Monday, August 18, 2014

Disseminating Mistrust & Confusion: Ferguson, Media and the Police State

We can’t act unjust in the name of justice. We can’t act uncivil, and then cry for civility
-Pastor F. Willis Johnson Jr.

Ferguson, MO – Call goes out about an alleged robbery at either a local gas station, QuikTrip, or a local convenience store, Ferguson Market and Liquor. Ferguson police respond. Officer Darren Wilson, a six-year law enforcement veteran, encounters teenager Michael Brown walking down a street with a friend, allegedly confronting them about blocking traffic. Ultimately, an altercation ensues between Wilson and Brown that results in the fatal shooting of the latter. From varied accounts, he is shot multiple times about 35 feet away from the police officer’s vehicle and may have been either running away, surrendering or acting belligerent at the time. Both peaceful protests and violent riots erupt from the citizenry, some of whom may or may not live in the area; personal property and several businesses are destroyed, vandalized and looted, including the QuikTrip. Local police composed of Ferguson, St. Louis County and surrounding municipalities respond with a heavily armed tactical assault that includes armored vehicles, police dogs, rubber bullets and tear gas. Numerous protesters and rioters are arrested for unlawful assembly and varied misdemeanor crimes. Several media personalities and local politicians are caught in the crossfire, harassed and rounded up as well. Police continue with their heavily armed response.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon intercedes, replacing local command and authority of the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments with the Missouri Highway Patrol and Captain Ron Johnson. Miraculously, the situation immediately calms from Johnson's cool and straighforward demeanor, with protests continuing peacefully under the watchful eye of more restrained law enforcement tactics. Despite the turn of events, the longstanding – some would say too longstanding – St. Louis County Prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, is the most vocal opponent of the governor’s alleged overreach, objecting on questionable legal and jurisdictional grounds. Facts leading up to the confrontation between Wilson and Brown also begin to trickle out from the police and into the media, painting a different perspective on both the incident and the teenager himself:  alleged to be a prime suspect in the convenience store robbery and assault – and possibly in a separate incident involving the QuikTrip that now lays burnt to the ground thanks to vandals, “snitches get stitches” engraved with paint on its side. By that narrative, a veteran police officer performing his sworn duty apparently had apprehended the suspect that evolved into an altercation that – despite reports of Brown being unarmed – necessitated the use of deadly force.

Hyperbole aside, police officers have an unenviable job facing violent threats on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the situation has been worsening for years around the nation as criminals have become more heavily armed and crimes more callously brutal. To maintain parity, it has caused an increased militarization of police departments that look more commando unit than public servant – the rioters, looters and vandals destroying their own community singlehandedly reinforcing the idea for such necessity. In such a world, police can find it difficult or outright dangerous to release information in a timely manner concerning on-going investigations. In a similar vein, media in a 24/7 news world competitively vie for a scoop and information that can set them apart from all the other outlets. As such, false storylines and inappropriate disclosures can, and will, be reported, with little remedy in countering them after the fact. Such a mix of law enforcement reluctance and media demands can at times do nothing less than disseminate mistrust and confusion, and muddle questions over justice and guilt.

Then, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson re-ignited the powder keg. In a press conference, he states that Officer Wilson was not aware of Brown's alleged involvement in the aforementioned robbery (or robberies) before their confrontation. Although pertinent information, it does nothing other than lead straight back to square one and renewed anger, protesting, rioting, vandalism and looting for an already devastated community - prompting Governor Nixon to most recently deploy the Missouri National Guard to bolster security efforts in quelling the chaos. Military upon militarization. Even more though, it further calls into question the justification for a police officer to fatally shoot rather than subdue an unarmed kid in the first place – whether a physical threat or not, its relevancy a side note – approached at the time for allegedly doing nothing more than walking down the street and blocking traffic. A topic that has been overshadowed for days by lawlessness that has spun out of control, while a heartbroken family and community still await answers.

©2014 Steve Sagarra

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