Year of protest: Ferguson erupts into rioting after white officer kills unarmed black teen (pt. 1)
From the teen’s death in August until the lack of an indictment in November, the unrest in Ferguson and around the country highlighted the racial tensions between police and the communities they serve.
Brown, a recent high school graduate, was scheduled to begin classes at Vatterott College on August 11 when he was shot and killed by a white officer from the Ferguson Police Department while walking with a friend down the street. The first reports suggested the teenager stole something from a store. It was then said that Brown was shot after an altercation with police. His friend, along with witnesses, said the teenager was unarmed and had his hands in the air when he was shot at least eight times. Brown’s body was left in the street for hours after his death.
The life less body of the unarmed 17 year old kid please help us expose this attempted cover (photo) pic.twitter.com/LrCJ4uyjOX— War Machine III (@TefPoe) August 9, 2014
The officer, whom police refused to identify, was placed on paid administrative leave. The Ferguson PD turned the case over to the St. Louis County Police Department.
Hundreds of residents of the predominantly black suburb of St. Louis, Missouri took to the streets to protest Brown’s death, chanting “Kill the police!” About a hundred people picketed Ferguson Police headquarters, chanting: “No Justice! No Peace!” The anger in the street was mirrored by a storm of outraged comments on social media.
A day of protests and vigils turned violent overnight with reports of riots and looting. Mourners gathered at the shooting site on the day before Brown would have started college. But the crowd of as many as 1,000 people quickly turned violent, and the sound of gunfire was reported in the neighborhood. About 150 officers in riot gear from throughout St. Louis County, along with canine units and a SWAT team, were sent to the area.
Hactivist group Anonymous set its sights on Ferguson, advocating for changes involving the use of force by law enforcement and warning the city’s police department to fear the repercussions of any action they may take against the demonstrators.
Residents of Ferguson clashed with law enforcement for the second successive night. In addition to tear gas, heavily-armed police officers used German Shepherds and fired rubber bullets at protesters in attempts to intimidate and suppress outrage.
The Federal Aviation Administration imposed a 12-day, 37-mile no-fly zone around Ferguson in compliance with requests from local police, who cited safety precautions. However, public records later showed that the flight ban was designed to keep the press out. In audio recordings, officials were heard admitting that the real reason for the flight restriction was to keep news helicopters from flying over the St. Louis suburb.
The FBI opened a civil rights investigation into the Brown shooting. Officials had planned to reveal the identity of the officer who shot and killed Brown, but later decided not to follow through, given the hostility surrounding the case. Around 250 demonstrators met outside the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office in Clayton to demand justice for the killing.
On social media, #iftheygunnedmedown trended, with people asking: If you were killed, what photo would the media use in their stories? The hashtag was designed to call attention to media bias in the deaths of African-Americans. Several activists pointed out that the mainstream media used a photograph of Brown flashing a peace sign when reporting on his death. Some outlets referred to it as a "gang sign.” So young African-Americans took to Twitter and Tumblr and other social media, posting contrasting pictures of themselves ‒ a wholesome image of themselves in a military uniform, for instance, juxtaposed with a more tawdry one, such as holding up their middle fingers and snarling ‒ and using the trending hashtag. The meme asks which photo the mainstream media would use if the picture’s subject were gunned down by police (like Brown) or by a non-African-American.
That night, an overwhelming SWAT force in riot gear descended on protesters, deployed tear gas against the crowd and declared the demonstration “no longer peaceful.” Police also shot rubber bullets, while smoke grenades and tear gas canisters fell into the crowd and the surrounding neighborhood. Meanwhile, some of the protesters reportedly threw rocks and bottles at the police.
Two reporters, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post, were detained at the Ferguson protests. They were both working in a fast-food restaurant when police special forces entered the premises and started clearing them out. Reilly tried to take a photo, and the cops demanded his ID, which he lawfully declined to provide. The officers detained him regardless “for not packing up fast enough.” An Al Jazeera America crew was also attacked and teargassed by security forces as they tried to film the protest. The team had thought they had reached a safe area when they were tear-gassed.
