We don’t know for sure exactly what happened in the moments before the first bullet struck Michael Brown on August 9.
However, we do know with certainty, because the evidence is abundantly clear, that at nearly every juncture since that moment, local authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, have escalated and exacerbated the situation.
At least five more bullets are reported to have struck Brown, who was unarmed. Two of those shots apparently hit him in the head. Police withheld the name of the officer who fired the shots for a week, then released it at the same time they released a video purportedly showing that Brown had robbed a convenience store shortly before he was shot. But the police promptly admitted that the officer who shot Brown had no knowledge of that robbery, making the alleged robbery irrelevant to the shooting. According to their accounts of the officer’s story, the unarmed teenager was merely walking in the road rather than on the sidewalk when the officer confronted him.
An officer sees a youth walking in the road and ends up firing at least six shots? It certainly sounds like an overreaction. And what we have seen in Ferguson in the aftermath of Brown’s death indicates that overreaction is standard operating procedure. From firing tear gas in the direction of crowds including journalists and children to detaining and sometimes arresting (though never charging) journalists and photographers, including one from The Washington Post, the authorities there seem convinced that the only way to get the community’s obedience, if not its respect, is through force.
Soon enough, opportunists took advantage of the ensuing anger and unrest. Ferguson residents have largely maintained that most criminal activity is the result of outsiders exploiting the town’s upheaval. Some protesters have stepped in to try to protect businesses against looters.
State officials were remarkably slow to intervene – it took Gov. Jay Nixon days before holding a news conference – and when they did, it was with a series of ineffective and quickly reversed decisions. There was no curfew, then there was, then there wasn’t. The curfew would not be enforced with tear gas, until it was. The Highway Patrol was in charge of maintaining order, but then the National Guard was called. As of this writing, there is still no independent state-level investigation or special prosecutor to take control of the investigation into Brown’s shooting. The governor has reportedly said he lacks the legal authority to appoint them.
Federal authorities stepped into this political and moral vacuum and, in this instance, it was not an overreach. The parallel investigation by the Justice Department, and calls for calm from Eric Holder and President Obama, have been among the few genuinely soothing steps any authority figure has taken. There have certainly been almost none from the local officials, who have done little other than ensure the situation continues to escalate.
The heavy-handed tactics in Missouri have not brought law and order. They have not stopped the nightly demonstrations nor removed the cover they provide to miscreants who take advantage of them. They certainly have not started the process of rebuilding community trust or securing justice for Brown and his family. The tactics achieved nothing, in fact, other than to parade the heavy weaponry in the hands of local police and to convince most of the country that the police are unfit to handle that equipment responsibly.
The incendiary nature of the juncture between police department overreach and racial tension is not unique to the suburbs of St. Louis, though events in Ferguson have reached a higher pitch than in many parts of the country. New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, about which I have written more than once, strained community relations between NYPD officers and the communities they were charged to protect for years. Judicial restraint and a mayor who campaigned on a platform of restricting the practice, however, have dialed back stop-and-frisk significantly. In Brooklyn, stop-and-frisk incidents are down 99 percent compared to the same period last year. Shootings are up in the same neighborhoods, though homicides are down.
Even assuming the increase in shootings can be tied to the decline in stop-and-frisk, which is hardly a given, those of us who objected to stop-and-frisk never claimed that the program achieved absolutely nothing. The objection was that the costs in community alienation – and the risk of a misunderstanding escalating to tragedy – were not worth the benefits. The statistics from the first half of this year seem to bear that out.
An officer shooting an unarmed citizen should always be handled with the utmost seriousness, especially when it fits into a pattern disproportionately affecting minorities nationwide. The situation in Ferguson cries out for strong state-level leadership that is strikingly absent. The governor should be on the scene, personally assuring residents that he will take responsibility for the safety of their young people. Then he should back up those assurances with actions, including an independent state-level investigation and constraints on the local police, who are behaving like an occupying army, and are armed like one.
In the absence of that leadership, the community has to take its welfare into its own hands. There is a real risk that Ferguson will suffer in much the same way as Detroit and Newark after the riots of 1967, or south central Los Angeles after the unrest of 1992. Those places have never really recovered, even today, from anger and alienation that ultimately turned inward and consumed them. If the police can’t protect Ferguson, Ferguson will have to protect itself.