Top photo credit: slate.com
Our story begins with images like this one. In Ferguson, Missouri throughout late 2014, protestors, rioters, and militarized police clashed on city streets. Plumes of smoke ascended either from burning buildings or tear gas canisters. Police brought military gear, armored vehicles, and tripod-mounted machine guns to bear on the protests. It was, in short, “a referendum on the militarization of American police forces,” and a particularly ironic show of force given the events that sparked the protests in the first place.
The cause behind the unrest was, of course, the shooting of young black men by police officers. In Ferguson, it was the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson that began the conflict. Brown was unarmed and, although details of the incident are mired in conflicting testimonies, under no circumstances should he have been shot and killed. Brown’s death was far from the first to rise to national prominence. In fact, although our story does truly begin with images like the one above, Ferguson was not the first place such images captured the nation’s attention.
Protests and violent riots over race issues did not begin in Ferguson.
Many cable news channel hosts repeat a mantra when presented with footage of riots like those in Ferguson: “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” The phrase acts as a verbal crutch to fall upon when witnessing violence in American cities, and it characterizes said violence as a sporadic, a random “flaring-up” of tension. The truth of the matter is that the protests and riots in American history don’t suddenly explode—they grow out of years of animosity and mistreatment.
In the forties and fifties, race riots were the province of white Americans, angry with black families moving into historically white areas. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in Chicago. In 1947, the Fernwood neighborhood became the residence of several black veterans. This caused four days of citywide rioting during which time “gangs of whites yanked blacks off streetcars and beat them.” Four years later, thousands of white Chicagoans gathered outside an apartment building “that housed a single black family, throwing bricks and firebombs through the windows.” There were indictments following this violence, but the indictments were leveled against the black family’s “NAACP attorney, the apartments’ white owner, and the owner’s attorney and rental agent.” They stood accused of housing a black family in a conspiracy to lower property values in the neighborhood. These riots were not about unfair policing or endemic poverty. They were about whites seeking the continuation of racial segregation.
Forty years later, police in Los Angeles noticed a car speeding on the freeway. The driver was named Rodney King. Police engaged in a high-speed chase that ended in a seminal moment when they brutally beat King with batons, continuing long after King had fallen to the ground. The incident was filmed by George Holliday from his nearby apartment, and the footage he took was aired on local and national news channels, a clear depiction of police using excessive force. Then, a jury acquitted all four officers, citing the videotape as insufficient evidence that failed to provide the full story. The acquittal was the final straw for many of L.A.’s citizens, and the city was already primed to explode. At the time, people certainly described anger about police brutality, but many of them also say that racial tensions between many groups contributed to the anger. Several months before Rodney King’s beating, a black 15-year-old girl, Latasha Harlins, was “killed by a Korean grocer in an altercation over a bottle of orange juice.”
Local news coverage of the L.A. riots was unique in that it was the first time that many organizations could use mobile cameras and helicopters to cover an incident. L.A.’s local channels slammed into “full panic mode” and showed arsons and beatings from “roving, van-top ‘action cams.’” The footage revealed the full scale of the violence as it consumed Los Angeles.
Aerial footage of buildings engulfed by flames was one of the dominant themes in the coverage. Another iconic scene arose as truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his cab and “beaten with a tire iron, a fire extinguisher and a brick.” It didn’t take long for the city to declare a state of emergency. The National Guard arrived, and the marines followed closely behind.
The L.A. riots are now more than twenty years behind us, but the way they were covered by news media has endured. In their wake, tremendous damage had been done in Los Angeles. 54 people were dead. 10,000 businesses were destroyed by fires, and more than a billion dollars worth of damages had been inflicted on local properties. But for much of the media, the riots left a different legacy. Live minute-by-minute coverage of violence and anger made for good television. People around the country tuned in to see the mayhem in L.A.
Almost more importantly, as soon as the rioting ceased, interest in solving the problems that initiated the rioting also dried up. During the unrest, corporations pledged more than a billion dollars to begin an organization called Rebuild L.A., which was to be dedicated to solving issues of poverty and racial relations in the city. After the riots concluded, the organization was only ever given $382 million, enough to build a redevelopment agency, a development bank, and a technology center, all of which failed. The organization also wanted to provide tax credits to groups that invested in violence-stricken areas. This too failed. The organization was disbanded in 1997.
