Ferguson, Missouri: is city on the brink of war?

Gun sales soar and National Guard put on standby as the grand jury nears verdict on Michael Brown killing

LAST UPDATED AT 15:52 ON Wed 19 Nov 2014

Authorities in Ferguson, Missouri are predicting "widespread civil disobedience" when the grand jury verdict on the police killing of an unarmed black teenager is announced.

Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in August and the jury is expected to decide whether or not a murder charge can be brought against him.

Brown's death sparked widespread protests in Ferguson as racial tensions soared and demonstrators accused the town's predominantly white police force of indiscriminately targeting black people.

There are fears that such scenes are likely to be repeated once the verdict is released in the coming days and businesses across Ferguson have begun boarding up their shop fronts in preparation. The expectation among most protesters is that Wilson will not be charged, The Guardian reports.

However, demonstrators, currently picketing the St Louis grand jury, say protests will remain non-violent as long as the police response is proportionate.

Alarmingly, gun sales in the area have soared, particularly among first time buyers who say they want to be able to protect themselves from protesters. "Everyone else has one," one customer told Fox news. "I figured I'd better [get one] too."

Police spokesman Brian Schellman said "it would be naive" to say that the increase was not in anticipation of the grand jury verdict.

Separately, members of the Klu Klux Klan have been handing out fliers in Ferguson promising to use "lethal force" against protesters, the Washington Post reports.

In anticipation of violence, Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Monday and National Guard troops have been put on alert, ready to be deployed to the city. 

"This is America. People have the right to express views and grievances, but they do not have the right to put fellow citizens and property at risk,” Nixon said last week. "Violence will not be tolerated.”

The move has been condemned by protesters and Brown's family who accuse the authorities of and scaremongering and "preparing for war".

St Louis police shooting video stokes outrage

21 August 

St Louis police have released video footage of the moment 25-year-old Kajieme Powell was shot dead by officers a few miles away from ongoing protests about the death of another black man, Michael Brown.

The video shows Powell, who has severe learning difficulties, holding a kitchen knife and shouting at police: "Shoot me! Shoot me!"

Officers open fire after Powell ignores their command to stop, shooting him a total of 9 times. They continued to shoot even after he collapsed on the ground.

"Powell looks sick more than he looks dangerous", yet police still open fire, shooting to kill, writes Vox's Ezra Klein. "It does not seem like it should be so easy to take a life."

The video also appears to contradict a previous police statement on the shooting which said that Powell was just three feet away and running at police. The footage shows that Powell is much further away and walking towards them.

St Louis police department said they released the video in the spirit of transparency and insisted that officers had followed protocol, but social media users quickly attacked their approach.

The video has further increased racial tensions in an area that has been plagued by violent clashes following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, who was unarmed, 12 days ago.

But not everyone agreed that the police were at fault in the Powell shooting. Antonio French, a councillor who has been involved in the Ferguson protests, said the officers' actions may have been justified and told the public not to link the shooting to Brown's death, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"There's a difference between an armed man yelling, 'Kill me, Kill me,' and an unarmed teenager reportedly with his hands up in the air," he said.

Klein also says: "It is easy to forget that police get scared. It is easy not to ask yourself what you might have done if you had a gun and a man came at you with a knife." 

Second black man shot dead by police in Missouri

20 Aug

A second black man has been shot dead by police in Missouri, less than a fortnight after the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, further fuelling racial tensions as protests continue in Ferguson.

Police have been accused of using excessive force in the latest incident, in which a man said to have learning difficulties and brandishing a knife was killed after "behaving erratically". The shooting took place in largely black neighbourhood in St Louis, close to Ferguson.

A witness to the shooting told The Guardian "I think it was excessive. People said he had a knife but if he had a knife they could have shot him in the foot. Or tasered him. They didn’t have to kill him." Another asked "Do you think they would kill a white person like this?"

The shooting follows the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown less than two weeks ago. That incident triggered nights of protests and violent clashes with police.

People took to the streets again on Tuesday after the second killing, but what had been a largely peaceful protest turned violent in the early hours of the morning. Its "unclear what led to increase in tensions, but protesters were marching peacefully for most of evening", the BBC's Rajini Vaidyanathan reported.

Police did not use tear gas, rubber bullets or stun grenades as they had on previous nights, but did make 47 arrests. "I believe there was a turning point tonight", police captain Ron Johnson said. 

Missouri governor Jay Nixon has called for a "rigorous prosecution" in the Michael Brown case. Members of the grand jury are expected to begin hearing evidence today to determine whether or not criminal charges should be brought against the officer who shot Brown, named last week as Darren Wilson.

Ferguson: shots fired as unrest continues

19 Aug

Despite the deployment of the National Guard to Ferguson, Missouri, the city experienced another night of violence last night as two people were shot and 31 arrested.

Police Captain Ron Johnson said a small group of protesters fired shots and threw Molotov cocktails and other weapons at police. He said they responded with tear gas, stun grenades and numerous arrests.

Lesley McSpadden, the mother of the unarmed teenager who was shot dead by police ten days ago said the violence would only end once justice had been delivered and the officer responsible for his killing was arrested, the Washington Post reports.  

Several journalists were among those arrested. They included Getty's veteran photographer Scott Olson, who has taken many of the most widely published images of the protests, the Guardian reports.

Johnson said the media had "got in the way" of the operation, and that police may revise their policy on media access. Officers "may take journalists into custody" if they are not easily identifiable, he said. "In the midst of chaos we have to be safe."

Johnson also appealed to peaceful protesters to limit their demonstrations to daylight hours. At night "masked criminals" come onto the streets, he said.

