Govt encouraged looting, chaos in Ferguson to demonize protesters - anti-police brutality activist

The grand jury decision to spare the police officer in the case of Ferguson has sparked mass protests across the United States. The government, however, has been ready, sending hundreds of security forces, armed as if they were going to war, against the enraged crowds. Why has the death of Michael Brown and impunity of the police brought up such a massive outrage? How deeply- rooted is the problem of police brutality in American society? And why are police so eager to shoot and kill? We ask these questions to the President of Communities United Against Police Brutality, Michelle Gross, on Sophie&Co day.

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Sophie Shevarnadze:Michelle Gross, President of Communities United Against Police Brutality, thank you for joining us today on our program. Now, protests over Ferguson shook over 170 cities across the U.S. Apart from Ferguson itself we saw protests in LA, New York, in Dallas - you’re based in Minneapolis. Have people taken to the streets there? And I know, you’re also in contact with those who are in Ferguson – what do they want?

Michelle Gross: Correct. Yes, we did have a very large protest. Several thousand people were out. We have called for even the day after grand jury decision and many thousands of people have turned out for the action. We were able to give people a lot of information about what is wrong with the grand jury process, we were able to educate a lot of people and actually spur them to take on more actions now, because there is much to do that needs to happen.

SS:Now, the court’s decision not to charge police officer Darren Wilson with the killing of Michael Brown – it has outraged half of the country. Is there a reason not to trust the grand jury's judgement?

MG: Yes, there’s very much a reason not to trust this process. You know, in traditional sitting, what happened to the court sitting is that you have two sides – you have a defence attorney – if it’s a criminal prosecution - and you have a prosecutor. You’ve got two sides, it’s a crucible in which there’s an adversarial process and facts come out through that process. In this situation you had one man playing both roles, and that particular individual, not only he was playing both roles, but he has had a long-standing relationship and reliance on the police in order to do his regular job as a prosecutor. There wasn’t any way in the world he was going to truly be able to effect a fair process. Now, that this whole thing is over, many of the holes in the process are starting to be seen. What should have happened in this: in most states, and I believe it’s true in Missouri as well, prosecutors are not required to empanel grand jury unless they intent to charge the individual with a first-degree murder, and there’s never a way in the world that the police officer would be charged with 1st-degree murder for doing their job, you know, because it wasn’t pre-meditated and things like that. So, there wasn’t even a reason to call a grand jury. What should have happened is that these various witnessed that he said may or may not be reliable or whatever, should have to be in front of the jury – and a real jury, an actual jury that had been vetted by the community and so forth – a real jury could have heard these testimonies and decide it for themselves what is credible and what isn’t. Having one person stand in for both the prosecution and defence – it’s not possible, it’s not correct and of course it was designed to elicit the exact outcome. You know, we actually said, going into this, that this was going to be outcome, and we weren’t actually surprised. We were outraged, but we weren’t surprised.

SS:Also, there was no proper account of the events of that day heard from Wilson until very recently. Why did it take so long?

MG: You know, that’s correct, and part of it is this: if you, or I, or any average community member was involved in a crime or even a witness to a crime, we would be interviewed right away, our accounting of the situation would have been documented quickly. First, there wasn’t even a police report for the better part of the month that would put into writing Wilson’s own position on things. They didn’t even interview him or create a police report until a better part of the month. This gave him a long time to concoct his version of reality. When you’ve got two people and one of them is dead and not available to be the witness any longer, then what the other person says takes on great weight. So, consequently, than needed to be cast in writing quickly. This idea of giving him nearly a month to come up with his story before they put anything into writing is wrong. And then, even since then, his story story has changed multiple times.

SS:But also I couldn’t help but notice what he said, when he actually said that – Wilson said he had a clear conscience, that he wouldn’t have acted any differently. Why he’s acting so self-assured in the face of a such strong reaction? Does he feel a police force has his back no matter what he does?

