Print Edition - 2014-08-27 | Main News
The Ferguson riots: Overkill
- Police in a Missouri suburb demonstrate how not to quell a riot
Aug 26, 2014-
NEARLY every night, Felicia Pope’s house fills with smoke and tear gas. Her four-month-old granddaughter has no idea why the air stings her throat. Her family feels trapped. But the protests outside over the death of Michael Brown, a local 18-year-old, show no sign of ending.
Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, erupted after Mr Brown, who was black, was shot six times and killed by Darren Wilson, a white policeman, on August 9th. Each day the protests start peacefully, with demonstrators holding their hands in the air and chanting: “Hands up, don’t shoot!” But night after night, they have degenerated into mayhem, with bottles thrown, shops looted and police dishing out tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets.
No one knows for sure what happened in the moments before Mr Brown died. The police say he attacked Mr Wilson and tried to seize his gun. Not so, says a friend of Mr Brown’s who was with him at the time: he was shot while trying to surrender.
To begin with, the crowds knew neither the name of the cop who shot him nor much about Mr Brown himself, besides his family’s description of him as a “gentle giant” (he was six feet four). After angry demands for more transparency, the police released Mr Wilson’s name on August 15th. They also released a video showing a man they say was Mr Brown robbing a liquor store minutes before his fatal encounter with Mr Wilson.
Mr Brown can be seen shoving and menacing a tiny shop assistant who tries to stop him.
It is unclear whether Mr Wilson knew that Mr Brown was a robbery suspect when he shot him. And the release of the video infuriated the crowds even more. Some dismissed it as a smear; others, as irrelevant. “That is some bullshit,” says Nestlé Webster, a protester. “How does it justify six bullets in him? It’s just wrong.” Soon after the video aired, looters ransacked the store Mr Brown allegedly robbed.
Ferguson is a small community—some 21,000 people live there—with a rapidly changing population. In 1990 it was 75% white; in 2010 it was 67% black. The police force has not adapted: it is 95% white and widely distrusted. The mayor, who is also white, has appeared clueless since Mr Brown’s shooting. He said in a television interview that there was no racial divide in Ferguson. That is not how many black residents see it. Stephan Hampton, for example, recalls that his grandfather was killed by police in 1984. He also remembers the date when the cops first stopped him: “May 26th, 2010”. Mr Webster remembers being stopped on his bicycle when he was 15; he adds: “I can’t count how many times I’ve been stopped since.”
In this context, “it is hard to point to anything that Ferguson police did [since Mr Brown’s shooting] that was not wrong,” says Gene O’Donnell of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. They left Mr Brown’s body on the street for four hours. They withheld the name of the officer who shot him. They confronted peaceful demonstrators and rioters alike with a stunning show of force—armoured cars
with snipers on top—and precious little tact. This is despite the appointment of a black state highway patrol officer, Ron Johnson, to co-ordinate state and local law-enforcement agencies in Ferguson.
On August 18th Barack Obama joined a bipartisan chorus of disapproval, saying that America needs to “maintain a distinction between our military and domestic law enforcement”. The Pentagon supplies
local police all over America with surplus military kit of the sort seen this week on the streets of Ferguson; Mr Obama vowed “to make sure that what they’re purchasing is stuff that they actually need”.
Before midnight on August 19th clergy in Ferguson led protesters in prayer. Before the crowd could disperse, someone threw a bottle at the police. Within minutes, chaos reigned. The police gave chase. Clergy made a human chain between the police and the protesters. Journalists, including your correspondent, were ordered into a “designated media area”. Protesters took refuge in their midst.
Eric Holder, the attorney-general, arrived in Ferguson on August 20th to meet federal investigators. That same day the county prosecutor presented evidence about Mr Brown’s shooting to a grand jury, which could take months to decide whether or not to indict anyone.
There was less violence on August 20th, as the police started to work with clergy and community leaders to defuse tensions. Officials say Ferguson wants to hire more black police and is considering requiring all cops to wear cameras.
The riots have hurt business. “It’s going to kill us,” says Dan McMullen, the owner of Solo Insurance. His windows were broken by looters. He has had only one customer since the shooting, and has laid off most of his staff. If no one is indicted, he worries that things will get worse. “I’ll think I’ll stay home,” he says.
Rioting seldom makes life better for anyone, and the damage can last for years. Looters often make shopkeepers flee permanently to safer towns. Those who remain face less competition and therefore raise prices, making life even harder for residents. Newark and Detroit have never fully recovered from the riots of 1967.
Smug television broadcasts in Russia and China have wildly exaggerated the sickness of which Ferguson is a symptom. But it is real enough. The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.
This is not because they are trigger-happy but because they are nervous. The citizens they encounter have perhaps 300m guns between them, so a cop never knows whether the hand in a suspect’s pocket is gripping a Glock. This will not change soon. Even mild gun-controls laws tend to fail. And many Americans will look at the havoc in Ferguson and conclude that it’s time to buy a gun, just in case.
Published: 27-08-2014 10:40