart was their banner. “Justice for police officer Darren Wilson,” it read. They had come to demand justice not for Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager, but for the white cop who shot him dead. They barely escaped.
Within minutes of their arrival, a crowd had formed, shouting abuse. They were gone in seconds, bundled away to safety by police. “What is the police doing,” one woman screamed. “They aren’t arresting them. They’re helping them. Protecting their own.”
The brief episode on Wednesday night was a stark reminder of America’s trouble with race. Brown’s death two weeks ago has led to demonstrations by day and riots at night. It has highlighted the gulf between a community on the edge of St Louis and the men and women who police it.
Across the country, it has polarised opinion between those who see a nation where white cops kill black men, and those who have donated £100,000 to a fund for Officer Wilson, or lit their porches blue to show support for the police.
More than 50 years after Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and with an African-American president well into his second term, the violence demonstrates just how sensitive the issue remains.
Markese Mull, who described himself as a friend of Brown, believes the killing was about one thing. “It’s about race, much as we don’t want it to be,” he said, standing near the memorial of flowers, candles and balloons where the teenager died. “It is about a figure patrolling an area that he just didn’t understand.”
Brown died in Canfield Drive. One half is a street of neat lawns and inexpensive bungalows one step up from trailers. The spot where Brown died is in the other half. His body lay for two hours outside a development of low-rise apartments, an area blamed for most of Ferguson’s crime.
Witnesses differ on exactly what happened at midday on Saturday August 9. CCTV footage shows Brown and his friend in the Ferguson Market and Liquor Store. Brown grabs a box of cheap cigars. A member of staff tries to prevent him leaving, but is shoved into a display of crisps.
The fatal confrontation came minutes later as the pair walked down Canfield Drive. Officer Wilson ordered them out of the street on to the pavement so his car could pass. A struggle followed. The police say Brown tried to grab the officer’s handgun. A shot went off inside the car.
One witness said Wilson was enraged when Brown slipped his grasp. He gave chase and opened fire.
In contrast, Josie, a friend of the police officer, described how the 6ft 4in teenager punched Wilson in the face. As Brown fled, she said, Wilson ordered him to freeze, whereupon the 18-year-old turned and “bum-rushed” him, running full-speed into him and forcing him to shoot six times in self-defence. All the later accounts cast doubt on the original story that Brown died trying to surrender, arms in the air.
Whatever the sequence, the outcome is clear: 10 days of tear gas and rubber bullets.
By day, the protests have been peaceful. West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson’s main street, echoed to chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot”. Volunteers cleared the debris of the night before, from burger wrappers to tear-gas canisters. Church groups and social clubs gave out bottles of water or grilled hotdogs. Students handed roses to the police, lending a carnival atmosphere to proceedings.
Things changed with the setting of the sun. “Here they come. Those are the guys,” said Mike, a student from rural Missouri, pointing out a handful of men, bandanas across their faces, who had arrived at the QuikTrip petrol station, the epicentre of the violence. Protesters and police alike have blamed outside agitators of trying to use Ferguson’s anger to ignite a global revolution.
As the clock ticked towards a midnight curfew, the mood turned. The scent in the air switched from marijuana to the acrid blast of tear gas. Police loitering at the side of the road fell in as five armoured vehicles formed a row.
The protesters now had their target. Urged on by a member of the New Black Panthers with a bullhorn, they marched to within 30 yards of the police line. It became a stand-off conducted with megaphones.
“You are violating the curfew,” the police said. “Disperse immediately.”
Unofficial marshals urged the crowd back. Squabbles flared between hotheads desperate to take the fight to police and others trying to keep the peace. A plastic bottle arced out of the night sky, filled with water or perhaps urine.
Then came the message, filtering through the police lines: “Gas, gas, gas.”
The first canisters were smoke bombs. Tear gas followed, sending panicked protesters running for cover. The pop-pop-pop of gunshots echoed around the street.
At the end of the night, police said they had made seven arrests after spotting individuals with guns on the roof of a barbecue joint. They moved in when a protester was shot, using tear gas to drive back the crowd, said Capt Ron Johnson, the officer in charge.