It is often not police brutality itself that sparks protests, but the acquittal of those who commit it. This was the case for Rodney King, and it would again be the case in 2012 after George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, fatally shot seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. After a highly publicized trial, Zimmerman was acquitted. Civil rights activist Alicia Garza describes that evening:
“Everything went quiet, everything and everyone… And then people started to leave en masse. The one thing I remember from that evening, other than crying myself to sleep that night, was the way in which as a black person, I felt incredibly vulnerable, incredibly exposed, and incredibly enraged. Seeing these black people leaving the bar, and it was like we couldn’t look at each other. We were carrying this burden around us every day: of racism and white supremacy. It was a verdict that said: black people are not safe in America.”
“Black people are not safe in America.” Garza, along with many people that day, felt betrayed by every American institution. George Zimmerman’s acquittal served as an affirmation of institutional racism, and it became a flashpoint for a movement that has become among the most famous in America’s recent history. That evening, Garza got on Facebook and wrote a response to the acquittal that ended with these words: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” The message traveled across the country instantaneously, and in Oakland, California, Patricia Cullors read it and rebranded it. On the same night that “Our lives matter” appeared on Garza’s page, Patricia Cullors wrote #blacklivesmatter for the first time.
A year passed before Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson. Cullors, Garza, and immigrant rights activist Opal Tometi organized a “freedom ride” to the city. They were surprised when more than 500 people signed up, but Garza was far more astonished when, upon arriving in Ferguson, she saw “her own phrase mirrored back at her on protest banners and shouted in unison by people she had never met.” Black Lives Matter was born, and it was already gaining momentum.
Unrest in Ferguson was caused in part by the shooting of Michael Brown and in part by longstanding discriminatory practices in the Ferguson Police Department.
The incident that propelled a city into protest was brief, not well documented, and extremely tragic. It began at 11:54 in the morning, when Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson departed Ferguson Market and Liquor. The security camera footage shows that Michael Brown stole some cigarillos from the shop, and the convenience store clerk noticed the theft and called the police. Officer Darren Wilson was in the area, and he spotted Brown and Johnson walking down the middle of the street. Wilson noticed that Brown fit the description offered by the convenience store clerk, so he decided to pull the two men over.
From this point on, the details of the story are simply too uncertain to make any claim about what happened. Here’s what we know for sure:
- Officer Wilson had lowered the driver’s side window to tell Brown and Johnson to exit the street and get on the sidewalk. Brown was standing directly next to the open window.
- There was an altercation. Some witnesses testified that Wilson tried to grab Brown by the arm. Others testified that Brown attempted to grab Wilson’s firearm. Exactly what prompted this confrontation is unknown, but it did occur.
- Wilson fired two shots from within the patrol car. One missed, and the other likely grazed Brown’s thumb.
- Michael Brown ran, and officer Wilson gave pursuit. Eventually Brown stopped running and turned. Wilson fired on Brown, killing him.
Wilson testified that Brown punched him in the face. He also claimed that Michael Brown turned around at the conclusion of the chase, and advanced on Wilson with aggressive intent. Wilson makes one of his points clear above all else: He saw Michael Brown as a threat from the beginning. Brown was an inch taller than Wilson and outweighed him, and Wilson again and again comments on Brown’s stature and ability to overpower another man. Perhaps that’s why Wilson fired 12 shots total.
