Riots in Missouri

A suburb of St. Louis called Ferguson descended into anarchy on Sunday, following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer.  The details of this shooting are still under investigation, with a good deal of conflicting testimony to be sorted out… which is why holding off on the sort of angry protest march that could easily degenerate into violence and looting would have been a good idea.

Ferguson is predominantly black, as was the slain Michael Brown.  (Not much has been publicly disclosed about the police officer, other than that he’s a six-year veteran of the department with no prior incidents on his record, and has been placed on paid administrative leave.)  Many complaints about police harassment have been made in the area.  Brown’s shooting was the spark that touched off a powder keg of mounting resentment.  Every detail of the incident is hotly disputed, as CNN reports:

A friend and witnesses say Missouri teen Michael Brown was unarmed and had his hands in the air when a Ferguson police officer shot and killed him, but that account is in dispute.

“The genesis of this was a physical confrontation,” Jon Belmar, chief of the St. Louis County Police Department, said at a Sunday news conference.

The officer tried to leave his vehicle just before the shooting on Saturday afternoon, but Brown pushed him back into the car, “where he physically assaulted the police officer” and struggled over the officer’s weapon, Belmar said.

A shot was fired inside the police car, and Brown was eventually shot about 35 feet away from the vehicle, Belmar said, adding few details because he didn’t want to “prejudice” the case.

All shell casings collected at the scene were from the officer’s weapon, Belmar said. He further said the medical examiner would issue a ruling on how many times Brown was shot, but “it was more than just a couple.”

The account was in stark contrast to those of witnesses who said Brown did nothing to instigate the shooting and appeared to be surrendering when he was killed.

“My son just turned 18 and graduated high school and he didn’t bother nobody,” the young man’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, toldCNN affiliate KSDK.

Ferguson Police cars do not have dash cameras, the department said.

McSpadden was told her son was shot eight times, though witnesses had varying accounts of how many shots were fired. Brown was supposed to start classes at Vatterott College on Monday, she said.

Some witnesses claim it wasn’t Brown who entered the police car and attacked the officer, but another person who was on the scene.  The locally-reported account from Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, as related by CNN, makes the shooting sound like an unprovoked, cold-blooded execution that came out of nowhere:

Dorian Johnson said he was walking with Brown in the middle of the street when a police car pulled up. The officer told the teens to use the sidewalk, according to Johnson.

After an exchange of words, the officer shot Brown even after he raised his hands in the air, Johnson said.

The officer “shot again, and once my friend felt that shot, he turned around and put his hands in the air,” Johnson told KMOV. “He started to get down and the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and fired several more shots.”

On the other hand, Brown’s mother didn’t appear to dispute that he got involved in some kind of altercation with the officer; Fox News quotes her saying “she didn’t understand why police didn’t subdue her son with a club or Taser,” and wants the cop who shot her son fired, prosecuted, jailed, and given the death penalty.

It would have been helpful for community leaders and national figures to strongly encourage patience and calm, while the details of the incident were sorted out.  With no definitive video camera evidence available, the investigation must rely upon forensic tests that will take days or weeks to complete.  Instead, a Sunday vigil turned into a demonstration that ended up becoming a riot, complete with vandalism, looting, and shouts of “Kill the police!”  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch gives more details of the action than CNN evidently felt comfortable with disclosing:

Hundreds of people gathered at the shooting site Sunday night for a vigil for Michael Brown, 18, who was to begin technical school classes today.

While some people prayed, others spilled onto West Florissant Avenue, choking off traffic. Looting was reported at a QuikTrip at 9420 West Florissant Avenue about 9 p.m. and soon spread from there. Most of the businesses being targeted were mainly along West Florissant.

Around 11 p.m., looters smashed into a Wal-Mart in the area near Interstate 270, as well as cell phone, clothing and dollar stores. A large fire was burning at West Florissant and Northwinds Estates Drive. A civilian was reported beaten near West Florissant and Chambers.

Jimmy Muhammad, 32, said he and his colleagues had just fended off a gang of masked young men with guns who tried to break into his uncle’s store, United Mart, in the 10300 block of West Florissant. The front door was shattered.

“It’s bad,” said Muhammad, still gripping a pistol. Sirens blasted from all the police vehicles speeding by to other crime scenes. “I don’t blame the police, but they can’t keep up.”

Silas Chung, 53, didn’t get to his small store, Up N Up Fashion, in the 11600 block of West Florissant, soon enough to defend it.

