Media share responsibility for renewed violence in Ferguson

© 2014 by H.B. Koplowitz

After a day of relative calm, looters returned to Ferguson, Missouri, early Saturday, prompting Gov. Jay Nixon to declare a state of emergency and a curfew to go into effect at midnight. The media share responsibility for the renewed violence in the community where an 18-year-old unarmed black youth was fatally shot a week ago.

A small riot that included rock throwing, fires and looting erupted the night after Michael Brown was gunned down by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, 28. The riot caused the national media to descend on the predominantly black town of 20,000 in suburban St. Louis County, and shed light on race and law enforcement problems in Ferguson and elsewhere. Three days of angry protesters confronting militarized police came to a head Thursday, when Ferguson’s white police chief, Tom Jackson, warned people to disperse before dark, and when they didn’t, local police deployed tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to break up the demonstration.

On Friday, Gov. Jay Nixon “brought in a brother,” as T.J. Holmes of MSNBC put it. Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, who is black and grew up in the Ferguson area, employed less antagonistic tactics and the protesters became less violent. But the fragile truce between the police and the community was shattered Friday when Chief Jackson gave the protesters some of the truth and transparency they had been demanding. He continued to stonewall on vital details, such as how many times Brown had been shot, and where, but he did identify the officer. Defying the advice of the US Justice Department, he also released a security camera video showing Brown allegedly committing a strong-arm robbery at a convenience store minutes before he was shot.

Brown’s family and supporters were understandably upset to find out that the person they had made into another Trayvon Martin had, like Martin, feet of clay. And it is understandable that they would want to lash out in frustration and anger. But it was irresponsible of the media to have amplified those emotions instead of putting the new information into a context.

The first mistake the media made was to “question” whether the police chief released the video to deflect attention from Officer Wilson and the status of the investigation. One commentator went so far as to suggest the small town police chief lacked the “sophistication” to try such a ploy. In fact, it was transparently clear that’s exactly what Jackson was trying to do, and his gambit succeeded all too well. Instead of keeping their eye on the ball, media attention immediately shifted from the officer-involved shooting to the reaction of protesters to the video, which ranged from denial to outrage.

While not denying the suspect in the video was Brown, attorneys for his family and friend who had been with him during the robbery and shooting, and been the first eyewitness to talk to the media, tried to deflect back by calling the video release an attempt to blame, criminalize and assassinate the character of the victim. From New York, the Rev. Al Sharpton [Unlink] said, “there’s nothing more contemptible and offensive to the people of this country, than for law enforcement to try to smear a dead man, a dead child, that can’t speak for themselves.”

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted in an editorial two days after Brown’s death — and four days before the video was released — whatever led up to him getting shot, he didn’t get due process of law before receiving the death penalty, while the police officer who killed him is getting “plenty of it.” But few in the media have had the guts to note that although Brown did not deserve to die, he assassinated his own character when he stole cigarillos and shoved a clerk.

In interview after interview, commentators have called the robbery “irrelevant” to the shooting, when it is anything but. Although Jackson was clumsy in explaining how the robbery fit into the confrontation between Brown and Wilson — a detail the media obsess over — he said the officer initially stopped Brown and his friend because they were walking in the middle of the street, and that after noticing Brown was holding a cigarillo, he realized Brown was a suspect in a strong-arm robbery. The mindset and subsequent actions of Brown and the officer may become extremely relevant as investigators decide whether to charge Wilson with murder, manslaughter or nothing at all. The video also hurts the credibility of the main eyewitness, Brown’s friend, who of course didn’t mention the robbery when he talked to the media.

Encouraged by a lack of nuance in the media, the looting and tear gas returned early Saturday, after most reporters had left the area. Around 2 a.m. St. Louis time, a tweet linked me to a live video feed from citizen journalist Tim Pool, who along with a crew from Al Jazeera America, remained at the scene. One of the businesses the looters struck was the store Brown had robbed, and Pool talked with an agitated group of protesters, some wearing bandannas over the faces, who were guarding the store from more looters. Ironically, one of them voiced an opinion shared by many whites, saying the looters weren’t from the community, but “opportunist” n-words from East St. Louis, a historically black town in Illinois.

During a rowdy news conference at a community church Saturday afternoon, Gov. Nixon announced a midnight curfew as a way to separate the looters from the nonviolent protesters. Once again, instead of pointing out that in the interest of public safety, authorities have the right to regulate the time and place of public assemblies (unless they’re in front of abortion clinics), and that declaring a curfew is often standard operating procedure in similar situations, some in the media are all but inciting protesters to violate the curfew, calling it another provocation that will lead to more violence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *