For the past week, a town outside of St. Louis, Missouri has been the center of attention in one of the most shocking and controversial riot and police siege in the United States in recent memory.
On August 9, racial tension flared up in the town of Ferguson, Missouri after an unarmed 18-year-old African American male, Michael Brown, was shot dead by a Caucasian police officer, Darren Wilson, in broad day light. The witnesses and St. Louis County Police Department provided conflicting evidence about the lead-up to the fatal shooting. According to the St. Louis County police chief, Darren Wilson shot Brown after he attempted to snatch the officer’s weapon in the police car. Brown was allegedly jaywalking in the middle of the street when Darren Wilson exited his car to stop him. According to the police, one shot was fired in the car, followed by multiple fatal shots after the two left the car. Brown was identified by the police as the primary suspect in a cigar robbery moments before the shooting, but the police claimed that Wilson was initially unaware of Brown’s involvement in the case.
Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson told the media that a police car pulled up when they were walking in the street. The police reached out to strangle Brown after telling the two to get onto the sidewalk. Piaget Crenshaw, another witness, said Brown fled for his life while the police was shooting him down. After falling on the ground, he put up his arms to show he was compliant and unarmed. However, the police opened fire two more times and Brown died on the spot.
Mourning and memorials held for Brown were soon followed by demonstrations, looting, and violent clashes between angry protesters and heavily armed police. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the angry crowd on the nights of August 11 and 12. Following a strong police presence on the night of August 13, multiple individuals, including two journalists from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, were arrested and briefly detained before being freed. Martin D. Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, released a statement, condemning the police’s illegal arrest and detention of Wesley Lowery.
The continued violence and deadly clashes have made many wonder if the police had crossed the line by shooting tear gas from combat-armored shock troops to disperse the crowds. Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, said the situation of overly-armed police is the result of “Program 1033,” which authorizes the Department of Defense to give military surplus to police departments across the country for “domestic wars against drugs and terrorism.” The concern of para-militarism in the American Police Departments became a reality for many citizens after pictures and videos from Ferguson show police officers dressed like soldiers and backed up by an array of combat-armored vehicles.
Academics said the racial unrest in Ferguson is the result of racial segregation in St. Louis for more than a century. Clarissa Hayward, associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, said the St. Louis metropolitan is “an extreme example of racial segregation for 100 years.” Its history of enforcing racial segregation through racial zoning law and racial covenants has planted the seed for the deep racial unrest that is unfolding in Ferguson. Additionally, continuous economic struggle and repressive social sensibilities force the black population into the suburbs, where the schools are poorly funded and local governments are still dominated by white officials.
“Many blacks went to Ferguson from north St. Louis, which was devastated by industrial closures and bleak project housing,” said Margaret Garb, associate history professor at Washington University, in an interview with the LA Times.
While the violent confrontation between protesters and police, and the ongoing investigation, will continue to be at the center of media attention, the problems surrounding racial tension still play an important role in this whole incident. Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal expressed in an article in the Wall Street Journal that she hopes the unrest will turn into “political activity.”
“This is a wake-up call,” said Chappelle-Nadal.