In the wake of a week of violence and upheaval, both Amnesty International (AI) and the National Guard are going to Ferguson, Missouri. This marks the very first deployment of the human rights organization in the history of the U.S. and an unprecedented step for the group. AI's human rights team will coordinate with members of the community on the ground, training them in non-violent protest techniques, advising them of their legal rights, and observing police and protestor activity.
Executive Director of AI, Steven Hawkins, expressed concern about what AI team members have already observed in Ferguson, including their own lack of access to post-curfew areas of town and what one of his team members called an “overall lack of transparency in this investigation.” In an August 14 statement to the press, Hawkins commented: “The US cannot continue to allow those obligated and duty-bound to protect to become those who their community fears most.”
Meanwhile, the National Guard has been deployed to Ferguson Missouri as of this morning. Governor Jay Nixon ordered the deployment, citing the protection of life and property as the goal of the action. In his statement, the Missouri Governor hinted at more restriction of the people of Ferguson, stating that the military would close street and thoroughfares as the protestors “continued to create conditions of distress and hazard to the safety, welfare and property of the citizens of the community beyond the capacities of local jurisdiction.”
Nixon ordered the National Guard in this morning in response to what is being called an organized attack on the police command center Sunday night—just the latest in flareups between protestors and police in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager who was shot six times and killed by a police officer.
Although officials have not been willing to discuss all of the facts of the case, the facts that have been established so far indicate that Michael Brown (18), the victim, and his friend Dorian Johnson (22) were walking in the street. Police have indicated that Brown was carrying stolen cigarillos, but the store owner has denied calling the police about this, and it seems unlikely that this had anything to do with the incident. The two men were jaywalking, and this may have been a legitimate point of the contact.
The two were stopped and ordered onto the sidewalk by police officer Darren Wilson. Wilson claims that a physical struggle ensued which left him with a swollen face. Johnson denies this and says that he and his friend were targeted by Wilson based on their race. In any event, neither Brown nor Johnson were armed, and minutes later Brown was dead, shot six times.
All of the witnesses agree that there was one shot fired in the car, and that Brown and Johnson started to run away as soon as that shot was fired. Police gathered multiple shell casings at the scene, and the initial autopsy showed that Brown was shot six times. One of those shots was a “kill shot” to the head. The witnesses say that the officer followed Brown and shot him multiple times despite the fact that he put his hands up and said, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!”
Within minutes, multiple people in the neighborhood peppered Twitter with photos of the shooting and statements that indicated they had seen the shooting and that Brown had been shot with his hands up. Brown's body was left on the street for almost five hours as neighbors and friends looked on.
The day after the shooting, police held a press conference and announced that Brown was unarmed. They also claimed that Brown assaulted the officer and refused requests to name him. Later that evening, a candlelight vigil turned into a protest. Isolated incidents of vandalism occurred and police claimed that two officers are injured.
On Monday, August 11, the first day of school was cancelled due to safety concerns. There was a peaceful gathering at the police station at which citizens demanded the name of the officer who shot Brown. At least seven people were arrested. The FBI announced its intentions to conduct an independent investigation. Independent people reported violence on the streets at night as police used tear gas to disperse crowds; tear gas is banned for use in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.
On Tuesday, August 12, Ferguson police announced 15 more arrests based on the events of Monday night. The preliminary autopsy of Michael Brown was released, and the FAA restricted air travel over Ferguson. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it will review the tactics of the Ferguson police, which continued to be implemented throughout the night.
Wednesday, August 13 saw officials "request" that citizens stay inside during nighttime hours. The DOJ investigation began, and the St. Louis prosecutor's office confirmed that despite statements to the contrary from Ferguson Police, Michael Brown had no adult criminal record. Police once again used tear gas on protestors and also members of the press including an entire Al Jazeera America crew whose equipment was then dismantled by the police. Two members of the press were detained by police for taking photographs. Many arrests for unlawful assembly were made, including that of St. Louis assemblyman Antonio French.
