Police Shooting of Unarmed Black Teenager Sparks Protests and Civil Rights Investigation


On Saturday, a police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, shot 18-year-old Michael Brown multiple times and killed him. The Department of Justice is investigating the shooting as a possible civil rights violation.

Ferguson was once a majority-white city, but the population has changed over the last decade as white families moved to surrounding suburbs. Today, two-thirds of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents are African American, but the town’s leadership and police force are still predominantly white. Only three of 53 officers in the Ferguson Police Department are Black, and the state attorney general’s statistics show police stop Black residents far out of proportion to their population.

Michael Brown had just graduated from high school and planned to start college on Monday. On Saturday afternoon, he was walking with his friend Dorian Johnson, 22, when a police car drove up and the officer said, “Get the f–k on the sidewalk,” Mr. Johnson told MSNBC. When the young men said they were almost home and kept walking, Mr. Johnson says the officer backed up, nearly hitting them.

The officer opened his door but it slammed into Michael and closed; the officer then grabbed Michael by the neck. “Mike was trying to get away from being choked,” said Mr. Johnson. The officer drew his gun and shot Michael while keeping hold of Michael’s shirt with his left hand.

Dorian Johnson said he and Michael ran down the street as the officer chased them. Mr. Johnson ducked behind a car and saw the officer shoot Michael in the back. Michael stopped, turned with his hands up over his head and said, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” The officer fired several more shots, and Michael fell to the ground, where he died. Michael’s body laid in the street for hours.

Mr. Johnson offered to speak with the police but they declined to interview him, MSNBC reported Tuesday.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the officer was pushed into his squad car and a struggle began, and at least one shot was fired from inside the police car. He confirmed that Michael Brown was unarmed and was shot multiple times.

Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told reporters there is no video footage of the shooting from any police dashboard or body-worn cameras. Police refused to identify the officer, who was put on paid administrative leave, until Friday, when Jackson identified the officer as Darren Wilson and for the first time said police believed Michael Brown had been involved in a robbery.

On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that FBI agents from the St. Louis field office, working with attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, have opened a concurrent, federal inquiry in addition to the local investigation, which is being conducted by St. Louis County police. He said the shooting “deserves a fulsome review” and that “aggressively pursuing investigations such as this is critical for preserving trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

That trust eroded further in Ferguson over the past week. A peaceful candlelight vigil for Michael Brown on Sunday was followed by rioting and looting that led to 32 arrests. On Monday night, 500 police officers in riot gear used police dogs and tear gas against protestors. For the next three nights, they fired rubber bullets and smoke bombs at reporters, photographers, and the mostly African American demonstrators, some of whom approached officers with their hands up, saying “Don’t shoot me.”

President Obama said Thursday that there’s “no excuse for police to use excessive force again peaceful protests, or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.” Amid reports that journalists had been roughed up and their equipment taken by police, the president continued, “And here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon on Thursday ordered the state highway patrol to take over from local police. The state troopers decided to forgo riot gear, gas masks, and military-style assault weapons and armored vehicles, and protests remained peaceful on Thursday night. Demonstrators in Ferguson were supported by thousands of protestors who joined in demonstrations on Thursday night.

The police shooting of Michael Brown and the excessive force police used against protestors have been front-page news this week throughout the country, with many calling for the demilitarization of police and condemning the presumption of guilt that informs police contact with young men of color like Michael Brown.