Friday, September 19, 2014
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What's black and white about Ferguson

When will people get the truth about Ferguson? When will we get the truth about anything?

What's black and white about Ferguson

People protest the police shooting death of Michael Brown a week ago in Ferguson, Mo., Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014. Despite heavy rainfall and lightning, hundreds of protesters gathered Saturday night at a busy thoroughfare that has been the site of previous clashes with police. Dozens of officers, a much more visible presence than the night before, stood watch — including some with shields. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
People protest the police shooting death of Michael Brown a week ago in Ferguson, Mo., Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014. Despite heavy rainfall and lightning, hundreds of protesters gathered Saturday night at a busy thoroughfare that has been the site of previous clashes with police. Dozens of officers, a much more visible presence than the night before, stood watch — including some with shields. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

It's been more than a week now since an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown was gunned down in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., just outside of St. Louis. Indeed, I was sitting at this computer at exactly this hour, seven days ago, writing about this case for the first time, and I -- just like the people of Ferguson and anyone else who was following the developments -- was asking for just one thing.

Answers.

I thought we'd have them by now.

Instead, it feels as if -- after seven-plus days -- we know even LESS about the killing of a young man who should have been starting college classes last week than we knew then. We know now the name of the officer that shot Brown multiple times last Saturday -- Darren Wilson -- but we still do not know why, not really. Journalists and citizens who'd been clamoring for the official report and other key details about the shooting we instead handed a completely different lengthy report, a video, and stills of an alleged robbery committed by Brown and his friend. This was information that did little to explain his apparently unrelated encounter with Officer Wilson, but did a lot to impugn the reputation of a youth who was just killed.

There's been less truth and more obfuscation, less clarity and more confusion. Mike Brown should be buried, and his family should be on the road to peace of mind, and some closure. Instead, it was announced today that federal officials will perform a second autopsy on his body, because no one has any faith or trust in the people who conducted the first one.

Into this vacuum, people with their own agenda are trying to take advantage of chaos that has been promoted by those who are supposed to be in command of the situation: The Ferguson and St. Louis County police, the government of Ferguson, the St. Louis County prosecutor, and, at times, even Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. Let's mention some of the worst right off: Looters. The despicable folks who use this as an excuse to vandalize and steal are small in number, and most are not even from Ferguson. Pictures show the true story, that protesters and other citizens from the town are not only trying to deter the looters, but they are patiently cleaning up their mess the next morning.

But others, too, are rushing to take advantage. They are the usual suspects: The gun merchants who make a huge profit by peddling fear, the toxic voices of the airwaves and the politicians who are quietly rooting for chaos because it will give them what they truly want. That would be a chance to change the conversation away from militarized cops and the systematic suppression of low-income and minority communities and towards their definition of law-and-order. It is hardly a new idea. Do you remember...your President Nixon?

But the worst actors are the local law-enforcement community -- especially the Ferguson police and Chief Thomas Jackson. Remember, for five nights, with Jackson's 94-percent white force and cops from St. Louis County on patrol, demonstrators were met with police dogs (a la Bull Connor) and then armored vehicles with marksmen aiming toward peaceful protests, and with tear gas, rubber bullets, wooden pellets and LRADs, while journalists and local politicians observers were detained or jailed.

On the sixth night, Gov. Nixon placed the state highway patrol and Capt. Ronald Johnson, in charge of crowd control, relative calm returned to the streets, and the focus was back where it belonged: Who killed Mike Brown, and why?

It was too much for Chief Jackson and the Ferguson police to bear.

The U.S. Justice Department had pleaded with Jackson not to release the apparent robbery video, arguing it would do nothing except inflame the situation just as tensions were starting to ease. But other than 5 seconds that were spent on naming Officer Wilson, Jackson's sole purpose Friday was to release voluminous information about the robbery, even as he released no new info on the shooting and waited hours to clarify that the alleged robbery was not why Brown was stopped.

So what happened next?

-- Chaos and some looting returned to Ferguson on Friday night -- again taking the focus off Officer Wilson's actions and providing new ammunition to those seeking not only to denigrate the local community but also to undermine Capt. Johnson and the Highway Patrol, whose presence and initial success irked local cops.

-- If Officer Wilson faces trial for killing Brown, most legal experts will tell you it's doubtful that the evidence of the convenience store robbery could be introduced at the trial. But by making sure the entire nation saw those images on the news, the Ferguson police tainted any potential jury pool. Do you think that's what they were going for?

-- Chief Jackson's ploy and the ensuing chaos also nudged Gov. Nixon into siding with the cops and declaring a curfew -- another way of forcing citizens into their homes without offering either basic information, or, as of yet, any justice for the killing of one of their own. As the U.S. chief of Amnesty International -- the group once honored with a Nobel Peace Prize for its tireless advocacy of human rights around the globe  -- noted in a statement: “We criticize dictators for quelling dissent and silencing protesters with tactics like curfews, we’ll certainly speak out when it’s happening in our own backyard. The people of Ferguson have the right to protest peacefully the lack of accountability for Michael Brown’s shooting.”

This morning, Anthea Butler, a religious studies professor at Penn, wrote on her Twitter feed: "Just remember, all of this police action in is not about keeping the peace, but maintaining a lie and protecting Darren Wilson." That's a strong statement, but the evidence seems to back it up.

So much is still murky on the eighth day. Only one thing in Ferguson, Mo., seems truly black and white.

The police in Ferguson are executing a classic cover-up.

And they've been getting away with it, so far.

When you strip everything else away, that's what this story is all about -- and the reason why this story resonates from coast to coast. There is so much going on with this -- the political, policing and education disparities in a place like St. Louis County, the militarization of our cops, the erosion of civil rights and the spectacular failure to establish that "post-racial society." But the bigger questions echo from the deserts of Iraq and the corridors of Gitmo to the offices of the NSA, from the money-counting rooms on Wall Street to the Oval Office itself.

When are the American people ever going to get the truth?

And how can we tell folks who are consistently lied to to calm down and stay in their homes?

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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