Larger Trends in Ferguson and the Shooting of Mike Brown
by Timothy Johnson, JR364 — History of the Alternative Press, May 8, 2015
On August 9th, 2014, Dorian Johnson and Michael Brown, 18, a recent graduate of Normandy High School in in Ferguson Missouri, left a liquor store on West Florissant Ave. in Ferguson shortly before noon. By all accounts, Brown was hoping to have a lazy day- hanging out with his friend in the interim period before he began technical school. Not long after noon, nearly in view of his apartment complex, Brown was shot dead by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer, in a confused and contested exchange triggered by jaywalking.
Johnson and Brown met up earlier in the day, at the Canfield apartments where Dorian lived with his girlfriend and daughter. They hung out and talked about college. Having been in school over the summer to stay on track, Brown was due to start higher education in just a week, at the Vatterott Technical School in Missouri, to train to become an HVAC technician. Dorian, who was five years older than Brown and had already gone to school, wanted to give him advice on dealing with higher education.
Brown, the oldest of three siblings, was an amateur musician, which is how he had met Johnson, producing homemade hip hop tracks together. As the day dragged on, Brown and Johnson decided to roll a blunt together, and they set out to buy some cigars. What happened in the store is somewhat contested, but it is known that Brown stole a few cigarillos, priced at 1.49, and is seen on surveillance footage pushing the shop clerk, who went to block Brown from leaving after the exchange.
Darren Wilson was driving in his cruiser, unaccompanied, down Canfield Drive when he saw Brown and Johnson walking in the middle of the street. He’d been on duty for six hours, halfway through his shift- and was returning from a call about a sick child in a complex nearby. Wilson, 28, had been on the Ferguson police force since 2011. According to Wilson, he heard a call come from dispatch about a robbery at the liquor store pertaining to Brown and Johnson’s activity there, and was headed there to handle the call alone.
When he first saw the two walking down the street, he interacted with them about jaywalking, but didn’t recognize either of them as suspects in the robbery at first. There is much confusion regarding their interactions, in his testimony Johnson claims that Wilson was being rude and angry, while Wilson maintains that Brown confronted him. Wilson, claiming to have seen the stolen cigarillos in Brown’s hand at this point, revved his cruiser backwards to block the path of the two boys, then called for backup. An altercation ensued near Wilson’s cruiser- during which Wilson shot Brown in the hand. Exiting the car, Wilson chased down Brown along Canfield drive.
After running a short distance, Darren Wilson began to shoot, supposedly triggered by the unarmed Brown “reaching for his waistband,” and emptied the magazine of his Sig Sauer service pistol, hitting Brown six times in a neat line from his left hand up to his skull. What happened in between, whether Brown assaulted Wilson in his cruiser or Wilson grabbed Brown by the neck from within his car, whether Brown charged at Wilson, or whether his hands were up, is obscured in a maze of contrary witness testimony and poor police procedure in the wake of incident.
What is known is that following the shooting, Brown’s body was left uncovered in the August heat- in full view of the neighborhood, without any explanation from the Ferguson Police Department as to the circumstances surrounding the death of another young African American boy in the middle of broad daylight.
This altercation exploded in the media, and in the public consciousness of the residents of the greater St. Louis area- bringing to light a patchwork of intersectional forces that are tied neatly to the shooting: the role of police departments in the community, the socio economic plight of urban poor, inequalities in education between whites and blacks, the militarization of the police, the phenomena of the modern debtors prison and its role in funding police forces, and the depiction of black bodies in the media.
“You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school? You know how many black men graduate? Not many- because you bring them down to this type of level where they feel like they got nothing to live for anyway, they’re gonna try to take you out anyway,” this is was what Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, had to say to television news crews trawling the protests following the shooting when they asked her for a statement. Far from a simple paean to the morality of her son, this anguished statement reveals a wormhole world of educational inequalities utterly foreign to those used to the world of well funded public education.