The shooting of Michael Brown is a contentious topic of debate. People in Ferguson, people who knew Brown personally, all claimed with certainty that Michael Brown would not try to take a police officer’s gun. Brown was headed for college in only a few days, and he wasn’t regarded as a violent person. However, people in the media, particularly at Fox News, did what they could to smear Michael Brown in an attempt to justify Darren Wilson’s actions. Contributing to the Fox News network, Bernie Goldberg stated: “Michael Brown was the bad guy in this case, and please, America, let’s not turn this kid into some kind of civil rights martyr, because that he is not.” The activist slogan #iftheygunnedmedown is probably the best characterization of how conservative media elected to treat Michael Brown. Although many benign photos of Brown existed, certain networks used a photo of Brown “taken from below, throwing his face into half-shadow, showing him glowering at the camera and making a V sign.” Pundits of course speculated about the V sign’s significance as a “gang-related gesture,” in short, exploiting their viewers’ prejudices to spin a story for their ideological agenda. Perhaps distracted by their vicious efforts to make a villain of Michael Brown, Fox failed to understand that the Ferguson unrest was motivated by longer animosity between local police and the black community.
After the events that unfolded in Ferguson, the Justice Department released a damning report that “found a pattern of racial bias at the Ferguson Police Department.” This “pattern” existed both in explicit racism on behalf of the officers as well as policing practices that targeted Ferguson’s black community unjustifiably. The Justice Department discovered that Ferguson Police Department dedicated itself to “ticket as many low-income black residents as possible in an attempt to raise local budget revenue through fines and court fees,” a practice all too familiar to black Americans across the country. The Justice Department concluded from its findings that Ferguson would have to “overhaul its criminal justice system” because the police department “had engaged in so many constitutional violations that they could be corrected only by abandoning its entire approach to policing, retraining its employees, and establishing new oversight.”
These findings were released only after unrest shook Ferguson, spawned after a grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for Michael Brown’s death. The city erupted after this decision. Many, if not most, of the protestors were peaceful. They marched with protest signs and slogans, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot” and holding banners stating, “Black lives matter.” Some people, however, took to burning local businesses, smashing in windows, and burning or flipping police patrol cars. Matters were only made worse when riot police arrived to temper the public’s rage at Wilson’s acquittal.
Riot Police in Ferguson showed the militarization of police, and their willingness to use disproportionate force.
The riot police arrived in Ferguson looking ready for war. They came in various outfits, some wearing riot gear and others wearing provocative military fatigues. They arrived in Ferguson with heavy guns, armored vehicles, and gas masks. Many of them covered their badges. Images flooded media outlets of militarized police standing next to flaming buildings, with tear gas lingering in the background. Perhaps its images like these that led Donald Trump to equate black neighborhoods in America with a “war-torn country.” The fact of the matter is that Ferguson’s police department overreacted to the unrest, and may have escalated tension in the community by bringing such excessive force to bear on protesters. As people marched, demanding justice for the dead and equal treatment for the living, police responded by firing tear gas and flash grenades into crowds of protesters. In a community like Ferguson, residents already feel “under siege,” and the arrival of police resembling an occupational military only reinforced this feeling.
It’s a common theme in black communities across the US that the police cannot be trusted. But in Ferguson, animosity was all the more inflamed by the Michael Brown case. The Ferguson Police Department should have perceived the public’s rage and understood that the shooting of Michael Brown, along with decades of discriminatory policing, had completely delegitimized the police in Ferguson. They should have shown restraint and understanding with a public that felt no trust or confidence in them. Instead, they outfitted police in military equipment and unleashed them on protestors. Rather than demonstrating their willingness to serve the citizens of Ferguson, they prepared for battle with a public they were sworn to protect. “Nothing that happened in Ferguson, Missouri,” writes Jelani Cobb, “dispelled the notion that this is a place where law enforcement is capable of gross overreaction.” Indeed, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “When policing is delegitimized, when it becomes an occupying force, the community suffers.” During the Ferguson riots, an “occupying force” is precisely what the police became.
Conservative Media refused to accept that the Ferguson unrest was the result of discrimination against black people.
The narrative of what happened in Ferguson is crystal clear: black communities are unfairly targeted by police practices, and black people are often the victims of police abuse. As this practice continues in American policing, black Americans grow increasingly angry about the lack of indictments for beating and killing young black men. Black Americans overwhelmingly report distrust between themselves and police, and poor policing practices are now well-documented (we will cover them in full in the next installation). But Fox News simply couldn’t accept the idea that protests in Ferguson were motivated by racial issues. That is to say, people who are not from Ferguson, Missouri claimed that people in Ferguson, Missouri were misrepresenting their own community’s issues. What possible foundation could there be for this?
