Ferguson shooting brings mistrust of police to public attention

He was black; he was white. He had no previous criminal record; he had no prior disciplinary action on his record. He was unarmed; he had his weapon on him.

On the evening of Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, 18 year-old Michael Brown was shot dead outside an apartment complex by police officer Darren Wilson.

Brown was walking  his friend Dorian Johnson when Officer Wilson approached the teens and allegedly asked them to stop walking on the street.

According to Johnson, the officer had yelled at him and Brown to get off the street, and when they did not comply with his orders, the officer had driven his car closer to the curb and exited his vehicle. As Wilson was leaving his car, the door hit Johnson and Brown—causing Brown to bump into Officer Wilson, further angering him. Wilson then proceeded to grab Brown, and after a brief tussle, Brown escaped his grip. Not long afterwards, Wilson fired the first shot at Brown. After the initial shot, both Brown and Johnson ran away; Wilson continued to fire his gun. Brown, realizing he was hit, turned around and raised his hands in the air in surrender. Wilson continued to shoot, despite Brown’s resignation, Johnson has stated.

While Johnson states that he and Brown were harassed by Officer Wilson prior to the shooting, other witnesses have suggested that Brown assaulted the officer. An official autopsy revealed that Brown had been shot at least six times: four times in the right arm and twice in the head. According to Dr. Michael Baden, who conducted the autopsy on Brown, the bullet that entered Brown’s skull— according to the measured trajectory of the bullet— indicates that he could have either been “giving up” or “charging at the officer” at the time of the incident.

Despite the differing accounts on the matter, one fact remains clear: an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a white police officer. This alone sparked two weeks of unrest in the city of Ferguson.

From Aug. 9 to Aug. 25, Ferguson residents participated in a series of protests and riots over the shooting of Brown and police brutality against minorities. On Aug. 11, after the protests grew violent, police began firing rubber bullets at the protesters and using smoke bombs, flash grenades and tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Initially, the protests were peaceful. After a candle vigil was held and a makeshift memorial was made in memory of Brown, many took to the streets with their hands in the air—similar to what Brown had allegedly done— and held signs that read, “Hands up, Don’t Shoot!” However, over the course of the two weeks, vandalism had risen and some protesters began throwing bottles at the officers on the scene. On Aug. 16, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. in efforts to clear and calm the streets. When the curfew managed to only enrage the protesters, Nixon called in the Missouri National Guard to Ferguson. While many presume that the Guard’s involvement in the protest was to enforce the curfew and quell the protesters, Mike O’Connell, Communications Director at the Missouri Department of Public Safety, clarifies that the Guard’s only role was to provide security at the command center.

“[The Guard] had no role in responding to the protests. Its only role was to provide security for the Unified Command Center, which was the headquarters of the law enforcement effort to protect the peaceful protesters, citizens and property in Ferguson,” O’Connell said.

By Aug. 26, the Guard’s mission of providing security at the command center had ended, according to O’Connell. While the protests had officially ended earlier, their movement made its way onto social media. In response to the media’s portrayal of  a “thuggish” Brown, the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown gained notoriety on Twitter, asking users which picture the media would use to represent them. However, even though the case has gained a significant following on social media, Joel Spiegel ’14, Students Fighting Discrimination founder, believes that a tweet is not enough.

“Social media has changed the way that people feel about certain situations, making them lazily address them,” Spiegel said. “While all the hashtags and internet traffic that Ferguson and other [incidents] were getting was good, there were also a lot of people that kind of backed away from acting [through a medium] that they felt wasn’t good enough.”

Having worked in Chicago with community-based programs to reduce gun violence, Spiegel believes advocacy is the ultimate key to any social change. When he piloted Students Fighting Discrimination his Senior year, the main goal was to get students more involved in political work and social advocacy.

“Englewood, Bronzeville—these are communities where kids are getting shot nearly everyday, so this isn’t anything too foreign for people back home,”  Spiegel said. “Even though the Stevenson area can be somewhat of a bubble, [the problem of gun violence] is closer to home than we may think.”

While Spiegel believes that nothing will change in terms of gun violence against people of color until there is a change in the economic opportunity provided for people of color in the U.S., others believe that the problem goes farther than just economic inequality. For Dan Larsen, AP government teacher, the issue can be simply stated: America has a race problem.

“People need to acknowledge racial inequality as a wound—an open one,” Larsen said. “The fact of the matter is, racial inequality hasn’t healed—it’s not even a scar.”

After the shooting of Brown, a petition dubbed the “Michael Brown Law” was submitted to the White House, urging Congress to “create a bill, sign into law and set aside funds to require all state, county and local police, to wear a camera” in order to reduce police brutality. While the petition-makers have assured participants that they will seek ways to implement and better the use of said technology, they urged citizens to address the lack of trust between police and communities. In this particular incident, Larsen believes that it is exactly this lack of trust that has evolved to be the most complicating factor in Ferguson.

“We are a nation of law, and although we may not agree on much, there are two things that we are entitled to, and that is liberty and justice,” Larsen said. “ [Cameras being placed on police personnel] will make little change. That is just putting frosting on the top [of the problem].”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I) has opened a civil rights inquiry into the shooting. The grand jury, which will be reviewing Officer Wilson’s case, has until Jan. 7, 2015 to decide whether to officially charge him with the shooting of Brown.

Until then, Ferguson rests.