It has been five days since a police officer gunned down 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and an incident that allegedly stemmed from two African American teens walking in the street has now filled those streets with police, tanks, tear gas and a town full of residents demanding answers and accountability from local law enforcement.
Police violence escalated on Wednesday night, as tear gas canisters, wooden and rubber bullets and smoke bombs were used to disperse crowds out on the street once the sun went down. Media became a definite target of law enforcement officers, as reporters were arrested and detained and camera crews gassed out of position and their equipment dismantled. One Washington Post reporter later shared the story of his arrest at a local McDonalds where he was recharging his equipment and taking notes.
“Multiple officers grabbed me,” writes Wesley Lowery. “I tried to turn my back to them to assist them in arresting me. I dropped the things from my hands. ‘My hands are behind my back,’ I said. ‘I’m not resisting. I’m not resisting.’ At which point one officer said: ‘You’re resisting. Stop resisting.’”
Both Lowery and a reporter from Huffington Post were then placed in a van and taken to the station, where they were eventually released with no charges.
While some reporters were being detained by police to get them off the streets, others were targeted more directly. Local station KSDK.com caught footage of a camera crew from Al Jazeera, which had a canister of gas thrown at them from the cops in an otherwise empty street. After the reporters left amidst the smoke and gas, officers in masks can be seen going to their equipment, turning off the lights, and moving the cameras so there were all focused downward at the pavement. The officers then see the other camera crew filming their actions and charge at them, demanding they get off the street. Other than the police and reporters, there is no one in the area. Another media crew said they were hit with a bean bag projectile shot at them by the police shortly after they filmed officers apparently beating a person with clubs.
Media may have been a primary target for intimidation and arrests, but local officials were also jailed. Most notably detained was St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who, although he does not represent the area, has been tweeting from the ground locally for days and demanding that the police answer for their actions. According to French, he was arrested for unlawful assembly, although no charges were ever officially drawn up, and was held overnight in a local jail with other activists.
“Inside that jail is nothing but peacekeepers,” he told St. Louis Today. “They rounded up the wrong people … reverends, young people organizing the peace effort.” According to French, protesters were gathered together when police told them to disperse, then began to release smoke bombs. He was recording the scene from inside his car to avoid the smoke when his door was opened and he was dragged out and told he was being arrested “because [he] didn’t listen.” French claims that the protest was entirely peaceful until the police arrived and told everyone they needed to leave, in an attempt to limit protests once the sun was down. “We have a right to protest 24 hours a day. Our constitutional rights don’t expire at 9 p.m,” he said.
Film from the ground shows a police presence that escalated what appeared to be a massive but non-violent protest, leaving neighborhoods littered with gas canisters, bullets and other weapons. Those on the streets say the police rolled in ready for a skirmish, which they then prepared to “prevent” the moment the sun began to set. “At 8:22 P.M., the police began demanding that the crowd stay twenty-five feet away from them and their vehicles,” reports Jelani Cobb at the New Yorker. “A voice in the crowd shouted, ‘Michael Brown was thirty-five feet away when you killed him!’ I stood near a cluster of journalists, but less than two hours after Lowery and Reilly had been arrested, nothing suggested that the police there would make distinctions between people protesting and those who were covering it. Officers demanded that we move farther back, as well. People began chanting ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!’ Ten minutes later, the sound of breaking glass was heard and the police demanded that the crowd disperse. Only seconds after that I saw a half-dozen canisters launch into the air and the streets were bathed in the strobe lights of flash grenades.”
Cobb notes that the crowd dispersed in about 10 minutes, but the gassing in the streets continued for two hours more.
Thursday gives the hopes of a fresh start in the attempt to find answers and de-escalate the situation in Ferguson. Democratic Governor Jay Nixon arrived in the city to speak with residents and officials, as did Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. The St. Louis County police have been pulled from duty in the area, to be replaced with either local or federal officers. Witnesses to the shooting of Michael Brown are finally being questioned to have their accounts added into the investigation, most of them disputing the official police statement that Brown was shot after wrestling with a police officer over his gun.
Even the President of the United States has finally weighed in on the situation, telling the public in a press conference that he is in constant contact with the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder, who is running an investigation into civil rights violations in Brown’s death, and the FBI.
“When something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death and how they are protecting people in their communities,” said the President in a statement. He also noted police escalation, stating, “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their first amendment rights. And here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who were just trying to do their job.”
Even if we eventually get answers on what exactly happened in the murder of Michael Brown or why an unarmed young man was shot multiple times by a local police officer, we have even bigger questions that still need to be addressed. Why have our local police departments been armed like military forces and who is stopping those forces from turning those weapons on the public in the name of security?
This all allegedly started with two teens walking down a street. Now, armored trucks are rolling down that street instead. As a public, we must demand to know how we got from there to here.
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