MG: That’s exactly what the issue is. The police force, the city officials, the county officials, the government has his back no matter what he does – and this is characteristic of policing in this country. This was an egregious situation to be sure, and of course people have reacted strongly to it – but we had a situation in Detroit, some years back, in which a 7-year old girl Aiyana Jones was shot through the top of her head while she was napping on the sofa in her home, after the police broke into the wrong apartment in a raid. Here’s this young woman, a girl, little child laying on her sofa sleeping, and then she’s shot through the top of her head and they couldn’t even get indictment in that case. We, in Minnesota, have documented over 208 cases in which people died at the hands of police, in the state of Minnesota in the last decade or so. We have never seen a single indictment. We have never seen a single prosecution, not even a single charge. Nothing happens in this cases. It’s just is the nature of policing in America because they’re given a wide berth to control the masses, if you will, by any means necessary.

SS:We’re going to talk in detail about the power of police and why they have so much power, but before we get there, I want to talk about this particular case, because this time around National Guard was deployed around the city. Ahead of the announcement over Wilson, the police was on standby, store owners boarded up windows in preparation for riots, the government imposed a state of emergency. Authorities knew, there would be public outrage. Was the reaction bigger than expected?

MG: I don’t think that the reaction was bigger than expected at all, and frankly, like you’ve said, they prepared for it. So, it’s very interesting to us that with all these weeks of preparation and all of this expenditure on military armament and bringing in the National Guard, and really, essentially, turning the city of Ferguson into a war zone – it is amazing to us that, essentially, the police were nowhere near the black side of town. The people we were talking to down there, they have said that police basically abandoned the black side of town and left the people who are not protesters – there’s always people who do bad things and criminal element – and basically, left that part of town to the criminal element to do the looting and things like that. I really don’t think that those people were involved in protests, in fact, I even think that some of them might have well been encouraged to behave that way. It’s quite amazing to us that there could be so much preparation, and yet, that was the outcome – and so, many people are quite suspicious. Like I’ve said, many residents in the area are quite suspicious about the role of the police in that whole matter.

SS:It did look a little scary – I mean, arrests, tear gas, riot-clad police, National Guard wearing masks, but at the same time – you know, there’s looting, there’s arson, and that isn’t exactly peaceful, and that has nothing to do with justice. Was police using too much force, do you think?

MG: That’s correct. I do think this: they’ve set people up by saying “We’re going to make some space for people to protest peacefully” and when they clamped down on peaceful protest almost immediately, telling people to get out of the street and shooting tear gas at people if they didn’t move fast enough, and all of these kinds of things – they’ve set up a situation in which they’ve encouraged rioting to occur, and moreover, again, I believe that people that were involved in the looting, in the burning were not protesters – these were people that the police basically sort of gave a free-for-all to make the protest look bad. I truly do not believe that they are connected and I believe that from my conversations with people on the ground in Ferguson. You know, I’m pretty convinced that that was something where the police just pulled out of particular area, said “let the criminals do what they want to do”, and that will muddy things up and make the protest look bad.

SS:Now, Ferguson, is an example of a police department which is predominantly white and most officers live far from the black communities they serve. How big of a problem is a cultural and mental gap between the black communities and the white police force?

MG: To be sure, that is a huge issue. It happens in just about everywhere. We have it the same way in Minneapolis, where largely suburban white police officers are essentially an invading army in black neighborhoods or latino neighborhoods or other communities of color. There’s often misunderstandings culturally and things like that. Those things could be taught to people, how to interact more respectfully with other cultures. The issue is that there isn’t a will for it. In this community I can definitely speak to that. We have a lot of officers – you know, we actually have a problem with some of the officers in our police force being members of the KKK, the Ku-Klux-Klan, the white supremacist organization. We have officers who are racially insensitive, we have officers who carry the prejudices into the work with them. You can’t control what’s happening in the individuals’ minds and in any organization it’s the job of the head of the organization to control the culture of the organization. What we have in this town is a failure on the part of leadership to control the culture of the organization, and I think that’s very much the same thing in Ferguson. When you have majority black town that’s run by police, by white officers, these things are bound to happen.

SS:So, I’m just thinking wouldn’t it make more sense to hire black officers to work with the black community? It would be just easier for them to build trust with members of this community, which is obviously lacking in Ferguson…

MG: This is one kind of the solution, but in the end, black officers shoot black people also. It isn’t the only solution by a long shot. Much of it, again, has to do with cultural policing itself and the leadership of the police forces that doesn’t control the culture. Much of what you have to do – just like any workforce – is that you have to set the expectations for your employees, let them know what’s appropriate and what conduct is going to be accepted by the agency. Clearly, these conducts are being accepted, they are not disciplined, and therefore you end up with this problems.