The root problem is that Fox News, along with many conservative media outlets, doesn’t believe that police unfairly target young black men. They would rather think that the persistent shooting of unarmed black Americans, as Jon Stewart put it, is “an unending, bizarrely similar series of isolated incidents.” If there’s no inherent racism in America’s police departments, they reason, then the protests in Ferguson cannot possibly be the product of racial tensions. So what, if not protesting institutional racism, were people rioting about? Most of the pundits at Fox News had a clear picture of the real problem in Ferguson: that “race baiters” like Al Sharpton, Attorney General Eric Holder, and President Barack Obama were attempting to gin up racial controversy in an act of ideological profiteering. Rudy Giuliani, clearly influenced by highly publicized images of unrest from L.A. to Ferguson, referred to such people as “racial arsonists.” One commentator on Fox stated, “It’s not a black/white situation. It’s a thug/police officer situation.” In this manner, conservative media distorted the story of Ferguson. It wasn’t about black Americans’ genuine frustration with a system that regularly victimizes them; it was about criminals committing crimes.
Joining this cacophony of misinformation, Donald J. Trump decided to weigh in as always. He called in to Fox News and stated:
“You look at Ferguson, they had a community that really worked, or it seemed to have worked, and now all this hatred is coming out. You have so many other people inciting.”
Trump’s ignorance shines through this statement as he calls Ferguson “a community that really worked,” despite clear evidence that Ferguson was eons away from being functional. Trump, like other conservative media pundits of the time, saw the Ferguson riots not as reaction but as incitation, an attack against Ferguson, police, and even white Americans. Trump would continue, as is his custom, to tweet throughout the protests. He adamantly believed that the people would “riot in Ferguson no matter what.” Even if Darren Wilson was indicted, he argued, there would be riots. Trump didn’t believe the unrest was founded in genuine grievances because he watches Fox News, and he heard it straight: “This isn’t a black/white situation. It’s a thug/police officer situation.”
So it was that Fox News turned Ferguson into a war zone. The implications of their coverage are now influencing a sitting president, and the shadow of Fox’s Ferguson coverage still stalks around the president’s every statement about black people in America. Donald Trump doesn’t believe that the Ferguson unrest was about civil rights. He believes it was just criminals acting the way criminals act. And he has apparently come to believe the Ferguson unrest is how America’s so-called “inner cities” look every day.
In the wake of Ferguson, there have been more riots, more protests, and more killings of unarmed black men. In the next installment of this three part series, we will look at the aftermath of the Ferguson investigation as more evidence comes out that police nationwide engage in discriminatory practices and brutality. We will discuss the rise of an opposition to Black Lives Matter in both the Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter movements, and we will see how poor policing practices have worsened life in predominantly black areas.
Read Part II here!
 Cobb, Jelani. “What I Saw in Ferguson.” The New Yorker, August 14, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/saw-ferguson
 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. “Instigate.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cV1XoclfexI
 Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
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 Wood, Daniel. “L.A.’s Darkest Days.” Christian Science Monitor, April 29 2002. http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0429/p01s07-ussc.html
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 Calamur, Krishnadev. “Ferguson Documents: Officer Darren Wilson’s Testimony.” NPR, December 25, 2014. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/11/25/366519644/ferguson-docs-officer-darren-wilsons-testimony
 Lopez, German. “Police shootings and brutality in the US.” Vox, last updated Feb. 12, 2017. http://www.vox.com/cards/police-brutality-shootings-us/us-police-shootings-statistics
 Transcript of the First Presidential Debate, The New York Times.
 Sanburn, Josh. “What President Trump’s Threat to ‘Send in the Feds’ Could Mean for Chicago.” Time, January 25, 2017. http://time.com/4649311/donald-trump-chicago-crime-feds/
 Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Paranoid Style of American Policing.” The Atlantic, December 30, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/illegitimacy-and-american-policing/422094/
 Donald Trump’s tweets.