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“A Collective Failure”: The Crisis Of Leadership And Confidence In Ferguson, Mo.

Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. The unarmed 18-year-old’s body laid in the street for more than four hours. Ever since that fateful Saturday afternoon, there have been protests about the way Brown was treated and the way African Americans in general have been treated in the St. Louis suburb. The most dramatic and revealing were those that erupted the evening of Aug. 13. Demonstrators were met with a militarized police force that lobbed tear gas at them, shot rubber bullets at them and arrested journalists. But in the chaotic nighttime scene three people were missing: Gov. Jay Nixon (D), Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.

As their city and state and their police forces ran roughshod over the First Amendment rights of demonstrators with the entire world watching, those three public officials were nowhere to be seen. Their inexcusable absence that night, the lack of leadership it exposed and the subsequent bumbling efforts to show control might explain why there was so much hysteria leading up to tonight’s announcement that Wilson will not be charged in Brown’s death.

My view of their actions is certainly colored by my 16 years in New York City. Whenever anything big happened or was about to happen in the Big Apple or the Empire State (from snow storm to terrorist attack), you were guaranteed to see the mayor, the governor, the police commissioner and every relevant city and state commissioner squeezed behind a podium to give anxious New Yorkers an update. Both in word and presence, those public officials at least gave the impression that someone was in charge. Someone was accountable. Someone was speaking for them. Nixon, Knowles and Jackson (especially Jackson) have consistently failed that basic test of leadership.  The leaks from other local law enforcement agencies throughout the various investigations served to exacerbate tensions.

In the three months since Brown’s killing we have come to learn that their collective failures are just the tip of the iceberg of problems in Ferguson. My colleague Radley Balko reported extensively on how municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty. “If you were tasked with designing a regional system of government guaranteed to produce racial conflict, anger, and resentment,” he wrote, “you’d be hard pressed to do better than St. Louis County.” The inherent mistrust of police, the grand jury process and the motives of elected and law enforcement officials that we have seen from blacks in Ferguson can be traced back to the Balko’s observation.

The Post’s Wesley Lowery is back on the ground in Ferguson just as he was on that tumultuous night in August. When I asked him whether Nixon, Knowles and Jackson had a local presence now that wasn’t being captured at the national level, his reply came quickly. “Not at all. There is no leadership from electeds on the ground. None,” he said, explaining his assessment came from “dozens of interviews” and his personal observations.  “This is a disenfranchised populace – they don’t vote for their elected leadership, and don’t feel represented by them, so why would they turn to them for leadership now?”

After his 20-minute presentation of the grand jury decision and the evidence supporting it, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCollouch acknowledged that the killing of Brown opened old wounds and urged protesters to “continue the demonstrations, continue the discussions” to ensure this doesn’t happen again — soothing words from a public official that are of no comfort to a community that was hurting long before Wilson shot and killed Brown on a hot summer day.


By: Jonathan Capehart, Post-Partisan, The Washington Post, November 24, 2014

November 30, 2014 Posted by | Darren Wilson, Ferguson Missouri, Michael Brown | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Inflicting Terror”: In Ferguson, A Militarized Police Force Isn’t Necessary For Suppression

Nearly every night in Ferguson, a group of protesters gathers in front of the police department demanding justice for Michael Brown. The size of the demonstration has varied, depending on people’s availability and on the weather conditions, but the dedication to protesting has remained consistent since Brown’s death.

In these days leading up to the announcement of whether a grand jury has indicted Darren Wilson for killing Brown, everyone is on edge. The uncertainty of when the decision will be released to the public, coupled with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s declaration of a state of emergency, has left plans for action up in the air and the quest for justice without answers. But the people still show up to police departments.

The anxiety has only been exacerbated the last few nights in Ferguson, as those protests have been met by a show of force on the part of the Ferguson police department. The night I was there—Wednesday, November 19—there were no more than about forty protesters at any given moment, met with police presence of equal or greater number. Of course, the major difference was that the police stood armed, in riot gear, and the protesters had only their bullhorns, chants and emotion.

It remained relatively calm for a time. The police, lined up as if to block the passageway to the department doors, already unavailable to anyone because of the metal barricade, played a game of cat and mouse, advancing a few feet and backing protesters up, before retreating themselves. Things escalated when during one of their advances they arrested a young man who had shown up to livestream the event.