More violence erupted overnight, and on Thursday, August 14 Ferguson police announced that there have been 16 more arrests and two officer injuries. The Missouri Highway Patrol led by local resident Ron Johnson was ordered to take control of Ferguson in lieu of the Police Department. After they did, peaceful protests and demonstrations took place for the evening.
Unfortunately, this hard-won improvement was short-lived. On Friday, August 15, the police announced the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown: Officer Darren Wilson. However, they also announced that Brown was a suspect in a robbery that took place before the shooting. The problem with this was that Officer Wilson had no idea that this was the case when he contacted Brown; even if these facts are true, they have nothing to do with the shooting. As a result, the community was freshly outraged and reacted accordingly.
Overnight hundreds of protestors clashed with police. The were tear-gassed, and some threw rocks at police vehicles. Governor Nixon declared a state of emergency in Missouri at 2:00am local time. A curfew was imposed in Ferguson to take effect at midnight, which was in essence an imposition of martial law.
Sunday, August 17, citizens remained outside protesting the curfew and ongoing police tactics. Seven were arrested and one person was shot. At least three were injured, none of them police. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a second autopsy of Michael Brown citing the extraordinary nature of the case. At night police threw tear gas at protestors and some protestors threw Molotov cocktails at police. Police then formed ranks and pushed protestors from the area. This night saw what witnesses call the largest showing of police force to date.
Also on Sunday night, freedom of the press took a serious hit. Robert Klemko of Sports Illustrated, Neil Munshi of Financial Times, and Rob Crilly, a foreign correspondent who has worked in many war zones for the Telegraph, were all taken into custody by the Missouri Highway Patrol. The arrests were in response to their attempts to report as police and protestors faced each other in the streets. Many journalists have reported that they have been threatened, and are wearing gas masks and bulletproof vests.
A volunteer reporter livestreaming events in Ferguson was threatened by an officer on Sunday night: “Get the f— out of here and keep that light off or you’re getting shelled with this.” This recording is available online here via the Argus Radio livestream channel. Journalist Mustafa Hussein was threatened by an officer with a gun despite identifying himself as a member of the press multiple times for having his camera's keylight on. And MSNBC host Chris Hayes took to Twitter, saying that police said they would mace him if he would not “get back.”
Today, Monday, August 18, members of the press continue to report that they are being threatened by the police with tear gas. Two black journalists from Complex also say that police racially profiled them, refusing to allow them into the press area while white reporters were allowed to enter. All of these events are perhaps less than surprising given the problem the U.S. has been having with journalistic freedom; for example, Reporters Without Borders ranked the U.S. 46th worldwide in terms of free press--behind most of the developed world, and just in front of Haiti, for example.
It is crucial to understand that this situation, although devastating for everyone involved, is not entirely unique. Other localities have received military-grade supplies from the Pentagon, which gives this kind of equipment to police forces without oversight and with expiration dates. In other words, for police departments to get this kind of equipment they must use it within short timeframes, creating a perverse incentive.
Also, the problem of police shootings of people of color is nothing new, although it should be horrifying each and every time it happens. This same week there were at least two other police shootings of note in the U.S., and there are ongoing citizen responses to both.
In Los Angeles an unarmed, mentally-ill black man was shot on August 11 by police. The victim, Ezell Ford (25), died shortly after being shot by an LAPD officer. Civilian witness accounts say that Ford was lying on the ground when he was hit, while police say he was resisting and attempting to take away an officer's gun.
In Phoenix, a mentally-ill black woman was shot in her home by a Phoenix Police Officer after her family called police to transport her to a mental health facility. Four officers responded, and the victim, Michelle Cusseaux (50), was shot by the people who were supposed to be assisting her when she answered the door with a hammer.
Certainly all of these cases, while potentially dangerous for officers, indicate an ongoing problem in policing here in the U.S. Human rights groups like AI apparently agree.
Today Ferguson officials have announced that the National Guard will be allowing moving protests but not “static protests”; this means that citizens will be permitted to walk up and down the street, but not to gather, or assemble, as the Constitution suggests.