SS:Talking about cultural policing, in Darren Wilson’s interview on ABC, we kept hearing him say “my training kicked in” – how come the training “kicks in” and 12 shots are being fired? Are police officers just trained to shoot? Shouldn’t they be trained to arrest people, not to kill them?

MG: Well that is a huge problem. Shoot to kill is a gigantic problem in this country because, we’ve got now a case that’s out of Ohio, over a young boy who had been playing with a plastic gun – 12-year old kid needs running around in the park - police rolls up on this guy, there’s new video that’s much clear, on this little kid, and they don’t even say anything to him, and immediately open fire and kill this young man. And so, their kind of knee-jerk reaction to any situation without at least a partial investigation, at least initial investigation is really appalling. There’s a lot of studies that start to come out that show that because of the individual officers’ prejudice… yes, we say that officers in this country, you know, there’s tacit and legal permission for officers if they feel their life is in danger and if there is a legitimate danger, to shoot people or to use other kinds of force – but this kind of thing where you see a black person, even a little kid, and they instantly fly into “I’ve got to kill this kid, it’s him or me” – you know, there’s clearly a problem with that mentality. Part of the reason that Darren Wilson kept saying that statement about “my training kicked in” – that was a legal reason for saying that. When an officer is potentially going to get charged, they have to rely on their training by saying “my training kicked in” or “I was doing my training thing” – what they are saying is “if there’s any liability here, this city has to pay for this liability, because this is how they trained me”. So they are really parading the lines as their lawyer told them to say.

SS:Police, when they are taught to shoot in order to stop a threat, they are also given a power to be judge and the executioner in any moment they fear for their lives. This kind of authority, I’m just thinking, doesn’t this essentially grant them impunity?

MG: It does. It absolutely does, and the crazy part is that there’s never sort of examination after a fact, to really look in these things and say was this legitimate…When you say that person can do whatever they want to do based on their mindset – how can any of us know what’s in a person’s mind at any exact moment? So, therefore, after the fact, they get to come up and tell you what was on their minds and things like that. Literally this nonsense of “I feared for my life” – can we have a conversation about what’s reasonable? I drive down the street every day and maybe there are other drivers that are poor drivers – I can’t act like I fear for my life at all moments, because I’m so precious and these other drivers might take me out at any second. We have to have what’s reasonable, is it reasonable for kid that’s playing in the park with the plastic gun, that’s clearly a plastic gun, for police to roll up on him within 10 feet of him, jump up out of their cars and instantly shoot him, shoot this kid? How can you even say that it’s something reasonable? So a big part of the problem is the reliance on the police officer’s mindset: what was he thinking at the time? After the fact, the police officers can say they were thinking anything at the time, so it’s a ludicrous standard, it’s an incorrect standard. We have to take into account the totality of circumstances, and one of the things that courts have said here, that’s really problematic, is this mindset that “we all have to recognize that officers are dealing with split-second situations” blah-blah-blah. I can tell you as someone who videotapes police at a regular basis and observes interactions between police and the community that many times police officers escalate the situation that could easily be handled with words, and they escalate it because they want to feel in control at all moments and, frankly, some of them want to have the excuse to use violence on people by insulting them, agitating people, when a simple conversation would do the job.

SS:I tried to look for a number, a statistics on how many people are shot by police in America. I couldn’t find anything, or, at least, maybe, it’s just me, but I feel like there is no number. Why is there no hard statistics on how many people are killed by police in America?

MG: I’m going to tell you that it’s not you and it’s definitely by design. You cannot get the stats no matter how hard you try. The FBI was tasked with actually keeping this data over the 20 years ago and they have never ever done it. Our organisations gathers this information through contacts with family members, through pursuing the media and so forth. We try to gather this information and so we have a fairly good list of people in our area that we maintain on our website. But, it is very difficult to get this data, because, again, unless you’re an organisation that’s working very hard to track it - there is no central repository for this information. People are trying to put that together, but you need a reliance on the community to do that - it’s kind of ludicrous when FBI should have been doing this all along. Again, I think it’s quite by design - people would really be appalled at the level of killings in this country by police, and what I feel, it’s an epidemic of police brutality and police killings of community members.