The police advanced further as the protesters took to the streets, directing traffic away from their action. Protestors ran to what they thought would be a safe space across the street, but a few weren’t lucky enough to make it. At least five people were arrested that night, mostly for unlawful assembly as well as resisting arrest.

Aside from the chanting, there was no provocation of the police on the part of the protesters. There was one instance of an object being thrown, a water bottle, but other protesters quickly handled it: the person responsible, dressed in all black from head-to-toe, including a black mask that obscured their face, was run off of the protest site and heckled as an agitator who was putting the lives of the protesters at risk.

“If the media wasn’t out here, they’d have arrested us all,” one protester remarked.

A similar scene played out on Thursday evening, with the lesson here being that a militarized police force isn’t necessary to inflict terror. The police have proved themselves violent even without the use of tanks and tear gas. The people’s right to assemble peacefully won’t be protected. The Ferguson police department hasn’t taken any of the national or international criticism they have received to heart. And as the announcement of the decision on whether to indict Wilson dangles in some unknown future, the anxiety builds and takes an unknowable psychic toll on the most dedicated protesters.

But their resolve to see this through is strong.


By: Mychal Denzel Smith, The Nation, November 21, 2014

November 23, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement, Militarization of Police | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Scene Of The Crime”: Autopsy Results Aren’t Going To Answer The Essential Question: Why Did Michael Brown Have To Die?

In his account to investigators, Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson said Michael Brown charged him. Specifically, Wilson said Brown struggled for his gun during a scuffle in his police SUV and almost reached the trigger. After blocking his grab for the gun, Wilson fired two shots—hitting Brown in the hand—and fired again when, he says, Brown stopped running, turned around, and took another lunge.

On Wednesday, a new analysis of the official autopsy report—released by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—seemed to support this account. The newspaper asked two independent experts who aren’t involved in the investigation to review the evidence. The first, St. Louis County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Graham, says that the report “does support that there was a significant altercation at the car.” And while the report notes the lack of short-range gunpowder burns or stipple around Brown’s hands, Graham says, “Sometimes, when it’s really close, such as within an inch or so, there is no stipple, just smoke.”

One of the experts—Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist in San Francisco—was even more certain on the autopsy’s implications. It “supports the fact that this guy is reaching for the gun, if he has gunpowder particulate material in the wound,” she said. “If he had his hand near the gun when it goes off, he’s going for the officer’s gun.” What’s more, she said that the autopsy didn’t support witnesses who claimed Brown was running away. “The wound to the top of Brown’s head would indicate he was falling forward or in a lunging position toward the shooter,” writes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a summary of her remarks.

But there’s a problem here. Melinek says she was misconstrued. “I’m not saying that Brown going for the gun is the only explanation. I’m saying the officer said he was going for the gun, and the right thumb wound supports that,” she later told MSNBC. “I have limited information. It could also be consistent with other scenarios. That’s the important thing. That’s why the witnesses need to speak to the grand jury and the grand jury needs to hear all the unbiased testimony and compare those statements to the physical evidence.”

That the autopsy is consistent with Wilson’s account is a godsend for the police officer. And to that end, there’s speculation that the autopsy was leaked as a prelude to news that Wilson would escape an indictment from the grand jury.

At the same time, it’s important to note the extent to which this autopsy agrees with one conducted in August by Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner for New York City. According to his autopsy, Brown was shot six times, including twice in the head. “This one here looks like his head was bent downward,” he said, referring to the wound at the top of Brown’s head. “It can be because he’s giving up, or because he’s charging forward at the officer.”

And both autopsies fit the opposing accounts from other witnesses. “[Wilson] reached out the window and tried to choke my friend. We were trying to get away, and he tried to pull my friend into the car,” said Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown, saw the whole encounter, and never claimed there wasn’t a fight at the police vehicle. The question, rather, is what precisely happened. Later, we learned of two witnesses who saw the shooting and filmed their near-instant reaction. “He had his f-ckin’ hands up,” said one of the men, echoing other reports.

The Justice Department is conducting its own autopsy, and it’s likely to fit the results of the previous ones. (It has also condemned this leak, calling it “irresponsible and highly troubling.”) Which is to say that—barring new evidence—we’re stuck with the facts we’ve had since August, none of which gives a conclusive answer to the key question in the case: Who started it? And even if it did—and even if Brown was at fault for the whole encounter—we’re still left with the other important question: Why did Wilson keep firing after Brown moved away?

