Demonizing dissent in Ferguson

November 17, 2014

The grand jury decision on charging Mike Brown's killer hasn't been announced, but the authorities are getting ready--by smearing protesters. Elizabeth Schulte reports.

STATE AND local officials in Missouri have declared war on anyone who speaks out against injustice.

People around the country and the world are hoping that Mike Brown's killer, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, will be held accountable by a grand jury deliberating on the case.

But Jay Nixon has different priorities. At a press conference last week hyped everywhere in the mainstream media, Missouri's Democratic governor had one purpose in mind: vilify anyone who demonstrated against racism and police violence after Brown was murdered three months ago--with the aim of intimidating people into silence today, as a grand jury decision in the case looms. According to Nixon:

In the days immediately following Michael Brown's death, peaceful protests were marred by senseless acts of violence and destruction. Vandals smashed the windows of small businesses. Criminals looted and set fire to stores. Gunshots and Molotov cocktails endangered citizens exercising their First Amendment rights and law enforcement attempting to maintain peace.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks to National Guard troops
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks to National Guard troops (David Pokorny)

Vandals? Criminals? The main people committing senseless acts of violence and destruction were local, county and state police--and the National Guard troops mobilized by Nixon. Law enforcement responded to the spontaneous and nonviolent protests of Ferguson residents and their supporters with a reign of terror, mobilizing all the high-tech, military-grade weaponry and equipment they could scrounge up.

It wasn't just publications like Socialist Worker that said so. In a live report from Ferguson a week and a half after Mike Brown's killing, CNN correspondent Jake Tapper compared the hyper-militarized police presence to a scene out of U.S.-occupied Afghanistan:

Nobody is threatening anything. Nobody is doing anything. None of the stores here that I can see are being looted. There is no violence.

Now I want you to look at what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri...These are armed police, with...semi-automatic rifles, with batons, with shields, many of them dressed for combat. Now why [are they] doing this? I don't know. Because there is no threat going on here. None that merits this.

As Jamilah Lemieux of Ebony described it in an interview for a PEN American Center report, "The police were mobilized and militarized as if they were in a war with the citizens of Ferguson."

According to Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), some 346 protesters have been arrested since Mike Brown was killed. Forty-four face felony charges, MORE's Rachel Sommer told the St. Louis Dispatch, and five of them arrested are still in custody.

At least 40 people were held longer than 24 hours on more minor offenses because of existing bench warrants, added Sommer. Increasing bail amounts are another issue--a $500 bail used to be standard for protest-related offenses, but now arrestees are being asked to come up with twice that amount.

And now, more than 100 days after a police murder that stunned people around the country, officials are trying to demonize protesters once again--this time preemptively, out of a probably accurate expectation that Darren Wilson won't be charged, and the protests that took to the streets in Ferguson and were echoed around the country will claim national attention, once again. Police departments around the country are reportedly also preparing for protests if Wilson isn't indicted.

At the press conference, Nixon was flanked by representatives of the St. Louis County police, the St. Louis city police and the Missouri State Highway patrol. All are working together to form a "unified command system," according to the governor. The Missouri National Guard is also part of the contingency plan, according to Nixon. "I'm prepared to issue that order," Nixon told reporters.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said his department spent $37,741 in October on helmets, shields, batons and shin guards. The city police department is reported to have spent $325,000 on its own new equipment, and has sent its officers to "training sessions" on how to manage civil disobedience.

WITH THE grand jury's decision on whether or not to indict Wilson expected any day, the Ferguson police are sticking to their story. They claim the unarmed Brown, stopped by Wilson for walking in the middle of a quiet side street, attacked the officer in his vehicle, punching and scratching him, and then grabbing for his gun--leaving Wilson no choice but to shoot the teenager at least six times.

This despite the fact that recently leaked footage from surveillance video at police headquarters shows Wilson apparently uninjured after the shooting.

Dorian Johnson, who was walking with Brown when Wilson pulled up, said there was no such struggle for the gun. Johnson said Wilson grabbed Brown by the neck, trying to pull him into his vehicle--and threatened to shoot when Brown resisted. After the first shot, Brown broke away and started running, but Wilson shot him again. Brown turned with his hands up, shouting, "I don't have a gun, stop shooting!"

The job of the grand jury--which is made up of nine whites and three Blacks--is to decide whether there is sufficient probable cause to charge Wilson with a crime. St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch made the unusual decision to record the grand jury proceedings and have them transcribed--he says they will be released to the public if Wilson isn't indicted. But this move on McCullough's part is about cover than any kind of transparency.

McCulloch has built his reputation on not prosecuting cases like this. In his more than two decades as county prosecutor, there have been more than a dozen fatal police shootings in his jurisdiction--and his office didn't file charges in a single one of them.

Wilson, who has been on paid administrative leave since the killing, got the opportunity to testify before the grand jury for almost four hours to tell his story. Mike Brown, of course, has no such opportunity.

There's not a lot of hope that justice is coming from this grand jury. As Brown family lawyer Benjamin Crump said, "We want people to pray that the system will work, but the family doesn't have much confidence at all."

MEANWHILE, THE police on the streets of Ferguson are continuing their assault on protesters.

In a report released in October, Amnesty International chronicled the many human rights abuses committed by law enforcement after Brown's murder, including intimidating protesters with the use of tear gas and stun grenades; denying demonstrators the right to peaceably assemble by demanding that they "keep moving" or risk arrest; preventing protests by blocking the main gathering point in front of a QuikTrip convenience store; and imposing curfews to curtail dissent.

In the 12 days immediately following the death of Mike Brown, the report says, police made 172 arrests in the Ferguson protest zone, with 132 people charged solely with refusing to disperse. According to Amnesty, law enforcement also used Long Range Acoustic Devices, which emit high-volume sounds at various frequencies and "can pose a serious health risks which range from temporary pain, loss of balance and eardrum rupture, to permanent hearing damage."

Among its conclusions, the Amnesty report states what should be obvious to any grand jury:

Irrespective of whether there was some sort of physical confrontation between Michael Brown and the police officer, Michael Brown was unarmed and thus unlikely to have presented a serious threat to the life of the police officer.

Despite this obvious fact, police in cities across the country are preparing to use more violence and repression against any protests against them--whether the case is Mike Brown or the murder of Eric Garner in New York City or Oscar Grant III in Oakland or anyone else.

And now, Jay Nixon and the law enforcement apparatus in Missouri is scaremongering about protesters' violence before any protests--and ramping up the call for criminalizing dissent.

If there is a verdict that provides anything less than justice for Mike Brown and his family, angry protest will be fully justified. If people around the world know the name of Mike Brown today, it's because of the rebellion that took place in the days and weeks and months after his murder. An unjust verdict from the grand jury should be met with the same spirit of resistance in the name of opposing racism and stopping police violence.

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