After a week of protests following the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, an inner suburb of St. Louis, the Missouri governor declared a state of emergency in the township. Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot multiple times after surrendering with his arms in the air.
Some 200 protesters defied the resulting curfew, mostly younger African-Americans, who were unresponsive to older members of the community who urged them to go home. Their lives have become bound up with getting justice for Brown – they say that it was murder and the white policeman who shot him should be in jail. They feel that without the police being subject to the rule of law, their own lives are being treated as worthless.
Brandon Sneed was among those who stayed on the street. He told a Washington Post reporter that he was defying the curfew because “there is no justice.” “We are all Mike Brown,” he said. “By that I mean all people. We are the 99 percent. But the 1 percent rule the world.” Another protester, Timothy Booker, held an American flag upside down. “After Trayvon Martin, everybody turns the flag upside down because it shows there is no justice,” he said. “George Zimmerman got away with murder. The justice system is backward. So we turn the flag upside down.”
The initial protests after Brown’s death on Saturday a week ago were peaceful, but were met with a heavy-handed response from police in riot gear. On Sunday night a gas station near the site of the killing was torched and looted; in the following evenings, police in military-style uniforms, some carrying high-powered sniper rifles and wearing balaclavas, were accompanied by armored vehicles blocking the main street. They warned demonstrators to get out of the road or face arrest, before firing teargas, rubber bullets and wooden baton rounds into the crowds.
The Guardian reported on Tuesday night: “For 40 minutes, the protesters defied the threat. Some hung out of car windows, while others raised their arms aloft and repeated what has become their defining slogan: ‘Hands up, don’t shoot.’ A police helicopter swooped around the dark sky above, shining a bright spotlight on the faces of the almost entirely African American crowd.”
The slogan rapidly spread across the country as demonstrations against police violence transformed the universal symbol for surrender into a symbol of defiance and protest.
Protests continued on Wednesday, when local politicians and journalists covering the ongoing demonstrations were arrested. Wesley Lowery, a reporter for The Washington Post, was arrested with another journalist in a McDonalds. Lowery, who is black, made it clear he was not resisting arrest, but was slammed against a wall and cuffed. “That is probably the single point at which I’ve been more afraid than at any point.” Lowery said after. “More afraid than the tear gas and rubber bullets, more afraid during the riot police. I know of too many instances where someone who was not resisting arrest was assaulted or killed.”
As images reminiscent of police attacks on 1960s Civil Rights marches flooded the media, Obama appealed for restraint and Missouri governor Jay Nixon transferred command for maintaining order in Ferguson to the state highway patrol, led by an African American captain. “We all have been concerned about the vision that the world has seen,” Nixon said. According to the Guardian, he admitted that Ferguson had come to resemble a “war zone.”
The results of minimizing the police presence were immediate. The Washington Post reported, “A stunning change in tone radiated through the suburban streets where protests had turned violent each of the last four evenings … [Highway Patrol Captain Ronald] Johnson spent a considerable amount of time talking to media, explaining that the decision to tone down the show of force was deliberate, a calculation he said was made by St. Louis County police officials. … The protesters remained angry about Brown’s killing — but unlike Wednesday night when they furiously demanded the release of family members being detained, the scene was not tense.”
However, on Friday morning sharp conflicts between the state administration and local authorities surfaced. In an effort to smear Brown’s reputation, Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson named him as the prime suspect in a convenience store robbery that occurred just before the shooting. The Washington Post reported: “Police dramatized the allegation, releasing security camera photos showing a person they identified as Brown towering over and menacing the store clerk, images that were circulated nationwide. Yet, despite the implication that Brown was stopped because of the robbery, Jackson later appeared to reverse himself, saying at a second news conference that the confrontation ‘was not related to the robbery.’ Instead, he said, Brown was stopped because he and a friend were walking in the street.”
Ferguson police released the images despite the objections of state and federal authorities, concerned that it would heighten tensions in the community. They may have been encouraged to do so by the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, who was angered at the governor’s decision to take control of the scene away from St. Louis county police. “It’s shameful what he did today, he had no legal authority to do that,” McCulloch told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is shameful.”
In a remarkable display of anger, St. Louis Representative William Lacy Clay attacked McCulloch on Friday. He accused McCulloch of attempting to influence a potential jury by the release of the robbery video at the same time the officer’s name was released. “Bob McCulloch tried to taint the jury pool by the stunt he pulled today. I have no faith in him, but I do trust the FBI and the justice department,” he said. The county executive is also leading a push to remove McCulloch from the investigation into Brown’s death because of bias.
Confrontation returned to the streets again after midnight on Friday, when police showed up in riot gear. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that several hundred protesters had been peaceful but faced off with the police, “some officers pointing guns at the crowd, some protesters pointing cameras at police. Police told the crowd over a loudspeaker to disperse immediately. … After several minutes, police turned and left, but as they retreated, they sprayed smoke bombs and threw sound cannons at the crowd.” This only served to incite the angrier elements in the crowd further.
It was after these incidents that governor Nixon declared a state of emergency at a public press conference. “The governor’s extraordinary action came as the attorney for a key witness described the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown as an execution-style slaying. … But after his opening remarks, Nixon quickly lost control of the crowd, with the images being recorded for a national television audience. ‘You need to charge that police [officer] with murder!’ one person yelled. Others demanded to know how the curfew would be enforced. ‘Going to do tear gas again?’ someone asked. When Nixon began answering that ‘the best way for us to get peace’ was for everyone to go home and get a good night’s sleep, another resident interrupted him, shouting: ‘We don’t need sleep! We need justice!’ ”
Many commentators have remarked on the effects of the militarization of local police using the Pentagon’s used equipment. Although this is important, especially to journalists who are illegally prevented from covering protests, in Ferguson it is combined with the re-segregation of the community by white flight. While the residents of the suburb are overwhelmingly African American, the police force is overwhelmingly white. It closed ranks in the face of public protests, refusing to release the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown or any details of the shooting for days after the event, underlining its alienation from the community and exacerbating the long-standing racial tensions between them.
According to the New York Times, “As African-Americans moved into [St. Louis] and whites moved out, real estate agents and city leaders, in a pattern familiar elsewhere in the country, conspired to keep blacks out of the suburbs through the use of zoning ordinances and restrictive covenants. But by the 1970s, some of those barriers had started to fall, and whites moved even farther away from the city. These days, Ferguson is like many of the suburbs around St. Louis, inner-ring towns that accommodated white flight decades ago but that are now largely black. And yet they retain a white power structure.”
Like Anaheim in California, where unarmed Manuel Diaz was shot dead while running away from police, political control of public order is retained by a white elite even though the residents are overwhelmingly nonwhite. Jim Crow segregation has been replaced by economic segregation, white flight, and the appropriation of resources from society by the super-rich.
However, the creeping militarization of the police is now challenged by the growing political self-consciousness of minority American youth. Their resistance has exposed disarray among the St. Louis state agencies and indicates an awareness of the need for an inclusive movement against oligarchy in America. As Brandon Sneed said, “We are the 99 percent. But the 1 percent rule the world.”