Every night brought a change in tactics, as police struggled to keep a lid on the violence. One night they went in heavy, the next soft. One night there was a curfew, the next there was none.
Journalists were detained in the mayhem. On Sunday I parked my car at the police command centre, half a mile from the disturbances. With two other journalists, I set off towards a “press pen”, alongside West Florissant Avenue, where we would be safe to watch events unfold.
Even before we left the car park, two police officers loomed from the darkness. “Stop. Turn around and leave,” shouted one, as the other levelled a shotgun at my chest. My press card and protestations made no difference. “If you don’t start walking now, you will be arrested,” said the first officer. As he came closer, I saw it was Capt Johnson.
The curfew was still two hours away, and we had been walking between media areas, but it made no difference. “That’s it, I’m arresting you,” he said. “I’ve called a car.”
We began walking back, but it was too late. Three other officers arrived. I was made to put down my notebook. My arms were held behind my back and handcuffed. It was all done gently and politely.
Capt Johnson, who looked like he had not slept in days, made his frustration clear. “I’ve gone out of my way to help you and all that happens is that you get in the way,” he said. “You can’t walk up behind police officers. You’ll get tear-gassed in the face.”
He had been brought in to remedy a shambolic police operation – criticised by President Obama for a heavy-handed response to protesters and the media – that had made things worse. He was black and knew Ferguson well.
But many in the crowd saw him as a puppet. News conferences where white police chiefs lined up behind him had undermined his position among those who saw everything according to colour.
After five minutes, Capt Johnson released us.
Still, more than a dozen journalists have been detained during the protests, ensuring that the media have kept the story in the headlines. Like the OJ Simpson case, or the shooting of Trayvon Martin two years ago in Florida by a neighbourhood watch captain, the killing has ignited simmering race tensions.
A poll by the Pew Research Centre demonstrates the gap. It found that while 80 per cent of blacks believe the shooting raises issues of race, only 37 per cent of whites agreed. There was a similar split over whether the police response had been over the top.
Wider statistics show that blacks are more likely to be stopped and searched, less likely to attend a leading college, and less likely to be represented in the top professions. Black median income has fallen to a little more than half of whites’.
President Obama – who as a candidate steered clear of similar issues lest he be viewed as an angry black man – has been forced to intervene. “In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” Mr Obama said, after cutting short his summer holiday. “In too many communities, too many young men of colour are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.”
Everyone in Ferguson has their own story of racial profiling: the young mother whose seven-year-old son was taken off a school bus at gunpoint; the white student who allows extra time on car journeys so he can wait for his black friends, so frequently are they pulled over.
The most quoted statistic of the week is the fact that Ferguson police have three black officers out of 53 for an area that is two thirds black.
Gerodney Meeks, whose “street name” is Ra Ra, said police assumed black men with low-slung trousers and tattoos must be criminals. “They see me and my dreadlocks and just think of the last person they arrested that looked like this,” he said, standing beside the spot where Brown fell. “My momma keeps telling me to cut off my dreads, but I can’t do that.”
Ironically, Ferguson’s population had once been seen as a good example of integration. In the past 40 years, its population of 21,000 changed from predominantly white to predominantly black. Relatively affluent African-Americans arrived from downtown St Louis – one of the most segregated cities in the country – while “white flight” saw those who could afford it move further into the suburbs. But many neighbourhoods remained mixed.
Now Ferguson is a destination for civil rights leaders. The Brown family’s attorney fought the Trayvon Martin case. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton – who described the shooting as a “defining moment” – will return for Brown’s funeral tomorrow, drawing criticism from the Right that they are inflaming opinion.
And while tempers flare fast, justice moves slowly. A grand jury began deliberating on Wednesday. It must decide whether Officer Wilson should face charges, shifting an increasingly political case to a jury of laymen rather than county authorities viewed with suspicion. Just hearing the evidence will take until October.
Meanwhile, the grieving family remains in legal limbo while demonstrators plan their next move.
“We are not going away,” said Romney Edwards, a teacher-recruitment consultant, standing on West Florissant Avenue, watching police officers assemble. “We will keep demonstrating until justice is done. People just don’t know what else they can do.”
Ferguson’s hot summer is far from over.