Reflecting on Ferguson, Missouri

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Ben Swann.com reporter Derrick Broze reports back after five days in the community of Ferguson, Missouri, the site of the August 9 shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.

By Derrick Broze @ Ben Swann

Between Friday August 22 and Tuesday August 26 I walked the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, talking with local residents, witnesses to the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting, supporters of Officer Darren Wilson, and other media personnel. I attempted to sift through the sea of propaganda coming from all sides and get to the heart of the matter: what happened to Michael Brown, and how was the city responding to aggressive, military-like tactics from the local, and state authorities.

On Saturday August 23 I watched the city’s frustration nearly boil over again, in a night filled with tense moments between the police and protesters. I spoke with one local resident who wondered, “Who is gonna police the police?”

(Warning: Graphic Language)

The protesters were weary of various “peace-keepers” and “clergy” who seemed to be working in some capacity with the local authorities. There was also a great mistrust for the media. As freelance journalist Ryan Schuessler wrote, “The behavior and number of journalists there is so appalling, that I cannot in good conscience continue to be a part of the spectacle.”

I specifically worked not to contribute to this spectacle and instead worked to become a part of the community for a few short days.

That first night I also spoke with retired Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis regarding the problems we face with the current police force and how to rectify the situation. Lewis is well known for being an outspoken critic of violent police.

In the nights before I arrived, peaceful vigils had turned to looting and property damage which lead to violence from the police, including the use of LRAD sound cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets on protesters, and reporters. Peace was temporarily restored once the Missouri State Highway Patrol took command from the local police.  After the initial looting the City of Ferguson seemed to focus its anger and anguish into a powerful community response. Local activists began daily marches up and down West Florissant and Canfield Drive, the site of Mike Brown’s death. The community called on the police department to release the name of the officer involved in the shooting.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday August 15 Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson identified officer Darren Wilson as the officer behind the shooting. Wilson is a six-year veteran with no prior history of violence, the department stated. He has been placed on administrative leave and relocated with his family in the interest of their safety. At the same time the department released a video of Brown committing a “strong arm robbery” at a local market and liquor store before his fatal encounter with Officer Wilson.

The release of the tape caused controversy, with some critics saying the police department was attempting to sway public opinion about Brown and his death. The owner of the store later said he never called 911 and the video was only released after St. Louis County investigators issued a warrant for the tape.

Hours later, in an afternoon press conference, the Chief clarified that  Officer Wilson did not believe that Brown was a robbery suspect and was himself not aware of the robbery.

“The robbery does not relate to the initial contact between the officer (Darren Wilson) and Michael Brown,” Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson said at a Friday afternoon press conference. “The initial contact between the officer and Mr. Brown was not related to the robbery.”

Chief Jackson shared documents related to an investigation into a robbery of a convenience store that took place the morning of August 9, before Brown was shot. The documents, along with still images, point to Brown possibly being involved in the theft of a $50 box of cigars.

According to the documents, officers suspected Michael Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson, of stealing the cigars, and assaulting a clerk before leaving the store. The police reports say Brown and Johnson matched the description of the robbery suspects. Officers were called to the area to investigate. We now know that when Officer Wilson first encountered Brown, he knew nothing of the store robbery and confronted Brown because he and Johnson were reportedly walking in the middle of a street blocking traffic.

Since the shooting, multiple autopsies have confirmed Michael Brown was shot at least six times by Wilson. On Sunday August 24, CNN interviewed a lawyer who claimed to have an audio recording of the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. Lopa Blumenthal said she is representing an unidentified man who lived near the incident and captured the audio. In the recording a cluster of shots is heard, followed by silence, and another cluster of shots. Forensic audio expert Paul Ginsberg reportedly analyzed the recording and found 10 gunshots. The audio recording suggests Wilson had time to pause before unloading the last cluster of bullets on Michael Brown.

Critics of the shooting have demanded to know why it took so long for the police to release the name of the officer.

Another point of contention has been why the body lay in the street for four and a half hours before being taken to the St. Louis County Medical Examiners Office. Michael Brown was shot shortly after noon and lay  uncovered for at least an hour before a white blanket was placed on his body. Eventually his body was loaded into a black suburban which can be seen in the following video.

(Warning: Graphic Language)

While in Ferguson I attended a rally for Officer Wilson at Barney’s Sports Pub. At the rally I had the opportunity to talk to the driver of the black suburban. The vehicle is operated by the St. Louis Livery Service, which transports bodies to morgues in St. Louis and St. Louis County.  According to him, the reason the body was not picked up sooner was because there were shots fired and it was unsafe to recover the body. He said the body was not left out of negligence or disrespect. Although the lengthy time for body removal has been controversial in Ferguson, it will likely not affect the investigation into whether or not Officer Wilson acted legally and is justified in his use of deadly force.

