Ferguson Shooting Sparks National Outrage

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The shooting of a teenager by a police officer in a St. Louis suburb leads to unrest and unanswered questions.

Ferguson Protest

Protestors in Ferguson, Mo.

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On Aug. 9, 2014, a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old teenager in Ferguson, Mo. Details of the shooting have been under dispute since the incident. Police said that Brown was shot during an altercation with the officer. However, a friend who was with Brown at the time said that the officer shot Brown when he refused to move from the middle of the street to the sidewalk and that Brown's hands were over his head at the moment of the shooting.

The following night, after a candlelight vigil for Brown, protesters filled the streets near the shooting. Police officers arrived on the scene with riot gear, including rifles and shields. The protest turned violent and images from cell phones went viral on social media, including several accounts of looting. The next day, the F.B.I. began a civil rights investigation in the shooting while protests continued in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis.

Only Selective Information Released

On Aug. 12, the Ferguson police chief, Thomas Jackson, announced that the name of the police officer involved in the shooting would not be released, citing concerns for the officer's safety. During the announcement, Jackson said, "The value of releasing the name is far outweighed by the risk of harm to the officer and his family." The refusal to reveal the name of the officer along with the selective information released about the shooting fueled another day and night of protests. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protestors. Arrests were made at the scene, including The Huffington Post's Ryan J. Reilly and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post. Both were released later without an explanation.

While vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, President Obama held a press conference and criticized Ferguson law enforcement for using "excessive force" during the protests. At his press conference, Obama asked Attorney General Eric Holder to "do what is necessary to help determine exactly what happened and to see that justice is done."

Dueling Press Conferences

During a news conference on Aug. 15, 2014, police identified the officer involved in the shooting as Darren Wilson, who has been with the Ferguson Police Department for four years and has no disciplinary charges. Wilson, a white officer, has been placed on leave and his location remained unknown. However, tensions flared when, in a simultaneous press conference, police released information, including a 19-page report, that Brown had been suspected of robbing a convenience store minutes before he was shot. Making matters worse, in a later news conference that afternoon, Police Chief Jackson said that Officer Wilson had not been aware that Brown was a suspect in the robbery at the time of the shooting.

Citing looting, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew from midnight to five a.m. in Ferguson on Saturday, Aug. 16. The announcement was met with more protests and arguments that it would only create more violence. The State Highway Patrol, which had been put in charge of public security in Ferguson after the incident, vowed to enforce the curfew not with tear gas, but by simply telling people that it's time to go home. However, at midnight, while many protestors dispersed because of the curfew, small groups stayed out on the street and chanted, "We are Mike Brown! We have the right to assemble peacefully!" Then, according to police, at least one bottle rocket was tossed by these small groups of protestors and shots were fired. As protestors continued to disperse, police officers said that they fired tear gas and smoke into the crowd in response to the gunfire. One protestor was wounded, while seven others were arrested.

Violence Continues Despite Curfews

As another week began, the tense situation in Ferguson showed no signs of dissipating. The curfew was extended for another night on Aug. 17, and violence erupted again. Attorney General Holder announced that because of the "extraordinary circumstances" in the case, the Justice Department would conduct its own autopsy of Brown. Meanwhile, the private autopsy preliminary results were released and showed that Brown had been shot at least six times, including twice in the head. After performing the private autopsy, Dr. Michael M. Baden said, "This information could have been released on day one."

On Aug. 18, Gov. Nixon lifted the curfew and deployed the National Guard to assist the police. However, the presence of the National Guard failed to quell the unrest. That night at least two people were shot and dozens arrested as bottles and Molotov cocktails were thrown from the crowd. Heavy gunfire at some officers was also reported. Police responded with tear gas, flash grenades, noisemakers and armored vehicles.

Grand Jury Decision Brings Worst Violence Yet

On Nov. 24, a grand jury in Missouri reached a decision on whether or not Officer Darren Wilson should be indicted in the fatal shooting of Brown. To prepare for the announcement, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called up the National Guard. Local police were also on alert and prepared to control any riots or violence, especially if Officer Wilson was not indicted. Michael Brown Sr., the victim's father, asked protesters for nonviolence and for a moment of silence for his son after the announcement.

Hours later, in the late evening, the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Wilson was announced. While some people responded to the decision with peaceful protests, others set fire to police cars, looted, and destroyed buildings. Several buildings were severely damaged. Dozens of people were arrested. Protests spread to other cities, including Boston, Chicago, and New York. The following morning, Gov. Nixon asked for more National Guard troops to help control the violence in Ferguson. Protests continued for a second night in Ferguson and even more cities across the country. Some arrests were made, but overall the demonstrations were less violent than the previous night. Meanwhile, the Justice Department and FBI continued to look at the case for possible violations to civil rights.

Protests Grow

In the days after the verdict, protests continued all over the country. On Nov. 30, five members of the NFL's St. Louis Rams ran onto their home field before a game with their hands raised, a tribute to Brown because he had been unarmed when he was shot. The act caused an uproar. The St. Louis Police Officers Association condemned the act and demanded an apology, saying in a statement that the players' actions were "tasteless, offensive, and inflammatory." Demonstrations continued into December, with protests in more than 30 cities being organized mostly by students through social media.

On Dec. 1, President Obama asked Congress for a $263 million spending package to improve police and community relations. Included in the package would be cameras for police to wear in order to capture their interactions with civilians. Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Holder announced a Justice Department plan to end racial profiling. Holder made the announcement while speaking in Atlanta at the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached. While in Atlanta, Holder met with community leaders and law enforcement in the first of a series of regional meetings in the United States. Holder was asked to set up the meetings by Obama in light of the tense situation in Ferguson.

Later that week, protests continued to grow throughout the country after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner. While marching through streets, protesters shouted, "I can't breathe," the last words Garner said before he died after being placed in a chokehold by Pantaleo in July. These protests combined with the still ongoing nationwide demonstrations over last month's grand jury decision in Ferguson. Crowds of protesters gathered in New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. In some places, traffic was stopped. More than 200 people were arrested in Manhattan. In Boston, subway service was disrupted when protesters stood on the tracks. Demonstrators gathered on Boston Common and shouted, "Justice now," during the city's lighting of its Christmas tree. The nationwide frustration with the recent grand jury decisions only intensified as 2014 came to a close.

Justice Department Releases Revealing Report

On March 4, 2015, the Justice Department released a report showing that the Ferguson Police had discriminated against and violated the constitutional rights of the city's African-American residents. Using data from 2012-2014, the report included stats such as 93% of the arrests made were black citizens. Also, in incidents and arrests were force was used, 88% were black. Of all vehicle stops made by police, 85% were black. These figures were based on an African-American population of 67% in Ferguson.

Furthermore, the report included examples of racist remarks used in emails and interviews by Ferguson police and court officials, as well as incidents of tasers and dogs being used in excess on African-Americans. Through the emails and statements by police and court officials, the report also showed how those officials were more focused on generating revenue, through fines and fees, than on the safety of the city's citizens. Overall, the report proved that the police department and city officials have been biased against the African-American citizens of Ferguson.

A week after the report was released, Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson resigned. Five other employees also resigned or were fired over the report, including a municipal judge and the city manager. On March 12, 2015, during a protest, two St. Louis-area police officers were shot in front of the Ferguson Police Department. Both officers were seriously wounded. However, their injuries were not life threatening. According to witnesses, the shots were believed to have come from a gunman on a hill more than 200 yards away from the police station. Many feared the shootings would lead to more tension and violence in Ferguson.

-Jennie Wood
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