At this point, any answer is tied tightly to your sympathies. Side with Michael Brown and the Ferguson protesters, and you’re likely to think Wilson overreacted or—at worst—actively abused his power. And if you support Darren Wilson, you’re just as likely to see an honest cop just defending himself from a dangerous aggressor.

Put another way, Ferguson is still thick with tension from Brown’s shooting, and if Wilson isn’t indicted, it could explode into a new round of protests. Indeed, it’s possible this is why Gov. Jay Nixon—who received low marks for his initial response—has announced a Ferguson Commission devoted to studying the social and economic conditions that led to the initial August protests. “The commission will be empowered to call on experts to address topics ranging from governance, poverty, education, and law enforcement,” said Nixon. “The commission will also recommend changes to make the region a ‘fairer place for everyone to live.’ ”

It’s a fine goal. But given the anger on the ground, it’s hard to believe that any commission—however well-meaning—could bring normalcy to Ferguson. For that, the people of Ferguson need accountability from the police, and on that score, all signs point to disappointment.


By: Jamelle Bouie, Slate, October 23, 2014

October 27, 2014 Posted by | Darren Wilson, Ferguson Missouri, Michael Brown | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Killer Cops Walk Free”: It’s Time To Try To Rebuild The Trust Between Police And The Communities They’re Sworn To Protect

When I was a white, I viewed the police as a friend.  But now that I’m a minority, my view has changed.

I know that to many I still look like a white guy. However, since I’m of Arab heritage and Muslim, I morphed into a minority in the post-9/11 world. After all, white people aren’t racially profiled nor called to answer for the worst of their community. Only minorities are. Thus, I’m a minority, and I view the police through that prism.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t consider the police an enemy. I just no longer give them the benefit of the doubt. When I hear their version of the facts, I now require corroborating evidence. And I can just as easily believe the version of events proffered by a defendant or other witnesses.

Being a minority, I have also become much more sensitive to the fact that the police can kill you without good reason. And while exact numbers are hard to come by, recent estimates are that the police have killed about 400 people per year over the last decade.  Our police kill more people each year than those killed by gun violence in countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia.

I would predict that few have issues with the police shooting dangerous criminals who are truly threatening them or the public at large.  Regardless if we are white or a minority, we want the police to protect us. In fact, we pay them to do just that.

But the problem arises when we see the police kill a person in circumstances that shock our conscience. In these instances, our sense of right and wrong demands that the police officer be held criminally responsible for his actions.

However, this happens very infrequently. Why? In large part, this is due to a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held a police officer can legally use deadly force if the officer has an “objectively reasonable fear” that someone will be killed or suffer serious bodily injury. This ruling, by design, insulates police officers from criminal liability because of the unique, life-threatening challenges of being in law enforcement.

In fact, many legal experts believe that Darren Wilson, the police officer who reportedly shot Michael Brown, will not be convicted of a crime. Indeed, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon acknowledged that Wilson might not even be charged with one.

The Brown case would be far from the most outrageous incident involving a police officer not being criminally charged for killing an unarmed person. In 2012, for example, Brian Claunch, a wheelchair-bound double amputee living in a group home in Houston, became unruly. After the cops arrived, Claunch, who had a history of mental illness, verbally threatened them from his wheelchair and waved a shiny object—a ballpoint pen. After Claunch refused to drop the pen, one of the officers shot him in the head, killing him.

Is it shocking the officer wasn’t charged? Yes. Unexpected? No. As The Texas Observer noted, between 2007 and 2012, Houston police officers shot and killed 109 people and injured another 111. How many of these shootings were deemed unjustified? Zero.

Claunch was white. I mention his race only because white people should, too, be concerned with being shot by law enforcement. In fact, the police have killed more whites than black people in recent years. But those numbers don’t paint the full picture. On a percentage basis, blacks are being shot and killed by the police in much higher numbers.

For example, as Mother Jones noted, between 2004 and 2008, Oakland police officers shot 37 people. How many were black? All of them. And even though in 40 percent of the cases the suspect was unarmed, not one police officer was charged with a crime. And Oakland is not unique here—similar numbers can be found in other big cities.

