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Explainer: What is happening in Ferguson, Missouri?

It’s in the news again this morning – but why?

Updated 7.19am

Police Shooting Missouri AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

YOU WILL NO doubt be aware that something is happening in a town called Ferguson, Missouri at the minute.

Late last night, the decision was made not to press charges against a police officer who shot dead a black teenager back in August. A grand jury sworn in to investigate the matter found that the police officer had acted in self-defence.

Reaction in Ferguson – and across the US –  has been swift. Major protests have broken out in the Missouri town in what was already a fragile situation.

The St Louis suburb, with its population of 20,000, was turned upside down in August by the shooting, with rioting, looting, racial tensions and accusations of militarisation of a police force already not trusted by the majority of the population.

So, what’s going on?

There was someone shot, right?

Yes. The starting point for the tensions came on 9 August. At 12pm on a Saturday afternoon, Michael Brown, a black teenager from the town, was stopped by a white police officer Darren Wilson.

Reports on what happened next vary, but the result was that unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot at least six times and killed by the six-year police veteran.

Wilson fired at least once from his squad car.

And that sparked protests?

Unsurprisingly, residents of the town of Ferguson, which is 67% black, were not happy that an unarmed teenager was shot by a police officer.

The following day, looting broke out. This was put under control, but protesting, rioting and clashes with police went on nightly for the rest of the week week.

Police Shooting Missouri AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Police were criticised for their heavy-handed approach, arresting journalists, firing tear gas and not diffusing any of the tensions.

They even tear-gassed a state Senator who represents Ferguson. She was not happy with the Governor.

Is Ferguson always like this?

No, but there is a racial divide.

Mayor James W Knowles III has been quoted as saying that there is no racial tenions in the town, which is majority black.

However, this is disputed by a number of black people, particularly young men.

While things like tensions are hard to quantify, we do know that Ferguson PD stops far more black motorists, despite whites being found with contraband far more frequently.


Larger version

One resident told the Washington Post that finding a black man in the town who trusts the police would be like “finding a four-leafed clover“.

The racial tensions are deep, with the Mayor, five of six council members, the police chief, the entire school board and 40 of 53 police officers white in a town that is 67% black.

Darnell Hunt, a UCLA professor, told that the shooting was “the final straw” for many in Ferguson.

Those divides have been exacerbated by a counter protest movement supporting Darren Wilson.

What did the State do?

State Governor Jay Nixon imposed a curfew on the streets but that didn’t help. In fact, just days later, seven people were arrested and a man was shot.

The state’s response was to replace the handling of the policing was to replace the St Louis County Police with the Missouri Highway Patrol.

Police Shooting Missouri AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

And that calmed things down, right?

It did. But only briefly. The day after being taken away from the policing of the situation, Ferguson PD, having held back for six days released the identity of the police officer who shot Michael Brown.

At the same time, however, they said that Brown was a suspect in an armed robbery that occurred shortly before the shooting.

This action, seen by many in the community as unnecessary, sparked outrage and led to further rioting.

It was later revealed that Wilson was not pursuing Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson for the robbery, but rather for jaywalking.

Those protests, along with looting and rioting followed, with police responding with tear gas and arrests.

And the army were brought in?

No. The National Guard were called on by Nixon, but not the US Army.

But this picture…

police-shooting-missouri-9-630x428 AP / Jeff Roberson AP / Jeff Roberson / Jeff Roberson

That picture shows something that has been spotlighted by the ongoing crisis in Ferguson: the militarisation of American police forces.

In 1994, in response to the War on Drugs, the Pentagon began distributing surplus equipment and arms to police forces.

This New York Times map shows the requisitions by St Louis County under that scheme.


The police response has been reported as heavy-handed and militaristic, but is representative of a growing trend in policing across the States.

English comedian John Oliver took the issue on in his HBO show in August.

LastWeekTonight / YouTube

Various military and policing experts have said that crowd control should be focused on de-escalation. US President Barack Obama slammed the policing.

“There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”

Police Shooting Missouri AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

US Attorney General Eric Holder said that he was concerned about the tactics used.

“At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”

Is this an isolated case?

Sadly, no. According to data compiled by the FBI, in a seven year period ending in 2012, an average of nearly two black people were killed by police every week.

In fact, just days after the shooting of Brown, LAPD shot a 25-year-old black man as he lay face down on the pavement.

Ezell Ford Jr had special needs and had been walking two blocks from his home.

Tommy Christopher / YouTube

USA Today says that even those numbers are a conservative estimate.

While the racial analysis is striking, the database it’s based on has been long considered flawed and largely incomplete. The killings are self-reported by law enforcement and not all police departments participate so the database undercounts the actual number of deaths.

So what happened last night?

A grand jury which was empanelled to investigate what should happen next made the decision that charges should not be brought against officer Darren Wilson.

The investigation found that Wilson fired 12 times after getting into an ‘altercation’ with Brown, and the jury said it could find no grounds to file charges.

US President Barack Obama and the family of Michael Brown have appealed for calm – but it hasn’t worked so far. Police have fired tear gas on protesters who have gathered in the town, with reports of cars on fire and missiles being thrown.

In a statement, Brown’s family said: “We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequences of his actions.

“We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction”.

Originally published 18 August 

Ferguson: Protests, violence, over news police officer won’t be charged over shooting of teen > 

Here’s all of our coverage of Ferguson

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