When the statistics of Brown’s alma mater, Normandy High School, are examined, it becomes a testament to Brown’s character that he was able to graduate at all. He played on the football team, and was a member of the JROTC for a year. His friends and teachers said he had a mind for business. But Normandy proved to be a toxic milieu to receive an education.The school brown had graduated from just a week before his death suffered from a funding crisis- the school received its funding from property taxes from two neighborhoods, Normandy and Welliston, each with a poverty rate over 90%.
The two counties had been combined to reduce costs, and property taxes had been raised to try to support the school, but the capital simply doesn’t exist in these two communities to provide adequate facilities.
Normandy High has one of the highest rates of suspension in the region, with violent incidents a common occurrence according to teachers, parents and students. In 2012, the school failed accreditation, and was placed under the control of the state board of education. Missouri law allows for students in failed schools to transfer to other, accredited institutions. This is exactly what Brown did, but the influx of urban poor into majority white schools frightened parents, who feared that their children would be exposed to drug use, guns, and violence. Responding to the white fright, the state board of education imposed a legal grey area solution on Normandy High- giving it a middle ground status of accreditation, and making it impossible for students to transfer out to better institutions without actually solving any of the problems that lead to its failed status.
Normandy, home to 1200 young African Americans and just 10 white students, has a graduation rate lower than 60% and abysmal testing scores. That Brown was able to graduate, and find prospects for employment, is either a miracle or a testament to his character in an environment which seems designed to push young black men back into a Sisyphean cycle of poverty and violence, created by a drive to ensure the comfort of whites over the prospects of blacks.
Wilson’s education as a law enforcement officer is also noteworthy. Darren Wilson had a clean record as a police officer- previously in the year of the incident he actually received honors for his participation in subduing and arresting a drug dealer. But his background as a police officer reveals that he too received his education in an environment of toxic race relations. Before he was a member of the police department in the St. Louis area, his first assignment was on the police department in Jennings Missouri, a township which represents a neat microcosm of the poor race relations between white police forces and the black population.
If Normandy represents a textbook case of inequality in education, Jennings stands for a long history of violence on the part of law enforcement. Wilson started working there in 2009- part of the 45 man department, all white save for one or two officers of color. In Jennings, the entire police force was disbanded for a complete lack of credibility among the black population- in one incident, an officer chased a woman far past the towns lines in a 70mph pursuit, and then shot at her, while a child was in the backseat. A woman was beaten on her own property for giving a snarky response to an officer.
Residents faced numerous incidents of brutality from the white police force, and the department was under investigation for corruption. Darren Wilson apparently kept his nose clean during the three years he was on the force, but it’s difficult not to assume the ways this environment might have shaped his attitude in regards to his outlook on community policing. The city council voted to dissolve the entire police force and replace it with services from St. Louis.
On the day of their encounter, Officer Wilson was carrying several items on his belt. His gun on his right hip, an ASP- technical term for a billy club, his handcuffs, pepper spray, and a radio. In order to prove a point, it is useful here to assume Wilson’s testimony as true. If we take it as fact that Brown approached Wilson in his cruiser, that he began to strike Wilson in the face, and that Wilson shot back from inside the cruiser in order to protect himself, there is still discrepancy regarding the escalation of force.
According to Wilson, him and Brown engaged in a scuffle over his pistol, Wilson then shot Brown, claiming that he couldn’t reach his other defensive measures and that he feared being beaten unconscious in his own car. Wounded, Brown then began to run away.
It’s worth noting that in his testimony, Wilson made it explicit that he elected not to carry a non-lethal Taser, partly for reasons of comfort (not taking up space on his belt), but also because the police department only had a limited amount of them- a statement which seems somewhat absurd and indicative of a value assessment on the part of the police force, when viewed in the context of the police response to protests following the shooting- the rolling out of high-tech military assault rifles and armored assault vehicles.
Just in the period after the shooting, in response to outcry over the indictment results of Wilson, Ferguson spent over $170,000 dollars on riot control measures- enough capital to purchase a taser and a body camera for every employee of the Ferguson Police Department with $110,000 in change.