Those I spoke with at Barney’s Sports Bar expressed a hope that onlookers would not rush to judgement, but rather, wait till the results of the federal investigation being conducted by the FBI are released.

When asked what their response would be if Wilson was found to have used unnecessary, illegal force the supporters said they would support charges against the officer. Across the street from Barney’s I spoke with the lone counter-protester, holding a sign that said “End Police Brutality”. He stated that he wanted passersby to know that not everyone in the neighborhood supported the officer or the shooting.

The main issue in the case is attempting to piece together what exactly happened between Brown and Wilson. The police say Brown wrestled with the officer in his vehicle and attempted to grab the officers weapon. A shot was fired in the vehicle before the chaos spilled onto the streets. At this point the unarmed Brown was shot multiple times.

Dorian Johnson told news stations that he and Brown were walking down the street when a police officer pulled up behind then and said “Get the F*ck out of the street”, before grabbing Brown and trying to force him into the car. Johnson says a scuffle ensued and the officer shot Brown. He claims he hid behind a vehicle while Brown attempted to escape. Johnson says Brown was shot in the back, chest and face while he held his hands in the air and attempted to tell the officer he was unarmed. In a interview with CNN on Sunday night, Johnson reaffirmed his support for Brown while admitting that it was him and Brown in the convenience store surveillance tape. He remembered Michael Brown as a caring friend on the way to getting a college education.

On August 20 Fox News reported that “a source close to the department’s top brass” said that Officer Wilson suffered a “fractured eye socket” at the hands of Brown. CNN responded saying that the claim was false.  The Washington Post also weighed in, stating that the fractured eye story was factual. In an effort to clear up the confusion I asked Missouri Highway State Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson to clarify the matter.

Despite Captain Johnson’s lack of information, it seems that the conflicting stories have lead many to believe claims that may be completely and factually untrue. The following night at the press conference I took the opportunity to ask Captain Johnson to clarify reports that individuals who may have recorded the actual shooting had their cellphones confiscated. The Captain offered no information.

I concluded my trip to Ferguson by attending the funeral of Michael Brown. I found myself imagining being the one in the casket, or the parent weeping while friends and family sang praises of my lost loved one. In the end whatever the circumstances of Brown’s death I feel it is a tragic event.

When I first arrived in Ferguson I met many community members who were handing out free bottles of water to anyone who was in need. Food was also being given out for free. I encountered residents of Canfield Drive who described police harassment as a regular activity in the area. There were those who were angry at the situation, wondering if police violence would see an end in their lifetime. I heard church hymns being sung and prayers broadcasted over p.a. systems. I spoke with Elizabeth Vega, a St. Louis transplant originally from New Mexico. Vega was working on an art memorial project for Michael Brown. She spoke of inspiring the community through art and hoping to heal the open wounds.

Despite the nights of looting, and clashes between police and protesters that received heavy airplay, the Ferguson I witnessed was a city desperately trying to piece itself back together after a tragic shooting. Watching the tears and the frustration was difficult at times, more than once I stopped to put myself in the shoes of all the people I interviewed. As a compassionate human it hurt to see a life lost. As an independent journalist I wondered whether all the facts were being reported and if both sides might be selectively choosing which information to report based on their own biases. As an activist I wondered whether any legitimate revolution or evolution could come from the chaos.

Daniel Johnson, founder of People Against the NDAA, told me about his experience in Ferguson. Johnson said in his nearly two weeks in Ferguson he saw, “a war zone and the greatest opportunity to stop the militarized state.” He commended the residents of Ferguson for refusing to back down. Johnson expressed disappointment with libertarian activists and organizations in not supporting Ferguson.”I Challenge every liberty organization to put your resources here, I challenge every person who believes in the principles of liberty to stop Ferguson from happening in your community.”

When emotions run high in tense moments critical thinking skills often lose out to impulsive reactions. Many, many people feel wronged by the police force, not only in Ferguson, but the world over. If individuals in pursuit of a better world are ever to achieve it we must have uncomfortable dialogue and ask ourselves whether the police in the current incarnation are serving the role they were intended to.

Perhaps the death of Michael Brown will lead to a renewed discussion on racial disparity, police militarization, or even a new alternative to traditional policing. But one thing has become clear to me after spending time with the people of Ferguson, Missouri: if we the people do not work to fix the institutionalized violence the police force represent to many, we are going to see more nights of conflict. On more than one occasion I was told if Officer Wilson is not charged and convicted for the murder of Michael Brown then “Ferguson will burn”. The city, I was told, “will be up in flames”.

This article originally appeared at Ben Swann

Derrick Broze is an investigative journalist, community activist, gardener and promoter from Houston, Texas. He is the co-founder of The Houston Free Thinkers, and co-host of Free Thinker Radio. Broze also hosts and produces a weekly podcast under the name the Conscious Resistance Live. His writing can be found on TheConsciousResistance.com , The Liberty Beat, the Anti-Media, Activist Post, and Ben Swann.com