Explained: What The Hell Is Happening In Ferguson?

By now you probably would have heard a bit about some rumblings and general unrest occurring right now in the American township of Ferguson. The growing unrest and clashes with police in what is otherwise a generally peaceful part of the world have slowly been gathering media attention throughout the week.

But with any heavily covered and constantly developing story, it can – at times – be difficult to actually get a grasp of what’s happening and, particularly if you came to the story late, what the cause of it is.
So, as best we can present it, here’s a no-frills, basic facts account of the situation in Ferguson as it stands.
First off, where exactly is Ferguson?
I’m glad you asked. Ferguson is a small city that lies to the north of the city of St Louis in the US state of Missouri. As of a 2010 census, it has a population of around 21,000 people.
Alright, cool. So what happened to Mike Brown?
This past Saturday, August 9th, at around 2pm, 18 year old Mike Brown and a 22 year old friend Dorian Johnson were walking towards Brown’s Grandmother’s house. A police cruiser approached the pair and an unnamed officer instructed them to get off the road and onto the footpath. An altercation ensued, and one shot from the officer’s gun went off inside the car, at which point the two men began to flee. The officer exited the vehicle and fired several shots, fatally wounding Mike Brown, who fell to the road around 11 metres from the police cruiser.
The official police statement was that Brown assaulted the officer and reached for the officer’s weapon. Dorian Johnson’s account of events paints a very different picture, however.
Johnson’s account states that the pair were under a minute away from their destination when the officer pulled up and ordered “Get the fuck on the sidewalk.” The pair explained they were close to home, but then the officer drove forward, stopped, and backed up, almost hitting the two of them.
The officer allegedly opened the door aggressively, which hit the pair and rebounded closed. The officer then grabbed Brown by the neck through the door’s open window. Brown attempted to get away, but the officer kept pulling him in closer. The officer then allegedly drew his weapon, stated “I’m going to shoot” and almost immediately fired a shot, which hit Brown. In Johnson’s account of events, Brown did not reach for the officer’s weapon at all.
After the first shot, both men ran away from the officer, who – according to Johnson – then shot Brown again in the back. Brown then turned around and, with his hands in the air, said “I don’t have a gun! Stop shooting!” The officer allegedly then shot Brown several more times.
Mike Brown was an 18 year old black male who was unarmed and had no prior criminal record. He was due to start college in a matter of days.
Yikes. That sounds horrible. The cop who shot him called for help immediately, right?
Welllllll…. Here’s the thing about that. No. No they didn’t.
Wait, what?
So if they didn’t call for help, what did they do?
The first thing they did, according to St Louis County police dispatch tapes acquired by internet vigilantes Anonymous, was call for crowd control without mentioning a shooting.
Yeah. Ok, so… According to the tapes, they called for crowd control straight away and didn’t mention a shooting. St Louis County dispatch first learned of the shooting via the news, and then called Ferguson city who denied knowledge of it – denied knowledge to another police department. Emergency medical services would not be called for around four hours, during which time Mike Brown’s body remained laying on the road where he fell. Ferguson PD claimed to not know what was going on, but still requested more units on the scene.
Fucking hell. How did the local community react to this?
Not well at all. The Ferguson City Police Department was already known to be demographically imbalanced with regards to the city’s predominantly black population, and there was already a growing distrust of law enforcement amongst the community as a result. Couple this with other recent high profile cases involving the gunning down of unarmed black teens – like the George Zimmerman case – and you’ve got yourself a pot that’s very much in danger of boiling over.
On Sunday evening, the day after the shooting, a candlelight vigil for Brown turned violent, with a number of businesses looted and over 30 arrests made.
In the days and nights that have followed, protests have continued and tensions between crowds and police have risen.
You’d think that after the shooting, Ferguson Police would be keen to keep some level of restraint in how they respond to this, right?
Guess again.
Oh now you’re just taking the piss. Those are stock shots of the Army.
No they’re not.
You’re kidding. That’s ACTUALLY the police response at the scene?
Why the hell do regular police units have all that ridiculous gear?
Fucked if I know. Becuase America?
Well what else has happened then?
Get this, the armed, military-looking police have actually fired rubber bullets and teargas into crowds of peaceful – and I stress peaceful – daytime protesters in order to get them to disperse. Thanks to LiveStreams that were set up at the time (and have since been taken down) we know that police officers fired first – not the protesters, who were standing with their hands in the air; a symbol of the overriding “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” message that the protests are carrying.
Oh my god, that’s horrific. Well, at least the media is reporting this so something will be done about it.
Oh, you’re gonna love this part then. In addition to firing on crowds of peaceful, non-violent, unarmed citizens who were protesting against the heavy-handedness of law enforcement and police brutality, the cops in Ferguson have since tried to actively shut down media from reporting and capturing images.
A team of police actually fired a teargas canister at an Al Jazeera America news crew who were setting up to do a live news cross, forcing the crew to abandon their gear and flee. Shortly thereafter, a large armoured vehicle arrived, and police personnel began dismantling the crew’s gear. Unbeknownst to them, another news crew was set up (quite literally) across the road and captured the whole thing on film.
Even worse still, later on in a nearby McDonald’s which was being used as a makeshift media bureau by the press due to its available WiFi and power outlets, police entered the building and wound up arresting two journalists – Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post – after Lowery began filming the police (which is legal in all 50 US states) and subsequently made the apparent grave error of readjusting his slipping backpack.
Lowery and Reilly were both arrested – Lowery was slammed into a vending machine so hard it triggered the dispense mechanism – and taken to prison. No police involved would provide their name or badge ID number, despite numerous requests, and when asked for the reason they were being arrested the arresting officer responded “Trespassing in a McDonald’s.”
Lowery and Reilly were subsequently released without charge, with Lowery providing a detailed first-hand account of the experience for the Washington Post.
In addition to the two journalists, Antonio French – a St Louis City Council Alderman – was also arrested and released on bail having been charged with “unlawful assembly.”
Holy… HOLY SHIT. This is unbelievable. There’s got to be some sort of investigation into this, surely? There’s not a thing about any of this that seems right.
Ferguson PD are conducting an internal investigation into the initial shooting, but it looks hackneyed at best from this vantage point. They’ve as yet refused to name the officer involved in the shooting, have not interview Dorian Johnson or any other eyewitnesses, and this over-the-top response to public unrest feels like an exercise in trying to intimidate people into compliance.
Fortunately, the rest of the country’s legal types aren’t reading from the same book. The FBI has launched a concurrent investigation of their own. The Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation into the shooting, and will be conducting a nationwide review of police practices. The family of Mike Brown has enlisted the services of the same lawyer who represented Trayvon Martin‘s family in subsequent legal battles. And President Obama has unreservedly condemned any and all bullying of the press by police, given that any arrests of journalists or prevention of coverage is a violation of the US Constitution’s First Amendment.
This… This is all pretty ferociously fucked up, isn’t it.
It is. It really, really is.
Photos: Scott Olson, Michael B. Thomas via Getty Images.