A nationwide poll conducted after Brown’s death found that 45 percent of US citizens don’t trust in justice amid police killings of civilians and that 43 percent think police violence with the use of lethal force happens too often in the US. Thousands of people in New York rallied in solidarity with residents of Ferguson and in support of people across the US who had been victims of police brutality. The NYPD threatened mass arrests if people did not stop blocking traffic.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson identified the officer who shot and killed Brown as Darren Wilson. He had previously resisted revealing the officer's name, citing threats that had appeared on social media. However, Anonymous had forced his hand the previous day, when a Twitter account associated with the group posted the name and photograph of a different Ferguson PD officer, whom they misidentified as the man who killed Brown.
Jackson added that a burglary had been reported in the area where Brown was shot, but police said later in the day that Wilson was unaware of the robbery incident when he stopped Brown and his friend for “walking down the middle of the street blocking traffic." In addition, Jackson released documents claiming that Brown stole a $48.99 box of cigars from the convenience store. Police also reported they found evidence of the stolen merchandise on Brown's body.
Demonstrations continued for the sixth straight day as about 200 protesters clashed with police, who used tear gas on them. One officer was hurt as protesters pelted rocks and other objects. The same store Brown was accused of robbing was stormed by looters later in the day, together with several other shops.
In the wake of the unrest, reports surfaced of a previous claim of police brutality by the Ferguson PD. Nearly four years to the day before Brown’s death, a complaint filed in federal court accused the same law enforcement agency of violating the civil rights of a man who said he was badly beaten after being wrongly arrested, then later charged with “destruction of property” for bleeding on the uniforms of the cops he said injured him.
After a night of protests and looting, many Ferguson residents woke up early to clean the streets and help local businesses restore order in their shops. Governor Jay Nixon (D-Missouri) declared a state of emergency and set a midnight-to-5-a.m. curfew in Ferguson. During his announcement, Nixon was interrupted by a protester who yelled: “Sleep is not an option!” and “We want justice!” Captain Ronald Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol promised that no tear gas or harsh tactics will be used to enforce the curfew. That night, one person was shot and was listed in critical condition ‒ though police said he was not shot by law enforcement officers ‒ and seven people were arrested during protests.
Police began telling protesters during a mid-day gathering that they could only stand in one spot for five seconds before moving on. Mustafa Abdullah, a legal observer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri, filed a suit seeking an injunction against the use of this so-called “five-second rule.” Chief US District Judge Catherine D. Perry granted the injunction in October.
Dr. Michael M. Baden ‒ a former chief medical examiner for the City of New York, who was hired by the Brown family to conduct a second, private autopsy ‒ released his preliminary report. One of the bullets entered the top of the teenager’s skull and appeared to have caused a fatal injury, Baden said. It was likely the last of bullets to hit Brown. The victim’s family held a press conference the next day to discuss the autopsy. “What else do we need to give them to arrest the killer of my child?” one of the family’s attorneys quoted Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, as saying.
More than two hours before the midnight curfew was set to begin, authorities fired tear gas at protesters who refused to disperse after being given just one notice to do so. However, the Missouri Highway Patrol said it was using the smoke canisters to disperse "aggressors" who were trying to infiltrate a law enforcement command post at a local shopping mall.
Police officers were captured on video threatening to shoot one journalist and mace another. "Get down, get the f*** out of here and get that light off, or you're getting shot with this," an officer could be heard yelling at Mustafa Hussein, a reporter from KARG Argus Radio.
Nixon called up the state’s National Guard to help restore peace and order to Ferguson. That night, two people were injured when live ammunition was used ‒ along with tear gas ‒ during an altercation between police and protesters. At least 78 people, including a journalist, were arrested. In neighboring St. Louis, Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor and political activist was arrested in front of Nixon's office, where a rally of solidarity with Ferguson protesters was held.
Outside of Missouri, as many as 1,000 people gathered outside CNN’s Atlanta, Georgia headquarters to protest its coverage of Brown’s death. The channel had placed a strong emphasis on Brown’s past actions, which may have incriminated him. A spat broke out between the New Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Traditionalist American Knights, one of the largest factions of the KKK in the US, after the former set up a fundraiser for Wilson. Frank Acona, Imperial Wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights, said the fundraising email violated the KKK’s constitution, and that Murray’s group is a fringe operation that is not officially affiliated with the Klan.