Wilson claims that after Brown punched him Wilson went into a sort of “tunnel vision,” and that during the chase Brown turned around and began to “charge at him like a demon,” (a statement which bears the need for its own scrutiny) and that while in the car he couldn’t use his pepper spray because it was on his left side, where Brown was allegedly attacking him from.
The point to make here, is that even if we take it as granted that Wilson had no choice but to use his gun while being attacked in the car, after he left his vehicle in pursuit of Brown he had two options for a non-lethal approach to the situation at hand. Wilson claims that he fired the remainder of the bullets in his gun when he saw Brown reach for his waistband (Brown was unarmed), eight feet away from him. The effective range of mace ranges up to 10 feet, and Wilson could have chosen to use his ASP. The point here being that Wilson had options to resolve whatever situation he claims occurred from his perspective without resorting to the use of his sidearm.
The language used by Wilson in describing Brown, both his physical appearance and his clothing, and the language used in proceedings by the prosecutors deserves a large degree of scrutiny. Wilson describes Brown as a huge behemoth, that he felt like a child being held by Hulk Hogan when Brown allegedly attacked him, and that Brown charged at him “like a demon.” In so many of the cases of police brutality against blacks that we have seen in the past year, as this issue has exploded in the public consciousness, we’ve seen a resurgence of white police officers describing their black victims as threatening because of their size. Brown had about 70-80 pounds on Wilson, but they were the same height. Using this language seems an effective way to deflect from the fact that Wilson’s injuries hardly seem worse than the type of wound that might have been inflicted on Wilson in his years playing varsity hockey.
The reality is that throughout history, accentuating the differences between white and black bodies has been a tactic used to justify violence and subjugation of blacks. From phrenology, which deemed negro heads to possess smaller brains, from questionable anthropological studies which sought to show that Blacks were less than human, to black face caricature in vaudeville theater. These have served as justification for slavery, segregation, and violence for centuries. If Wilson really thought that he would have trouble with Brown because of his size, it was his mistake to engage him actively, instead of calling for backup and waiting it out. Wilson made the initiative to put his car in reverse and engage Brown- he wanted to bring him in.
In addition, the discourse on marijuana throughout the grand jury proceedings, in my view, served both to discredit Brown’s character, to make Wilson’s case seem more credible, and to cast doubt on the testimony of Dorian Johnson. The first thing Wilson said after making his point about Brown’s size, in describing Brown, was to say that “Brown had bright yellow socks on that had green marijuana leaves as a pattern on them. They were the taller socks that go halfway up your shin.” Here in the north, we might not see this for what it is, considering the more enlightened view of marijuanas nature as a recreational drug throughout most of the country, but in a state like Missouri, which arrests an average of 20,000 people every year for sale or possession of marijuana, using this language is an attempt to paint Brown as a potential criminal, a negative force in his community.
This language was also employed by the prosecutors in their questioning of Dorian Johnson. Before Dorian gave his testimony, Ms. Whirley, one of the co-prosecutors, in explaining the rights owed to him, reminds Dorian that “there is some talk about smoking weed and those kinds of things, but that’s not anything that we are here to prosecute you for,” encouraging him to speak openly as the witness who was with Brown throughout the day. In the grand jury procedures, Dorian’s testimony serves as one of the most critical accounts of all the witnesses brought before the jury.
He saw in plain view what happened, and witnessed the entire unfolding of the spectacle which occurred that day. Later on, after an account of how Dorian met Brown, the prosecutor asks Dorian how he usually starts his day. His explanation for why the two were headed to the liquor store is that “I smoke marijuana in my mornings when I start my day off, so I was going headed to the store,” to which the prosecutor responds, “Now wait a minute, just stop here to now and then to make sure we are all clear. So that is kind of what generally happens for you in the morning?”
It’s a small remark within the hundreds of pages of testimony in the grand jury proceedings, but one that I think actually has significant consequences concerning the results of the case. Just a page up in the court documents, the prosecutor takes pains to remind Johnson that marijuana or Johnson’s own behavior is not really germane to the investigation, that that isn’t the reason he’s been sworn in to testify. This one comment, “so that is kind of what generally happens for you…” effectively serves to prime the jury against Dorian’s testimony. It colors him as an individual whose testimony can’t be trusted- who would trust the account of someone who starts every day by getting stoned?
