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"Hands Up, Don't Shoot," They Cried. All Hell Let Loose.

"Hands Up, Don't Shoot," They Cried. All Hell Let Loose.

By Toby Harnden - August 19, 2014

CROUCHING low as I ran across the gap between two bungalows, I was suddenly illuminated by a powerful strobe light. A man clad in military fatigues, body armour and helmet took aim and fired. I ducked as the shots rang out.

A canister landed on a lawn a few feet from me, fizzing and sending out sparks as it belched thick, acrid smoke. Tear gas. Within seconds, my throat was stinging and tears streamed from my eyes.

I ducked behind a tree, fearful that a rubber bullet or wooden baton round might be next. With no flak jacket or gas mask and armed only with a notebook and camera, I was dangerously vulnerable. A helicopter circled overhead.

The scene last Wednesday night was reminiscent if not quite of Iraq or Afghanistan, from where I have reported, then certainly east Jerusalem, or Belfast in the 1990s, where I cut my teeth as a reporter.

This, however, was the American Midwest. Welcome to Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St Louis, the Mississippi port city symbolised by a giant stainless steel arch built as a monument to the pioneers who headed west.

Moments earlier, Renita Lamkin, a diminutive local African Methodist Episcopal church pastor who was urging peaceful protest, had been struck by a rubber bullet, causing an open wound and extensive bruising to her stomach. She’d had her hands in the air and been whispering “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” to herself as she had been hit.

Those firing were not, despite all appearances, an invading army but a local police force terrorising a community they were supposedly there to serve and protect.

Ferguson, long affected by simmering racial tensions, had been turned into a virtual war zone after Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was shot dead by a white police officer last Saturday.

Police claim that the burly, 6ft 4in teenager tried to grab the officer’s gun and charged towards him even when shots were fired. According to several eye witnesses, he had his hands up and was trying to surrender.

A 99% white suburb in 1970, Ferguson, a town of 21,000 people, is now 67% black, with 28% of blacks living below the poverty line.

Within the Ferguson police force, however, only three of the 53 officers are black. Thomas Jackson, the police chief, is white. So is the mayor and all but one of the six local councillors.

Although Ferguson has experienced what is one of the more extreme cases of “white flight” in the US — and St Louis ranks as the sixth most racially segregated city — such racial disparities and the chaos that erupted last week play out regularly across the country.

Prominent deaths of blacks such as Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager shot dead in 2012 by a white vigilante, and Eric Garner, an asthmatic New York man suffocated to death while being arrested on a charge of illegally selling cigarettes, have made the idealistic hopes of a “post-racial” America after the election of President Barack Obama seem naive.

Racial and economic disparities are interlinked. A report released last week by the US Conference of Mayors showed that median incomes in the US are at their lowest level since 1995, the gap between the rich and poor ever widening.

During the rioting I witnessed, two reporters were arrested and an Al Jazeera television crew hit with tear gas. But the minor travails of us journalists paled into insignificance compared to the everyday experiences of black residents.

What was on display in Ferguson was an almost complete breakdown in relations between a community and the police, who reacted to relatively minor civil disturbance — there was some looting and a shop was torched last Sunday — amid justifiable questions about a tragic death, by setting the stage for a battle.

On Wednesday night the police arrived in force two hours before dusk, establishing a road block on the main thoroughfare close to where Brown died.

With the battle lines drawn, it was almost inevitable that a fight would develop. Their visors down, riot shields at the ready, the officers looked on stony-faced as members of a crowd of perhaps 200 chanted “hands up, don’t shoot” — a slogan commemorating Brown — and “no more stolen lives”.

Some officers held batons, and police dogs barked from behind the lines — disturbingly eerie echoes of the civil rights era, when blacks protesting against segregation in the South were beaten and mauled. Snipers on top of armoured police vehicles trained their sights on the crowd.

A police chief used a loud-hailer to order people to move off the road. The handful of black officers among them were taunted. “Come here and stand with your brothers, n*****,” one demonstrator shouted at an impassive black policeman. Another called out: “Why don’t you get that n***** some bleach and let him pour it on his head?”

Jeffrey Houston, a hairdresser in his fifties, told me: “They don’t understand who we are and they’re afraid. They thought this was another murder that would be swept away because they’ve been getting away with it for so long.

“They have a [Ku Klux] Klan mentality. During slavery, we used to work for them in their homes, raise their families and cook for them but they have never taken the time to get to know us. It’s racism — let’s lay it on the table, the real deal — don’t sugar-coat it.”

After darkness fell, the police began to use sound cannons, known as “long-range acoustic devices”, which emit a piercing noise.

It was clear the police were about to charge, and that a couple of beer bottles being thrown was all the excuse they needed. Tear gas was fired, along with rubber bullets, pepper-spray balls and “beanbag rounds” — like a sock containing lead pellets.

A woman screamed and there were cries of “hold your positions”, “we are peaceful” and “f*** the police” as the officers charged. Over the next few hours, police systematically went through the side streets, firing at anyone they saw.

Youth gathered, planning how to respond. One 25-year-old, who said his street name was “Kevy Kev — like the DJ”, told me: “It’s time for violence, to take justice back into our own hands.”

The repercussions of the week’s turmoil have been felt across America. After Wednesday’s unrest, every big shot cable television news anchor in America seemed to head to Ferguson.

They were joined by the Jesse Jackson, the veteran black activist, who walked arm-in-arm with dozens of people towards the place where Brown was subjected to what he described as a “state execution”.

He urged the crowd to continue protesting, but without violence. “You can reshape an iron while it’s hot, but don’t destroy yourself in the process,” he told them.

Vigils in memory of Brown were held from New York to Hawaii. Soul-searching over the treatment of blacks and the militarisation of America’s police has to a degree transcended the polarisation between left and right.

Senator Rand Paul, a Republican likely to run for president in 2016, wrote in an essay in Time magazine: “Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.

“Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.”

Obama interrupted his holiday on Martha’s Vineyard to express his concern. “We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances,” he said. “He was 18 years old, and his family will never hold Michael in their arms again.”

Jay Nixon, the Missouri governor, announced an overhaul of policing in Ferguson. Captain Ronald Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, a black man who grew up in Ferguson, took over.

On Thursday he walked through Ferguson with no body armour, hugging residents and telling youths: “My son has a tattoo too and he looks like you — I respect you and I respect your voice”.

He made an immediate difference. By that evening, the storm-trooper approach had been dispensed with, the road was kept open and Johnson and his officers mingled with the crowd amid a virtual carnival atmosphere.

It did not last long. The following day, Jackson, the embattled local police chief, bowed to demands to name Darren Wilson, 28, as the officer who shot Brown.

But he provoked outrage by releasing a surveillance video in which the young man could be seen stealing cigars from a local shop that day — even though Wilson had apparently not known about the robbery when he stopped him.

Both Johnson and the Justice Department questioned the decision to make public the video. There was anger on the streets, too, with the relative calm replaced by drunken looting early yesterday. Among the properties looted was the shop that Brown had robbed.

Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson on Friday night and ordered a curfew on Saturday. “We will not allow a handful of looters to endanger the rest of this community,” he told a news conference. “If we’re going to achieve justice, we must first have and maintain peace.”

Brown’s distraught family admitted in a statement that Michael was not “perfect”, but described the release of the video as “intended to assassinate the character of their son, following such a brutal assassination of his person”.

Their lawyer, Benjamin Crump, accused the police of trying to “justify this execution-style murder” of Brown, adding: “He put his hands up and the police kept shooting.” 

 

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter @tobyharnden.
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission. 

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