Last night Barack Obama appealed for calm in the St Louis suburb, the BBC reports. He told protesters that while he understood the "passions and anger" caused by the shooting of Michael Brown, responding with violence "only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos".

He said the response from the National Guard, whose presence some have described as inflammatory, should be "limited and appropriate".

US Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to travel to the city on Wednesday to meet with FBI agents running the investigation into Brown's death.

Ferguson: National Guard called in to stop violence

18 Aug

The US State of Missouri will deploy the National Guard to Ferguson in an attempt to "help restore peace and order and to protect citizens", the BBC reports. 

This follows a week of violent clashes between police and protesters in the St Louis suburb after the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, last week. Yesterday, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew across the city.

Despite the curfew, violence in Ferguson has reached new levels overnight, with police firing tear gas and flash grenades into the crowds. Protesters had fired shots and thrown Molotov cocktails, police captain Ron Johnson said, leaving officers "no alternative but to elevate our response".

However, protesters say that police attempted to violently disperse the peaceful crowds hours before the curfew was even in place, the BBC's Ben James reports.

The preliminary results from an independent autopsy have concluded that Brown was shot by a police officer six times, twice in the head and four times in the arm, the New York Times reports.

He was reportedly stopped for jaywalking, despite earlier police claims that he had been apprehended in relation to a robbery of a nearby shop. The police have been criticised for releasing CCTV footage from the store, with Missouri Governer Jay Nixon saying it "appeared to cast aspersions" on Brown and "made emotions raw". 

The police officer responsible for the shooting has been named as Darren Wilson. He has been on paid administrative leave since the incident. 

Amnesty International has called for an investigation to be launched into police tactics. The organisation sent a delegation to Ferguson on Friday to show law enforcement that the "word is watching", the Huffington Post reports.

"This is a moment for people around the country – and around the world – to join the Ferguson community in raising concerns about race and policing, and about the impact of militarisation on our fundamental right to peacefully assemble," Amnesty's executive director Steven W Hawkins said.

Ferguson: vigils not violence as America remembers Michael Brown

15 Aug

Thousands took to the streets of New York, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and several other major cities almost a week after the teenager was gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri. Mothers held posters saying "could have been my baby" while others carried placards saying "hands up, don't shoot".

In contrast to the violence on four previous nights in the city of Ferguson, protesters marched side-by-side with some state troopers and local police last night. This included the new head of investigations, Captain Ronald Johnson (pictured below) from the Missouri Highway Patrol, raised in the area and brought in to calm race relations.

"The transformation over the past 24 hours here has been extraordinary", says the BBC's Aleem Macbool, reporting from Ferguson. He said criticism of the police's heavy-handed approach to protesters and rioters had led to a change in tactics.

But Missouri governor Jay Nixon said there was still a long way to go to improving relations between the police and the public. "We're going to have to regain trust", he said.

The riots have highlighted a wider issue within American law enforcement, what many are calling "the militarisation" of the police. "Why were there Iraq-grade trucks even at the ready in the police station of an American suburb?" asks The Guardian's Sadhbh Walshe. "The toys of war do not belong in a town of 21,000".

Ferguson, Missouri: Why US city is 'at war' with police

14 August

A fourth night of violence has taken place in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of African American teenager Michael Brown, shot by police on Saturday. SWAT teams fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters and two journalists were arrested, amid allegations of assault and brutality.

Brown's death has sparked anger among locals over what they claim is the police force's indiscriminate targeting of black people. 

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan J Reilly were arrested and apparently assaulted in the city today as protesters threw Molotov cocktails and looted shops, while the police responded with rubber bullets, tear gas and arrests.

"This is a war," one of the protesters, Charles Jolley, told The Guardian, "and we are soldiers on the front line". 

What caused this 'war'?

The protests and riots were triggered by the killing of Michael Brown Jr by police in Ferguson Missouri, just two days before the teenager was set to start college. The 18-year old student was unarmed at the time and the circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear.

Police say they shot Brown after he attacked an officer and tried to take his gun, but several witnesses refute this claim. 

Dorian Johnson witnessed the killing, and told MSNBC that a white police officer choked Brown after he refused to get on the floor and allow the officer to search him. Johnson said that they struggled and then policeman fired several consecutive shots at Brown.

"This is a boy who did everything right," Cornell Brooks, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People told The Guardian, "who never got into a fight, who stayed in school."

The identity of the police officer has not been revealed and the investigation has now been taken over by the FBI.

Other underlying causes

Ferguson is a city where racial tensions have long been present. Its population is 67 per cent black but 93 per cent of the city's police officers are white. Recent figures reveal a stark racial imbalance in police searches with 12 times more police searches carried out on black drivers as white.

"Black people see all these layers of white authority that do not like them, do not understand them and do not respect them," said Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman for the city.

This case is part of "a long and painful trend of black, unarmed men killed by the cops", writes Nicola Flatow for Think Progress. She points out that anger is rising across America after two other similar cases in Ohio and New York this month alone.

The social media response

US media networks caused outrage by choosing to use a picture of Michael Brown in which it appeared as if he were displaying gang signs. Critics said they purposefully chose a picture where the victim "looked like a thug".

Social media users responded by starting the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to protest at the way young black people are portrayed by the media. Many users posted two pictures of themselves, asking which the media would use.

African American communities across the US have come together in protest against the killing.

The #Ferguson hashtag has gone global, with Palestinians in Gaza tweeting tips to protesters in the US on how to deal with tear gas and other police attacks.

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