Consequently, few will be surprised that a recent poll found blacks and whites view the police differently. While 56 percent of whites had a great deal of confidence in the police, only 37 percent of blacks felt the same way.

Still, Americans overall are apparently viewing the police in more negative terms. A 2009 Gallup poll found that 63 percent of Americans viewed the police as honest and ethical. (The peak being 68 percent in 2001 shortly after 9/11.)  But a Gallup poll conducted at the end of 2013 found that number has now fallen to 54 percent, the lowest number since the 1990s.

What may be legal might not always be right.  While the police may walk away scot-free, we still remember what they did. And I would predict that if we see more cases like Michael Brown or Eric Garner—the unarmed man killed in July after NYPD officers placed him in an illegal chokehold—the more negatively the police will be viewed by everyone going forward.

This poses a very real policing problem. Police officials will tell you that one of the most important components in combatting crime is building relationships within the community they are policing. How can the police do that if the community views them as dishonest, or even dangerous?

A good move toward rebuilding trust would be affixing cameras to police officers so that the public can see the events that lead to the use of deadly force. Police could also do more community relationship building by interacting with minority communities now—not after there is an incident. And if a police officer is clearly at fault, police chiefs should not blindly defend that person.

Ironically, while relations between the police and minority communities might be strained, we now share something in common: Neither of us wants to be defined by our worst examples.


By: Dean Obeidallah, The Daily Beast, August 26, 2014

August 29, 2014 Posted by | Law Enforcement, Minorities, Race and Ethnicity | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Police In Ferguson Keep Praying And Preying”: The Pandering Religiosity Of Law Enforcement Officials

The Greater St. Mark Church was raided today as St. Louis County Police thought that protesters were spending the night in the church, which has been used as a staging area for protestors. Police have since closed the building and stated that if anyone congregates on the premises at night, there would be arrests. One member of the Dream Defenders said “what [the police] did today is tell us, what? There is no safety here.”

The Pastor of the church, Missouri Representative Tommie Pierson (D), said of the police “they don’t like us too much.”

Earlier the same day, Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson asked the police department chaplain to pray before giving the late night report. One line was particularly stunning: “Again we come here having used all the energy and all the resources that you have given to our residents, their families, and our peacekeeping force, to bring peace—your peace.”

While the killing of Michael Brown was egregious enough, the manner in which the Ferguson police force and Captain Ron Johnson have used prayer to sanction their police actions and violence towards citizen protestors is detestable.

America has a history of those in authority invoking Christianity to justify slavery, lynching, and bombings. During the conflict in Ferguson, the local and state police who recite nightly prayers before going out to intimidate and arrest protestors follow this historical trajectory.

Perhaps the most galling figure is Captain Johnson, appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon to oversee the Ferguson Police and the National Guard. Johnson appeared at a local church to apologize to Michael Brown’s parents, garnering much praise from the crowd for his respectability and Christian piety. Yet while Johnson placates the public with appeals to Christianity he simultaneously sanctions violence at the hands of the state. Perhaps the public will forget, with his constant calls to prayer, that he’s in charge of a force that has used tear gas on, cursed at and abused protestors.

In contrast, clergy in Ferguson and from around the country have come to show their solidarity and to help the citizens of Ferguson in their quest for justice. Early on, the Rev. Renita Lamkin was shot with a rubber bullet while trying to place herself between protesters and the police.

Other local clergy have met with the governor and state officials, while pastors from all over have been coming to aid in the efforts, including a group from Philadelphia that includes the pastor of Historic Mother Bethel AME church, Mark Tyler, and Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan, Pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church. The presence of clergy members is a helpful counterbalance to local and state law enforcement presenting themselves as both religious and civic authority.

The whole situation has me thinking a lot about Frederick Douglass’ Slaveholding Religion and the Christianity of Christ. His words still ring true with regard to the empty prayers of the police in Ferguson “They attend with pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith.”

If there’s to be any justice for the shooting of Michael Brown, the pandering religiosity of the law enforcement officials will have to cease. What the community of Ferguson, the parents of Michael Brown, and the whole country need right now is an honest assessment of the facts, for Darren Wilson to be held accountable for his actions, and for there to be clear, truthful communication between law enforcement and the people they serve, without violence.


By: Anthea Butler, Religion Dispatches, August 20, 2014

August 25, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement, Religion | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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