Officer Darren Wilson’s bullets shattered the quiet calm of Saturday, August 9 and claimed the life of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown. Ever since that day in Ferguson, Missouri, the nation has been preoccupied. As the country braces for news of whether Wilson will be indicted for Brown’s killing, the narrative is changing ominously. Last week, Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency. Next, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay called a press conference to tell reporters that despite efforts by protesters to provoke them local police had been exemplary in their handling of protesters. His comments chagrined more than a few observers who experienced the heavy-handed and militaristic way police converged on peaceful protesters in August.
While police may be deserving of some praise for recent restraint, protesters have certainly not given them any cause to be belligerent. In fact, with the exception of a few nights of violence, the vast majority of protests in the St. Louis suburb remained peaceful. For the most part, protesters have respected the rules established by the police. However, officials have fueled concerns about the grand jury process from the start, which ostensibly has kept protesters on the streets there. From releasing video and impugning the character of Michael Brown to restricting media access to the air space over the city, not to mention charges of civil rights and civil liberties violations, police and city officials sought to tightly control outsiders’ view of the incident and the community. Nevertheless, the disturbing early images of officers in fatigues wielding weapons more appropriate for war than “riot” control persist.
Now, officials are trying to transfer attention to the safety of police. Fox News reports that death threats against the wives and children of police officers have led some officers’ families to flee the area for their safety. While these alleged intimidations are difficult to document, they are currently being used to paint the entire corps of protesters as violent. This shift in the narrative is significant. It deflects attention from justice for Brown and a community in mourning, while laying the foundation for police brutality, should protests turn ugly.
This is truly unfortunate given the efforts of protest leaders to keep the focus on securing justice for Brown while promoting nonviolence. When I arrived in Ferguson last month as part of a delegation with the National Alliance for Faith and Justice’s Pen or Pencil stay in school Initiative, I found a community still struggling to come to grips with what has happened and anxious to let the world know its side of the story.
When we arrived at the scene of the fatal shooting to view the makeshift memorial to Brown, several community activists greeted us, including David Whitt. Whitt is a spokesperson for the Canfield Watchmen, a civilian rights group connected to a nearby apartment complex. He talked extensively about the incident and the role of the police in escalating the violence last August. With his wife and small children in tow, Whitt pleaded with us to share the message that the protesters in Ferguson were non-violent. Stressing the need to counter the stories floated by the police and the press, Whitt deputized us as ambassadors for accuracy. “If you hear something about the movement that’s happening,” he pleaded, “know what you’ve seen (here) and know what they are telling you are two different things.”
Far from encouraging violence, Whitt’s organization worked closely with the national group Cop Watch to raise money for body cameras for residents to record their interactions with police in the future.
Far from encouraging violence, Whitt’s organization worked closely with the national group Cop Watch to raise money for body cameras for residents to record their interactions with police in the future. “With these cameras,” Whitt explained, “we will have the chance to challenge the police narrative.” Whitt also wanted to emphasize that their goals have always been to make civil servants accountable, not to destroy their community. “My tax dollars are supposed to pay for this officer to uphold the law but he aint doing it,” he explained. “We all have to start recording these police when they stop you.”
Whitt and the Canfield Watchmen clearly do not speak for all the residents of Ferguson. However, the absence of their voices, as well as other proponents of peace such as activist and educator Deray McKesson and countless others from the current banter of what might happen in the community is beyond troubling. On Saturday morning, for instance, against the backdrop of police and city workers checking barricades, CNN reported widespread threats against police. Yet, they could only produce a solitary man on camera. His wild and reckless observations about the need for violence against police did not square with other accounts.
A CBS News report from last Monday was not much better. It quoted a law enforcement official as identifying “Internet postings and “observed and criminal activity” as the basis for warnings about threats to police. The same official conceded that police had no concrete evidence of specific threats.
These reports, of course are helping to fuel fears in a city already on edge. While gun sales skyrocketed in Ferguson and the surrounding area ahead of the grand jury’s decision, the only hardware the Canfield Watchman plan to retaliate with are the roughly 210 cameras. In Whitt’s words, the equipment has been distributed, “so the world can see the way we have been harassed by these cops and why people are so mad.”
As the shots fired from Officer Wilson’s gun last August echo into what may be a long winter of discontent, the assumption that a brutalized people will always resort to violence is plain wrong. Such a scenario may also be a carefully crafted pretext to justify the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against people in communities of color that are frustrated, alienated, and discouraged by the clogged and broken pathways to justice they often encounter. No matter what the grand jury decides, given the rise in gun sales and deep mistrust fostered by officials, Ferguson may remain an armed camp for years to come. It will continue to be sharply divided by class and race and by extension devoid of the lifeblood of simple justice—human compassion and understanding.