Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Possibly the greatest visual irony I have ever seen happened the night the Ferguson Grand Jury’s decision was announced. It was that split screen on TV, one side featuring President Obama addressing the nation in his appeal for peaceful protest, and the other side a live shot of Ferguson, MO erupting in flames and violence. Obama read these words from Michael Brown’s father: “"After the grand jury’s decision, we are asking for four-and-a-half minutes of silence to remember why we lift our voices. We are not here to be violent. We are here in memory of our son." As he read those words we witnessed a scene of a police car being smashed and set on fire in the streets of Ferguson.

My initial reaction was to draw a comparison between what I was witnessing in St. Louis, and what happened in cities nationwide in 1968, the night Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. One could argue we are as racially divided right now as we ever were in this country. Some might go so far as to say we are increasingly divided. Almost a half century after the end of the Civil Rights Movement, racially-based strife has once again caused flames in the night in major American cities.  

Demonstrators in New York City
When protestors gathered in Philadelphia and New York (left), it was clear that the East coast was standing in solidarity with Ferguson. On the opposite coast, protestors in L.A. and Oakland gathered at the same time, while the fires spread further through Ferguson, and crowds thickened, even in almost freezing temperatures. Earlier widespread hopes that the protestors would not appear in large numbers in Ferguson’s frigid night were dashed when massive looting happened and even gunshots were fired in the direction of the police.

The next morning marchers peacefully demonstrated in front of the courthouse in Clayton, MO, near Ferguson. As I drove to work here in New Orleans I saw about 200 black citizens lined up on a major street ready to march. The important thing to remember, in my opinion, is that the demonstrators in various cities are not marching or protesting only the killing of Michael Brown. They are making a statement about the ongoing racial inequities in our country. They are lifting their voices and offering their physical presence to question why Michael Brown’s body was allowed to remain on the steamy hot Ferguson pavement for four hours before anyone made an effort to move him. They are trying to bring awareness to the inexplicable fact that Ferguson’s police force is made up of 50 officers, but only three are black. And in a larger sense the protests have everything to do with abuse of power by law enforcement officers.

Darren Wilson
The journalist in me is trying very hard to remain objective about what is transpiring right now in city streets coast to coast. As such, I will never know why Michael Brown stole a box of cigars and allegedly punched a cop. But I will also never understand why Officer Darren Wilson, a trained marksman, saw fit to shoot so many times at Brown, and why when he did shoot him he was not more careful to avoid a lethal shot. If you shoot somebody in the lower part of the body, they are likely to live. If you shoot in the head, they are not. The one question that has been asked more than any other in the Michael Brown killing is, why didn’t Wilson wound Brown to subdue him, rather than shooting to kill?

It is not the first time this question has been asked. In 2006, David Paterson, then a NY state senator from Harlem, and later Mayor of New York City, tried to introduce a “shoot to wound” bill in the state legislature. The aim of his bill was to require police officers to use minimal force to subdue aggressors. Stipulated in that bill was a requirement for officers who used excessive force that resulted in a suspect’s death to be charged with felony manslaughter. There was such a vociferous outcry from law enforcement that Paterson was forced to withdraw the bill. Other such bills have been introduced in other parts of the country, to no avail. 

Law enforcement officials hold that when a potentially dangerous interaction is happening between a perpetrator and a police officer, it often happens in seconds, causing the officer to use his or her training to react quickly to neutralize the threat. That seems to be what happened in the early stages of the Brown/Wilson interaction. Left open to debate is why Wilson fired more shots at Brown after the initial wounding. The Grand Jury, in refusing to indict Wilson, apparently found evidence to support Wilson’s decision to keep firing. But to its credit, based on inconsistencies in Grand Jury testimony, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that their investigation is still open and ongoing. 

The other element of the Ferguson rioting that offends me as a journalist is the manner in which the rioting was covered by media. CNN saw fit to keeps its reporters’ boots on the ground, even as gunfire was close by and even as some of them were unable to speak after being overcome by teargas.
CNN's Sara Snider hit by a rock while reporting from Ferguson, MO
Why does the company not value the safety of its employees over a street level commentary? Second, it is clear the reporters from MSNBC, FOX and CNN were actually chasing the story. By that I mean that even though rioting was not taking place in the entire city of Ferguson, the reporters were actively pursuing every outbreak of violence, no matter how minor, to seemingly sensationalize the coverage. Oh, and about that split screen I mentioned earlier: Why? The President of the United States was speaking to the citizens, encouraging peaceful protest over violence, but CNN saw fit to show the fires, looting and rioting at the same time. Why?

The media will ultimately move on to the “next big story,” but do not expect the issues that have been raised after Brown’s death to go away. They will not.  The massive coverage will, however, fade away. Does anybody remember the round the clock coverage of the plane that disappeared a few months ago?  The Adrian Peterson coverage? The NFL concussion coverage? Ebola? Boko Haram? All of these stories are ongoing, but get very little coverage. Pretty soon the words “Cosby” and “Ferguson” will join their ranks.

Eric Garner being killed by NYPD illegal chokehold
Right now we are left with far more questions than answers about Ferguson. So here is a little prediction for you: The issues raised via Michael Brown’s death are probably going to stay in the headlines a bit longer than stories usually do. Here's why: Do you remember the case of Eric Garner in NY, the man who was selling cigarettes illegally and was later killed by a NYPD officer using an illegal chokehold? The Grand Jury in that case is about to announce its decision as to whether the cop should be prosecuted. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that if the Grand Jury says no to prosecution, all hell will break out in the streets of New York City. And if we thought Ferguson erupted, chances are New York will make Ferguson look like child’s play. And that is the next big story. Stay tuned.

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