“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” Michael Brown and Police Violence in Ferguson

“Our Hands Are Up, Don’t Shoot Us!”

Protestors faced the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department with their hands raised and chanted for local law enforcement to not shoot them dead. Last weekend, in the early afternoon, Darren Wilson, a white police officer repeatedly shot and ultimately killed an unarmed 18 year old African American youth. Witnesses reported that the young man did not assault the officer and raised his hands in the air, when he was fatally shot. The community responded with shock, anguish and outrage which has spread to the entire country. The police killing of Michael Brown has reignited concerns about racism, the increasing militarization of police and the protection of the right to protest.

Officer Wilson ordered Michael Brown out of the street and reached through his squad car window to grab Michael by the neck. Approximately five minutes later, and by the time a second officer arrived on the scene, Michael Brown was dead. Later the police chief would report that Officer Wilson fired more than one shot but he could not comment on the total number of shots that were fired in the killing of Michael Brown. Following the shooting, Ferguson police alleged Michael had been involved in a convenience store theft earlier in the day, although they acknowledge it did not relate to the reason he was stopped.

The community reacted in protest coming together for candlelight vigils, demonstrations and hundreds participating in the face off at the police station. Some local businesses were damaged as anger and frustration mounted. The police responded by donning riot gear and firing rubber bullets and tear gas at community members and journalists who came to cover the story. The police patrolled the streets with a sniper sitting atop an armored personnel carrier that looked like a military tank. Over the three days following the killing of Michael Brown, more than 50 people were arrested. Police critically wounded a man near the protest sites and shot a pastor in the stomach with a rubber bullet. A recent graduate of Howard University working as a legal assistant was shot in the head while participating in the protests.

Racism Redo
Ferguson, Missouri is a northern suburb of Saint Louis. Educators describe it as a relatively stable, working and middle income community of 21,000 people. The city’s population is 63% African American and the municipal leadership and police force are predominately white. In fact, 50 of the 53 officers on the Ferguson Police Department are white. Academic studies of traffic stops in Ferguson reveal that 86% of those stopped by police are African American. Commentators across the country are reminded of Trayvon Martin and the demonstrators chanting “I can’t breathe” to protest the killing of Eric Garner in New York as a result of a police chokehold.

An important distinction about the killing of Michael Brown as compared to others who have been killed by police is that it happened in broad daylight and in front of witnesses. The NAACP and national civil rights leaders are involved in supporting the community in Ferguson. On the other hand, a Missouri chapter of the Ku Klux Klan has sickeningly called Officer Wilson a “hero.” It is important and incumbent upon all those who seek equality and justice to be vigilant in witnessing racism and speaking out against this blight that continues to show itself in our communities and institutions.

Militarization of the Police
The response of the Ferguson Police Department to the understandable and justified outrage over Michael Brown’s killing was to show case for the nation the increasing militarization of local law enforcement and the spread of military weapons to police departments. The New York Times graphically shows the flow of assault rifles, armored vehicles and more to police forces across the country. You can see it here.

Tear gas is a chemical weapon that is prohibited from international warfare by the Geneva Convention. So-called nonlethal weapons are over a billion dollar global industry and business consultants predict an increasing market and high demand from law enforcement agencies. Ali Issa, a national field organizer with the War Resisters League explains “Tear gas and the police militarization that always comes with it do not appear in Ferguson and nationwide in a vacuum.” The Department of Defense, in recent years, supplied hundreds of millions of dollars worth of “excess” military equipment to law enforcement agencies. The targets of these weapons are often communities of color and poor people.

Representative Marcia Fudge, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus released a statement on Thursday, August 14, 2014, that included: “Instead of being respected as citizens of this nation who have the right to vocally oppose what they believe is mistreatment, these people, many of whom are young adults, were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and police equipped as though they are militia in a war zone… Law enforcement is supposed to protect and serve, not search, intimidate and assault.” Missouri senator Claire McCaskill added “We need to de-militarize this situation—this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution… my constituents are allowed to have peaceful protests, and the police need to respect that right and protect that right.” Representative John Lewis quoted Martin Luther King Jr., “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.”

People’s Law Office echoes the outrage over the killing of Michael Brown and the militaristic and violent police response to the community reaction. As a civil rights law office who handles cases of police shootings and other forms of police brutality, we are recognize the racism and repression of dissent in Ferguson as being all too familiar.  We stand in solidarity with the residents of Ferguson, Missouri and remain committed to the search for justice.