What is happening in Ferguson, Missouri?

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YOU WILL NO doubt be aware that something is happening in a town called Ferguson, Missouri at the minute.

Late last night, the decision was made not to press charges against a police officer who shot dead a black teenager back in August. A grand jury sworn in to investigate the matter found that the police officer had acted in self-defence.

Reaction in Ferguson – and across the US –  has been swift. Major protests have broken out in the Missouri town in what was already a fragile situation.

The St Louis suburb, with its population of 20,000, was turned upside down in August by the shooting, with rioting, looting, racial tensions and accusations of militarisation of a police force already not trusted by the majority of the population.

So, what’s going on?

There was someone shot, right?

Yes. The starting point for the tensions came on 9 August. At 12pm on a Saturday afternoon, Michael Brown, a black teenager from the town, was stopped by a white police officer Darren Wilson.

Reports on what happened next vary, but the result was that unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot at least six times and killed by the six-year police veteran.

Wilson fired at least once from his squad car.

And that sparked protests?

Unsurprisingly, residents of the town of Ferguson, which is 67% black, were not happy that an unarmed teenager was shot by a police officer.

The following day, looting broke out. This was put under control, but protesting, rioting and clashes with police went on nightly for the rest of the week week.

Police Shooting Missouri

Source: AP/Press Association Images

Police were criticised for their heavy-handed approach, arresting journalists, firing tear gas and not diffusing any of the tensions.

They even tear-gassed a state Senator who represents Ferguson. She was not happy with the Governor.

Is Ferguson always like this?

No, but there is a racial divide.

Mayor James W Knowles III has been quoted as saying that there is no racial tenions in the town, which is majority black.

However, this is disputed by a number of black people, particularly young men.

While things like tensions are hard to quantify, we do know that Ferguson PD stops far more black motorists, despite whites being found with contraband far more frequently.


Larger version

One resident told the Washington Post that finding a black man in the town who trusts the police would be like “finding a four-leafed clover“.

The racial tensions are deep, with the Mayor, five of six council members, the police chief, the entire school board and 40 of 53 police officers white in a town that is 67% black.

Darnell Hunt, a UCLA professor, told Vox.com that the shooting was “the final straw” for many in Ferguson.

Those divides have been exacerbated by a counter protest movement supporting Darren Wilson.

What did the State do?

State Governor Jay Nixon imposed a curfew on the streets but that didn’t help. In fact, just days later, seven people were arrested and a man was shot.

The state’s response was to replace the handling of the policing was to replace the St Louis County Police with the Missouri Highway Patrol.

Police Shooting Missouri

Source: AP/Press Association Images

And that calmed things down, right?

It did. But only briefly. The day after being taken away from the policing of the situation, Ferguson PD, having held back for six days released the identity of the police officer who shot Michael Brown.



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