What's Happening in Ferguson?

Image c/o PBS
Image c/o PBS

Where? Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.

What? The city is under siege for the last several nights as a highly armed police force clashes with town residents who are protesting the death of one of their own who was killed by a police officer. Conflicting reports lay blame on the officer and the victim, depending on who is asked. An F.B.I. inquiry is underway, and local police are investigating. Police officers have fired tear gas and rubber pellets at demonstrators and have arrested at least 40 people since Sunday. Clashes continued last night.

When? Michael Brown was shot and killed on the afternoon of Saturday, August 9th, and protests reached a fever pitch on Sunday evening when a convenience store was set on fire, and at least 11 other local businesses were been looted. Protests and enforcements of curfews continued into last night when more tear gas and rubber bullets were employed. Journalists were arrested for recording police action last night after media was banned from the area.

Who? The St. Louis County Police Department and people from Ferguson, Missouri engaged in protest of the police department.

Why is this all happening? The circumstances of Brown’s shooting are in dispute. Mr. Brown and a friend were walking home from a convenience store when friends and witnesses say they were stopped by an officer for walking in the middle of the street. Witnesses say that Mr. Brown’s hands were in the air when the last of several shots was fired. The police claim that Mr. Brown was shot during a fight over the officer’s gun. Regardless of circumstances, the police department refuses to divulge the name of the officer(s) who shot Brown, leading residents to protest. Protests turned violent, and police have responded with questionably disproportionate force.

But really this is all happening because this was the last straw for so many. The seeds of this outrage were sewn long before this shooting. They were sewn when slave ships reached America’s shores. They were nurtured by decades of institutionalized racism designed to keep segments of the population below the poverty line. They were encouraged to blossom with every law enacted to disenfranchise African Americans. They exploded when yet another unarmed brown person was shot and killed.

Ferguson is a town with 63% African American population where 93% of arrests are African Americans. The police chief and the mayor are white. One city council member is black. Three police officers out of 53 are black. Brown’s shooting was the first homicide recorded in Ferguson this year.

The St. Louis County police department is equipped with militarized gear – tanks, sound wave technology, tear gas, fatigues and mine-resistant ambush vehicles. The St. Louis County police department used all of these things to handle what began as legal, peaceful protests.

Chaos ensued. Media was banned. People were hurt.

Other Notable questions:

Isn’t it completely legal to record the police?  Yes! Federal courts have held consistently that citizens have a First Amendment right to record the police as they perform their official duties in public. An exception, of course, is when you’re interfering with police work. They also don’t have a right to confiscate your phone or camera, or delete its contents, just because you were recording them. This also makes it even stranger that all media helicopters and satellite trucks were banned from the area.

How was that enforced? It’s tough to argue with heavily armed police in tanks and military gear, I guess.

That’s got to be unconstitutional, right? This is complicated, since police are within their rights to enforce public safety, but it was hard to watch this or read about it and not see major civil rights and First Amendment violations – rights to assembly, free speech and press, paramount among them.

There seemed to be a lack of interest in this story until journalists got arrested. That’s strange, right? It is a bit weird that it took violations of members of the fourth estate’s rights for the media to start to care, and even then it was hard to find television coverage of this last night. It’s more than a little depressing, if you ask me, that it’s gotten to the point where the media wouldn’t cover “just another protest” about another dead black man.

How did you find out about all of this then? Luckily, Twitter was all over it. Someone was brave enough to post a live feed of what was happening in Ferguson, and enough people were discussing the events that it became a trending topic. Local journalists and those with twitter accounts were able to give jarring, live accounts of the action from graphic descriptions to tear gas selfies. This may mark a change in how news is delivered. Social media can fill in the gaps, or more accurately chasms, left by major news outlets.

It was hard to tell the difference between footage from Ferguson or from the Middle East, wasn’t it? Yes. It’s hard to believe that the things we saw were happening right in the middle of America. In fact, people from Gaza were tweeting Ferguson residents to tell them how to effectively deal with the sting of tear gas.

Where were all the elected officials? Mostly silent. Missouri’s Governor finally offered a statement this morning. One councilman was arrested during the protests. Many running for office are reticent to publicly offer an opinion.

Can you imagine circumstances when police would shoot rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd of white protestors? No.

But say that did happen. Do you think more state, local, and federal elected officials might be more vocal about it? Most likely.

The Tea Party and Libertarians talk a lot about government intrusion and being prepared to fight the tyranny of government. Have they spoken out against possible rights violations by the police? To my knowledge, activists from these parties have been silent. It’s possible that upcoming elections have something to do with this. There have also been no protests about the massive amount of tax dollars being spent.

The NRA quite often speaks about how we all need to armed in case of a need to rise up against an abusive government. Did they issue an edict calling for the armament of the African American crowd in Ferguson? Oddly, no. No one from the NRA has called for black people to assert their Second Amendment rights.

It’s weird that more people aren’t discussing it, right? Very! It’s an important story that’s emblematic of how many Americans are feeling at the moment. It’s possible that people without a social media presence might not know that much about it.

What can we do? For one thing, we can talk about it. We can discuss it with people that we know aren’t getting any information about it. When I feel helpless watching situations like this unfold, I like to donate to or promote causes that help break the cycle of poverty. We can make sure we vote for people who would be outspoken in the face of civil rights violations. We can hope that something like this won’t happen anywhere near us, even though we know it can happen anywhere. We can take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen. We can hold media accountable for their lack of coverage. We can acknowledge struggle. We can open our eyes and not look away.


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