Friday, August 15, 2014

Questions Cast Shadows Over An Uneasy Peace In Ferguson

An unarmed protester in Ferguson on Monday (Photo - AP)
While tension has eased to a degree after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon tasked Captain Ronald S. Johnson (a highly-respected and seasoned African-American law enforcement officer, who grew up in the St. Louis area) to head up a contingent of Missouri Highway Patrol personnel to take over primary responsibility in Ferguson, the truth is only beginning to unfold.
Even as Ferguson police finally identified Darren Wilson as the officer who fatally shot and killed Michael Brown last Saturday, numerous questions remain about the heavy-handed response from local law enforcement over the past five days.

At the same time police released the name of the officer, they also released inconclusive surveillance video from a convenience store allegedly showing Michael Brown getting into some kind of dispute with a store clerk shortly before he was gunned down in the street by officer Wilson just after 12pm last Saturday.

The Ferguson police department's efforts to portray Michael Brown as a thief, when no proof exists that he committed a crime, run contrary to normal legal procedures. Video, or any other kind of evidence needs to be tagged and logged as such then presented in a courtroom in front of a grand jury or judge; not leaked at a press conference in an effort to attempt to justify a police officer's killing of an unarmed person with no prior criminal record.

The idea that Brown was killed because he was a suspect in a robbery doesn't wash. Brown was never charged with theft, and officer Wilson had no idea he was even a suspect in the alleged convenience store theft when he stopped the 18-year-old and confronted him and a friend on the street for Walking While Black jaywalking - or as the Ferguson police are now calling it, "obstructing traffic".

If the police want to suggest that Michael Brown robbed a convenience store of some cigars two days before he was to begin college, then they need to prove it in a court of law. Executing someone then introducing slipshod evidence of a crime outside of a court of law is more characteristic of corrupt Third World police thuggery; not a trained modern police force in a large American community.

Besides, sketchy video and unproven allegations in no way absolves a police officer of killing an unarmed human being in the street; or the totally over the top way in which the police have responded to a community rightfully outraged over the killing and the journalists sent there to cover the story.

Oh and speaking of the First Amendment to the Constitution, as has been widely reported over the past couple days, on Wednesday night around 8pm several unidentified members of a county SWAT team arrested and assaulted two reporters who were sitting in a McDonald's re-charging their mobile devices and discussing the unfolding events in Ferguson they were sent there to cover.

Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly a reporter for the Huffington Post were eating inside the McDonald's when police entered, cleared the restaurant and demanded ID from both reporters. When the reporters questioned the police about why they had to show them ID and further angered the heavily-armed police by having the gall to ask why weapons were being pointed at two reporters eating at McDonald's - they were cuffed, arrested and taken to jail.

I saw Lowery interviewed live on CNN on Thursday, he said the police officers pushed him against a soda fountain when he didn't move fast enough to put his things back in his bag and also slammed him against a glass door or wall. Lowery also spoke of seeing other reporters he knew personally being shot at with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters by police on Tuesday evening.

Both reporters were later released on the orders of the Ferguson police chief without being charged or with any kind of paperwork documenting their arrest; again, totally sketchy police procedure.

Antonio French, the local alderman who's been Tweeting live pictures, video and reports from the scene of the protests in Ferguson, was arrested by police as well when he got out of his vehicle.

Last night in a story about local St. Louis clergy men and women peacefully protesting the killing of Michael Brown, reported that "a local pastor was shot in the abdomen while peacefully chanting 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus'." Her name was Renita Lamkin according to a story on the Website of the Huffington Post.

Personally I'm disappointed with the amount of time it took state and Federal government officials to step up and take the lead in Ferguson. Governor Jay Nixon was practically invisible until Thursday.

It's clear that residents of the Ferguson community and Americans around the nation outraged by this tragedy won't be satisfied until a thorough independent investigation of the Ferguson police department is undertaken by the Justice Department and, or the FBI.

Attorney General Eric Holder personally called the parents of Michael Brown to promise just that, so let's hope he carries through on that. I'm pretty confident the pressure that's being generated by citizens on social media will make sure that happens. The mainstream media coverage on television, in print and on the Web doesn't quite adequately show the explosion of interest and attention this case has generated

Twitter has proved to be an amazing source of information and a gauge of how deeply people from all backgrounds, races, nationalities and faiths have been affected by this case. The tragic death of Michael Brown has become much bigger than the city of Ferguson; as evidenced not only by the public statement of support (and warning to police) issued by the shadowy hacker collective known as Anonymous, but in all the different ways in which it's affecting everyday discourse and revealing things about who we are as a nation.

Online petitions, protests in cities around the nation, responses (or the lack thereof...) by politicians and in normal everyday exchanges between people in person and online. Yesterday after work I stopped by my local tavern for a beer and was chatting with a couple regulars about the unfolding case. One of them, "Robby", is a white guy I've been friendly with and known for a couple years.

He's about 48 and is employed by a small college in NJ in the office of physical plant and works with his hands doing contract work like drywall installation - that kind of thing. After I made a remark about the case, he looked at me and said he'd heard that the officer (Darren Wilson, who hadn't been publicly named at the time) was in a hospital being treated for facial lacerations he'd suffered after Michael Brown attacked him in his police car.

Now I didn't really respond directly to "Robby" about that because mixing alcohol and personal politics in a bar can be a pretty volatile combination; and frankly it sounded to me like the distorted kind of BS you hear from Fox News. ("Robby" doesn't know anything about the kinds of topics I blog about as Culturegeist. )

So when got home and Googled that "facial laceration" story, I read a CBS report stating that the Ferguson police chief stated that officer Wilson (removed from duty since the incident on August 9th) "had been hit" in the face and was treated at a hospital and that his face was "swollen" on one side.

That's pretty far from a facial laceration and the way "Robby" said it to me quietly suggested that he was of the opinion that officer Wilson was only defending himself from Michael Brown. And that's okay, this is America and he's entitled to an opinion too. 

But I'm not buying that line of reasoning. It just sounds too much like George Zimmerman's defense after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Obviously the two cases are different, but Zimmerman, like Wilson was in a vehicle following a young, unarmed African-American male who was walking; not engaged in something illegal.

Wilson, like Zimmerman, was the one who initiated the contact with Michael Brown - because he was walking in the street. Remember, at the time, Wilson had no idea Brown was a suspect in a robbery.

To him (Wilson, who was in a police car) Brown was just a black kid walking in the street. It's the initial perception that Wilson (or Zimmerman) had in his mind before the incident began that cuts to the root of this problem - and that perception issue is something that "Robby" just doesn't seem to understand.

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