SS:It’s funny that you’ve mentioned FBI, because on the other hand, I did get something from the 2012 FBI crime race report. This report shows that the majority people killed by police are actually white. Is it true to say people of color are more likely to be victims of police violence?

MG: Our organisation, from our historical perspective - and again, we’re local organisation based in Minneapolis-St.Paul Twin Cities, we have operated 24-hour hotline to recieve police complaints, and roughly 60% of the calls we get are from african-american folks on our hotline. So, our local experience is that people of color are more likely to be the victims of police brutality; but in terms of police killings, we have not said that blacks are the majority of killings - in some areas that’s true. In the state of Minnesota, however, whites are the majority of people killed by police. Probably, because this is frankly a very white state. The Twin Cities is much more ethnically diverse area, but the state as all is a very white state - so it would make some sense that you would see more white people killed by police in Minnesota.

SS:Let’s talk a little bit about how the police in States is being militarised. Used military equipment is being given to police departments all over the country; you have big army toys designed for use in actual wars that are given to some departments. Why is this happening? What does the police need this for?

MG: They don’t need it. It’s an expensive boondoggle, it’s almost as if...you know, “if the Feds are going to give this to us, we’ve just got take it”. The idea that we have police driving these tanks through the street, all of this kind of high-end military weaponry is frightening. We have in this country what they call Posse Comitatus Act which basically says that the military of the U.S. cannot be used within the boundaries of the U.S. So what they’ve done instead is that they took the little armies that exist in every single community - called the police - and they’ve armed them instead, to, essentially, be an extension of the military; and, frankly, they work closely with the military, there are these things called “fusion centers” where the military, the FBI, federal agencies, homeland security and local police departments share information and strategies and things like that. It is a frightening spectacle, and the amount of money that’s being used for these things is unbelieveable.

SS:So, I’m thinking, Michelle, there’s some local police chief who’s watching the coverage of this riots, and sees how police is being militarised, and he goes: “Woah, I want the same thing! I want a tank too” - do you think this coverage will actually help the process of militarisation? Will there be more support for military equipment in police departments, because they are scared of the public now, right?

MG: You know, it’s funny you should ask me that, because that’s exactly what I’ve said, I’ve said “this thing that happened in Ferguson after the grand jury decision was set up to justify the militarisation of the police in Ferguson as well as across the country”. That’s really pretty much the first thing that I’ve said when was talking to people on the ground that said that the police had pulled out of the black area of town and was letting all these businesses burn and was kind of encouraging lawlessness. In my mind, honestly, I really do think that’s what it is, this was a way to justify the ongoing militarisation of policing in this country.

SS:Another interesting fact is that the U.S. police force is being trained abroad in Israel; to be precise, under the pretext of counter-terrorism training, but Israeli police have vastly different challenges. They are constantly faced with terror threats, there’s a looming war so close to their homes. American cops aren’t faced with all of that. Why do officials think it’s going to work well in America?

MG: That is a very deep topic. The Israeli military creates a lot of situations that they deal with, and to kind of take our cues and our training from those situations is ludicrous. We don’t have that kind of thing going on on the ground here. It shows you the mentality of police in this country, that they think that they need to get trained to take on people in our communities in the same way that the Israeli army takes on Palestinians in Gaza. It’s really appalling, and it’s bad training, it’s racist training, and it’s unnecessary and inappropriate training. You know, when you are talking about trying to build trust… you know, it’s kinda funny, people always want to talk about this “building trust” and things like that. How do you come from the place like that and build any sort of trust at all? There’s no way in the world that treating people like “everybody’s out to get me” and “everybody is a terrorist” and “I’ve got to look around my back, watch my back” - that mentality, again, is completely antithetical to any kind of policing that is going to involve building trust in the community. Completely antithetical to that.

SS:Thank you so much for your interesting perspective, for your insight. We were talking to Michelle Gross, from the Communities United Against Police Brutality. We were talking about the unfortunate case in Ferguson, the riots that it entailed and also the culture of policing in America. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.