On the 11th night of demonstrations, 47 people were arrested in the early morning hours, shortly before US Attorney General Eric Holder arrived in Ferguson for an update on the federal civil rights investigation into the city’s police department.
St. Louis County Police Lt. Ray Albers, 46, was suspended indefinitely for threatening to kill protesters and journalists while pointing a rifle in the crowd's direction. The Committee to Protect Journalists released a guide for reporters on how to stay safe while covering events in Ferguson after several journalists were arrested and others repeatedly found themselves the targets of police tear gas, rubber bullets and flash bang grenades.
A crowdfunding campaign to support Wilson came under fire for raising more money ‒ $234,910 in five days ‒ than all of the campaigns for Brown’s family had managed in nine days ‒ $174,000. The internet called for GoFundMe to pull the campaign because many of the comments being left alongside donations were hateful and racist in nature.
The National Guard began withdrawing from Ferguson after two nights of relative calm, with only isolated arrests. The police department in Glendale, Missouri, suspended Officer Matthew Pappert over a series of Facebook posts that insulted Ferguson protesters, including one that called them “rabid dogs.”
At the annual St. Louis Peace Festival, Brown’s family asked for a halt to protests and a “day of silence” in his memory during his funeral the following day. The teen’s father, Michael Brown Sr., marched with the crowds, while the parents of slain black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin were also present to draw attention to the issues and advocate for peace over violence.
Thousands of people attended Brown’s funeral, including prominent figures such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, children of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., White House officials, Congressional members, and film director Spike Lee. The Rev. Al Sharpton delivered a eulogy for Brown, saying the 18-year-old’s death had spark renewed calls for change against police militarization and racial profiling in the United States. However, he also took the time to emphasize the need for non-violent resistance.
Five people sued the city of Ferguson, St. Louis County, Ferguson Chief Jackson, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Delmar, Ferguson Police Officer Justin Cosmo, as well as other police officers from Ferguson and St. Louis County for $40 million, claiming officers treated US citizens “as if they were war combatants.” The five were arrested in incidents on August 11 and 13.
Ferguson PD officers began wearing body cameras as a result of Brown’s death. Wilson was not wearing a body cam, nor was his police car equipped with a dashboard camera. Safety Vision and Digital Ally donated mobile body cameras to the department in the hope of possibly preventing another outburst of violence from hitting the streets of America.
US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division would open a probe into the Ferguson PD to examine “complaints of profiling and the use of excessive force” by officers. It would also look at other police departments in the St. Louis area.
The first town meeting in Ferguson since Brown’s death erupted into chaos when some of the 600 audience members began shouting down City Council members. Mayor James Knowles promised the creation of a Citizen Review Board that would oversee the reform of the Ferguson PD and pledged to reduce court fines for motorists who are pulled over by cops, which disproportionately affects black drivers.
At least a dozen people were arrested during a protest along a major interchange of Interstate 70 in Ferguson that closed a major thoroughfare and slowed highway traffic before attendees headed towards the Ferguson Police Department and jail. The demonstrators demanded that the prosecuting attorney in the Brown shooting case be removed because of bias. Police far outnumbered protesters.
CNN released cell phone video captured by an unidentified witness of the moments just after Brown was shot and killed. The footage captured eyewitness reactions to the shooting, including some people who said Brown’s hands were up in surrender when Wilson began firing.
Wilson testified in front of the grand jury for four hours about his interactions with Brown that led him to shoot and kill the teen. The officer’s testimony came a day after St. Louis County Judge Carolyn Whittington granted an extension to the grand jury, which was set to expire on September 17, until January 7.
Fire destroyed a makeshift memorial to Brown on the street where he was shot and killed. The small tribute was made of teddy bears and other items, including candles, built around a streetlight. It was later rebuilt.
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson issued a video in which he apologized to Brown’s parents and for the way police treated peaceful protesters in the 47 days after the teen’s death.
However, tensions erupted later that evening when Jackson decided to participate in a march in Brown’s memory. A fight broke out about 20 feet behind Jackson, which nearby police officers broke up. They arrested one person, and another three people were arrested after a second confrontation.
