Several African-American men share with Truthout their stories of abuse at the hands of police, and after 12 days of continuous demonstrations against the shooting of an unarmed teen, Michael Brown, it appears that the community is in it for the long haul.
After hours of peacefully marching up and down the sidewalks on Ferguson’s now-infamous South Florissant Avenue on Tuesday night, several dozen protesters formed a thick circle in a parking lot to conclude their demonstration with a prayer lead by a local minister. It was getting late, and it seemed that, after several nights of unrest and police crackdowns, the protest might end in peace.
I sat down on a curb to jot down some notes, and a young man with dreadlocks asked me if I was a reporter. He called to his friends, and soon several young black men from Ferguson joined us, each with his own story to tell.
A young man named Christopher Lane told me police had beaten him up three times since he moved to Ferguson in 2007. The beatings happened well before a local officer fatally shot an unarmed teenager on August 9 and sparked the protests that now occur daily in Ferguson. “These cops are real prejudiced,” Lane said, later adding, “Ferguson is an old slave town, if you know your history.”
Lane asked if I had noticed that many of the side streets in Ferguson do not have sidewalks. I had. He told me that police regularly harass and even cite young black folks for failing to walk on the sidewalk, even when there is none to be found.
Lane’s friends said they once became burglary suspects for simply visiting a friend’s house. One young man said the Ferguson police regularly stop and harass him about crimes he doesn’t know anything about, hoping that he might “snitch.”
“It’s like, I don’t know who’s stealing cars, man,” he said.
One said he spent 32 days in jail for failing to pay a traffic ticket. Another was locked up for 30 days for drinking in public.
Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who fired six shots from his gun to kill 18-year-old Michael Brown after an altercation that is now subject to a grand jury probe and federal civil rights investigation, has not spent a single day in jail since Brown’s body sat in the street for hours after his death.
While the militarization of the police has been a highly visible issue during the ongoing protests in Ferguson, residents like Lane are emphasizing that the criminal justice system’s deep grounding in racism must be addressed first and foremost. On Tuesday, one man held a sign that read, “I am a man, not an animal.”
Black people make up about 67 percent of Ferguson’s population, but only three of the city’s 53 police officers are black. Black residents over the age of 16 accounted for 86 percent of the traffic stops in the city last year, and racial profiling data from the past decade shows that black drivers are far more likely to be pulled over than any other race, according to the state attorney general.
Clearly, the racism embedded in the criminal justice system is not just a problem in Ferguson and the St. Louis area. Across the country, a white police officer killed a black person about twice a week in a seven-year period ending in 2012, according to recent a USA Today analysis of federal data. While only 12 percent of people who regularly use drugs in the United States are black, 32 percent of those arrested on drug charges are black, according to the NAACP.
On average, blacks serve virtually as much time in prison for nonviolent drug offenses as whites serve for violent offenses.
Lane and his friends disappeared back into the crowd. Lines of police in riot gear had been attempting to clear people from parking lots and disperse the protesters for about half an hour, and tension was building. A young man shouted “We’re stronger than them!”
A plastic bottle was thrown toward a line of cops in the street, and the police reacted violently, plunging the situation into chaos. They shot pepper spray into the crowd and chased young protesters down the street. Armored trucks quickly rolled up. Frantic crowds of cameramen and reporters attempted to dive into the thick of the crowd.
At one point, a police officer pointed an assault rifle at protesters and threatened to kill them. He was later taken off duty and suspended indefinitely.
The police loudspeaker ordered the media back into the “designated media area” known as the “media pen.” Anyone else would be arrested if they did not disperse, the police said.
Peacekeeping community members linked arms between a line of riot police and the media pen, where protesters were now mingling with reporters. Medics poured water and Maalox into the eyes of protesters blinded by pepper spray.
Several community groups have demanded that the police “de-escalate” the militarized policing of protesters to help keep the demonstrations peaceful, but these demands have fallen on deaf ears.
“De-escalate,” it seems, is not a word in the policeman’s vocabulary.
Over the next hour, the lines of riot police slowly pushed back the crowd south toward the police command center, arresting anyone in their way. A legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild and journalists were among the dozens arrested.
“I’m just trying to help people,” a street medic said, as the cops led him away.
Groups of state police, wearing camouflaged military gear and pointing their crowd control weapons, would periodically charge into the crowd, sending journalists scrambling and enraging protesters.
Protesters slowly dispersed as the police continued pushing back the crowd. Anyone who did not move fast enough was arrested. I watched as a young, shirtless protester stood in front of me on the tree lawn of a side street at the edge of the protest area. He put his hands up as a group of law enforcement officers approached with their crowd control weapons drawn and tackled him to the ground. He quickly disappeared under a pile of camouflaged bodies.
The police soon succeeded in their mission, making at least 47 arrests in the process. I watched as the crowd of journalists, with a few protesters still among them, retreated to a parking lot near the police command center. The lit-up traffic sign in the parking lot indicated that the crowd had finally reached the “approved assembly area.”
For Ferguson residents, protesting is now part of daily life.
Before the police forcibly cleared the streets on Tuesday night, organizers were spreading the word about a demonstration planned for the following morning at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in nearby Clayton, Missouri, where a grand jury was meeting for the first time to investigate whether Wilson should be charged for killing Brown.
About 50 people protested outside the grand jury on Wednesday. Many were parents of Ferguson youth. The crowd demanded that Darren Wilson be indicted and arrested and that the county prosecutor on the case, Robert McCulloch, recuse himself.
McCulloch has refused to step down despite criticism that he has a history of siding with the police. Several members of the prosecutor’s family have worked for the Ferguson police, including his father, who was shot and killed by a black suspect in 1964, a fact that McCulloch has called “irrelevant,” according to reports.
Gwen Stewart, who held a sign reading “McCulloch step down,” told me that the political system is unfair in Ferguson, where black residents are in the majority but most city and law enforcement officials are white.
“Has an African-American cop ever shot a white teenager?” Stewart said. “We just wouldn’t do that.”
McCulloch has angered his constituents by failing to bring criminal charges against Wilson. If a black cop killed a white person, Stewart said, that officer would surely be in jail.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder arrived in Ferguson to meet with community leaders and federal investigators conducting a separate civil rights probe into Brown’s death. The nightly protest on West Florissant Avenue on Wednesday was relatively quiet, in stark contrast to prior days.
Just because the protests were calm, however, does not mean that momentum is winding down. Temperatures hovered in the 90s on Wednesday afternoon, but a few protesters still gathered on West Florissant to march and chant during their lunch breaks. A vigil in front of the Ferguson police station maintains a constant presence. The protest movement in Ferguson is becoming more organized, and after 12 days of continuous demonstration, it appears that the community is in it for the long haul.
Correction: This article originally stated that police shot tear gas into the crowd. Police deployed pepper spray on Tuesday night, not tear gas.