Police Chief Thomas Jackson’s response to the events that followed the shooting were poor to say the least. The police department opted for an opaque response to scrutiny from the public- refusing to release the name of the officer responsible or any credible information which would allay the public of their desire for information. It wasn’t until five days after the shooting that he opted to release information regarding the case, announcing the name of the officer involved alongside a surveillance clip of the liquor store Johnson and Brown had been in. To the public, this seemed like a deflective maneuver, designed to push scrutiny away from the police department while they got their story straight.
Of course, by that point it was too late, and the shooting had already erupted into civic demonstrations touching upon issues more widespread and endemic than the death of just one individual. These demonstrations would culminate in a Department of Justice report which would damn Jackson’s career, leading to his resignation, even though no charges were formally brought against Wilson as a result of the grand jury proceedings.
Reading the DOJ report, and the accompanying study done by the Arch City Defenders on the relationship between the criminal justice system and the urban poor, is a disorienting experience for anyone who hasn’t had to deal with the police or court system. It reads like a report from a third world country, not like a nation governed by a set of laws designed to protect its people, a feeling only accentuated by the images of heavily armored police officers in kevlar with assault rifles pointing rifles at the beleaguered citizens of Ferguson.
The irony of those images is that, while they were obtained at discount from homeland security initiatives, the money spent to acquire this equipment was siphoned directly from the community.
“You cannot go in the county. I’m fearful of the county. I’ve been stuck here in the city for six or seven years because the county has been that bad. My kids stay in the county. I can’t see them. I’ve got to sneak to see my kids. I have to sneak to see my kids, because my plate might be bad or something. You know, I’m poor, and I’m trying to drive around to get better. But, you know, they won’t ticket you; they just take your stuff, immediately. You know, if you take it, their tow thing is ready, you know, every time.”
This account of the atmosphere in the area outside of St. Louis comes from George Fields, a local resident. His account, and the accounts of other citizens, describe a state of constant vigilance, where the slightest slip results in crippling sanctions from law enforcement. Another resident attests to being arrested in her backyard, in her nightgown, for a charge of driving with a suspended license. For this charge, she spent three days in a jail cell, with a $1000 bond. These punitive measures, have resulted in loss of jobs, and crippling fines, fees, and bond notices.
These actions do not occur in a void. The previously mentioned study conducted the ArchCity Defenders, revealed that 30 of the 60 precincts they observed engaged in this type of extreme sanctioning, and that Ferguson is the perfect example of such a precinct. The study reveals that these aggressive fining practices are not simply a tough on crime byproduct, but a tactic directly intended to create revenue streams for the county and its police department.
In Ferguson and Florissant alone, the courts system of fines and fees netted county governments 3.5 million dollars in income, and this white paper study reveals that there is a distinct and marked disparity between collection tactics in affluent, white counties, and lower income, predominantly African American communities. The paper highlights two towns to indicate this disparity, Pine Lawn, a town of 3,725, with a population which is 96% black, with a per capita income of $13,000- and Chesterfield, a city of nearly 50,000 with a per capita income of $50,000 a year. Pine Lawn generated $1.7million in fines from court fines, whereas Chesterfield generated $1.2million in this same year.
If we think of these fines as fees levied against the whole of a community- distributed over the whole population, these fines would be the same as charging each member of Pine Lawn’s populace $425 annually to fund the same law enforcement agencies that oppress their neighborhoods and lock them away in dank prison cells. In a city of 3,725 individuals, there are over 20,000 issued warrants.
It is hoped that some momentum has been gained by the high profile nature of this case and others. That the information gained at the cost of lives can help us to connect the absurd disparities existing in communities- where violent police receive more funding to subjugate Blacks who are left stranded without services or community apparatuses which can lead the way to a better life.
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