Prosecutors began investigating a possible grand jury leak after Susan M. Nichols, @thesusannichols, tweeted she was friends with someone on the jury and that there was not enough evidence to indict Wilson. Grand jury investigations are conducted in private, and the possibility of a juror sharing information externally could be considered misconduct.
Within seconds of posting this, her friends told her to delete it and she did. It was screenshotted first. pic.twitter.com/b6kTf9p40h— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) October 1, 2014
An off-duty police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Vonderrick Myers Jr. after chasing him through the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis. Police claimed Myers fired on the officer with a 9mm Ruger that was recovered at the scene, leading the officer to then shoot Myers up to 17 times, but residents insisted he was unarmed. The death sparked two nights of protests and clashes with law enforcement, with hundreds of protesters taking to the streets.
Protesters kicked off a four-day rally against racial profiling by St. Louis-area law enforcement. The demonstrations in honor of Brown were planned before another black teen was shot dead by an off-duty white police office in St. Louis, and grew to include protesting Myers’ death as well.
Brown’s mother joined a group of some 300 people to march on the Ferguson PD, as thousands more demonstrated throughout the metropolitan area. At least 17 people were arrested for “unlawful assembly” as activists staged a spontaneous sit-in outside a convenience store following a mass march in downtown St. Louis. On the fourth day of “Ferguson October” events, about 100 youths stormed the St. Louis City Hall with banners demanding a civilian review board for all police shootings and to stop supplying the force with heavy military equipment. Author and activist Cornel West was one of 42 people arrested for disturbing the peace.
A leaked copy of one of three autopsies conducted on Brown indicated a gunshot wound to the hand from close range, suggesting his hand was near Wilson’s weapon when it was fired. The St. Louis County medical examiner’s autopsy also matched Wilson’s claim that he and Brown engaged in a struggle near or inside the cop car, and refuted witness statements that Brown had his hands raised in surrender or that he was attempting to flee as Wilson fired on him.
A report by Amnesty International called on authorities to investigate human rights abuses by Missouri law enforcement agencies against Ferguson protesters in August. Questioning the police's protest dispersal practices, such as the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, the organization also condemned a local law that allows police to use deadly force even with no imminent threat of harm by the person it's directed at.
Ferguson Police Officer Jaris Hayden, 29, was arrested and charged with four criminal charges after he was accused of raping a pregnant woman while she was in his custody and then helping her escape from jail in October 2013. She then sued Hayden and the city on November 14, claiming the police department “has engaged in a pattern of violence against the citizenry, and supervisors have failed to properly supervise officers.”
Gun sales spiked in the St. Louis area ahead of the expected grand jury decision, with residents fearing renewed violence in the aftermath.
A Navy veteran was fired from his job with the Drury hotel chain in Ferguson and branded a “terrorist” for taking pictures of dozens of Department of Homeland Security vehicles parked at the hotel. He later spoke to RT about the incident.
Gov. Jay Nixon (D-Missouri) declared a 17-day state of emergency ahead of the anticipated grand jury decision, citing the "possibility of expanded unrest.” He also ordered the activation of the Missouri National Guard to assist local law enforcement. However, during a telephone press conference later in the day Nixon was unable to answer questions about who would be in charge of law enforcement operations in Ferguson and other parts of the St. Louis area.
A digital battle broke out between Anonymous and the Ku Klux Klan, after the Missouri KKK threatened to use “lethal force” against Ferguson protesters. In response, Anonymous hacked several KKK websites and Twitter accounts, and said it identified several members of the group who attended a support rally for Wilson.
Human Rights Watch called on the various law enforcement agencies, brought in to provide security and policing during the Ferguson protests, to allow peaceful demonstrations and prevent the abuses against protesters that took place during the August rallies.
Two men ‒ Olajuwon Davis, 22, and Brandon Orlando Baldwin, 24 ‒ were arrested by the FBI and indicted on weapons charges after law enforcement officials accused them of plotting to set off pipe bombs amid the ongoing Ferguson protests.
Read what has happened in the following months in part two of RT’s Year of Protest.