“I feel bad,” said Chung, cleaning up the damage. “This world is getting worse and worse.”

A group of enterprising looters reportedly arrived at the QuikTrip with a truck and stole the entire automatic teller machine, shortly before the store was set on fire.  More from Fox News:

People were seen carrying bags of food and toilet paper. TV footage showed streams of people walking out of a liquor store carrying bottles of alcohol, and in some cases protesters were standing atop police cars or taunting officers who stood stoic, often in riot gear.

Other witnesses reported seeing people vandalize police cars and kick in windows. Television footage showed windows busted out of a TV station van.

“Right now, the small group of people are creating a huge mess,” Ferguson’s mayor, James Knowles, told KTVI-TV. “Contributing to the unrest that is going on is not going to help. … We’re only hurting ourselves, only hurting our community, hurting our neighbors. There’s nothing productive from this.”

As the investigation of Brown’s death progresses, “we understand people want to vent their frustrations. We understand they want to speak out,” Knowles added. “We’re going to obviously try to urge calm.”

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said there were no reports of injuries but confirmed widespread property damage. “Right now I’m just worried about people, not property,” he said.

Pat Washington, a spokeswoman for Dooley, said later that there was one instance she knew of in which tear gas was used. There were scattered media reports of gunfire but authorities did not immediately confirm any.

There were scattered reports of gunshots being fired during the riot, but so far no serious injuries have been reported.  A reporter for the local CBS News affiliate says “the police chief in Ferguson claims he and the St. Louis County Police chief were shot at overnight in a Walmart parking lot.”

Too bad there aren’t some sort of “community organizers” who could encourage everyone to remain calm, work within the system, and absolutely shun violence.  On the contrary, the community-organizer set is still peddling victim mythology that nourishes the sense of frustration and despair that leads to civil disorder.  For example, from an Associated Press report on the Ferguson riot:

John Gaskin, a member of the St. Louis County NAACP, said the FBI should get involved “to protect the integrity of the investigation.” He alluded to the 2012 racially-charged shooting of a 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a Florida neighborhood watch organizer who was subsequently acquitted of murder charges, as well as the death of a New York man from a police chokehold after he was confronted for selling individual cigarettes on the street.

“With the recent events of a young man killed by the police in New York City and with Trayvon Martin and with all the other African-American young men that have been killed by police officers … this is a dire concern to the NAACP, especially our local organization,” Gaskin said.

And now Al Sharpton says he’s going to get involved, as is Benjamin Crump, the attorney who represented Trayvon Martin’s family.  What could go wrong?

The masked thugs who materialize during these affairs are always described as “opportunistic” criminals, seizing a moment of chaos to commit robbery.  That means it’s the responsibility of law-abiding people to avoid creating opportunities for them.  Whatever issues Ferguson might be facing, none of them will be improved by destroying its commerce – perhaps beyond repair, if the looted business owners decide to close up shop and pull out.

If it seems absurd to state such obvious points… well, clearly some people need to hear them.  Presumably the demonstrators would say they think it’s pointless to work within the system, and they don’t trust the police to conduct a fair investigation.  (Gaskin quickly got his wish, as the FBI announced it would take over the case on Monday morning.)  But the alternative is anarchy, a situation in which innocent people who had nothing to do with Brown’s death suffer damage and injury.

Brown’s shooting is serious business.  Addressing it with riots and looting is ultimately frivolous, as well as dangerous.  It makes truth and justice harder to find.  It was also utterly unnecessary, because the odds of the Justice Department staying out of this case were zero point zero percent.  What sense does it make to hold angry demonstrations when the federal law-enforcement and civil-rights divisions haven’t even been given the ghost of a chance to weigh in?

The only sure way to keep situations like this from boiling over into violent unrest is for the community to maintain firm and absolute resistance to them.  It is essential to be absolutely intolerant of rioting, no matter the provocation.  Once rationalizations begin and excuses are made, the stage for further unrest is set… particularly if the impression is created that only angry and destructive protests move the system to action.  It is always said that a small group of troublemakers does most of the damage, and that might often be true, but it only highlights the responsibility of the community’s leaders and law-abiding citizens to create an environment in which troublemakers don’t feel comfortable.

Certainly the local authorities must be responsive to citizens in return; if Ferguson does have a problem with the conduct of its law enforcement officers, that problem should be honestly confronted and addressed.  There was no chance of such an accounting occurring within 24 hours of an incident that will take weeks to investigate thoroughly.  It’s not good that a sizable number of people were led to believe otherwise.