Archived: Tensions Rise as Michael Brown Investigation Is Kept Under Wraps

By Chris Hoenig

Tensions are continuing to rise in Ferguson, Mo., as authorities remain tight-lipped about the investigation into the shooting death of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown.

Brown, just 18 years old, was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer during an encounter on Saturday, Aug. 9. But the details of that encounter remain unclear, and authorities aren’t speaking.

Some reports suggest Brown was shot and killed after attacking the officer and reaching for his gun. “The genesis of this was a physical confrontation,” said Jon Belmar, Chief of the St. Louis County Police Department, which was asked by the Ferguson Police Department to take over the investigation into the shooting. Belmar said that Brown “physically assaulted the police officer” and shoved him back into his patrol car, where the pair struggled over the weapon.

According to Belmar, the first shot was fired inside the police car, and Brown was wounded approximately 35 feet away.

But Dorian Johnson tells a far different tale. Johnson was with Brown and claimed that the police officer instigated the confrontation, ultimately shooting Brown as he ran away with his hands up in the air to surrender. “It was just horrible to watch,” Johnson told MSNBC. “It was definitely like being shot like an animal.”

Investigators have refused to name the police officer who fired the fatal shots, declining to even give the officer’s race. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said death threats were the reason behind this decision, reversing course after previously telling local news outlets that the officer’s name would be released.

Authorities also won’t divulge details like the number of shots fired or how many of them struck Brown. An initial report only said that Brown died from “multiple gunshot wounds,” but local reporters were told that full autopsy details—which would include the actual number of wounds and any analysis of them—were being withheld.

The lack of information has only served to push simmering tensions to a boiling point in a town where racial tensions have been building.

Ferguson is a suburb of St. Louis, the ninth-most segregated city in the United States. Ferguson’s population is 67 percent Black, the average resident is just 31 years old, and the median household income is only $37,000 a year (22 percent of Ferguson residents live below the poverty line). But those in power in the town don’t adequately represent the residents: the town’s mayor is white. Police chief: white. The school board: six whites and one Latino. Of the six members of the city council, only one is Black.

And of the 53 police officers that patrol this largely Black community, only THREE are Black.

Last year, 80 percent of the traffic stops and 93 percent of the people arrested as a result of those stops in Ferguson were Black, according to a racial-profiling report by the Missouri attorney general’s office. Blacks were twice as likely as whites to be stopped by the police, and they made up 92 percent of all people and residences searched by authorities.

As tensions boil over, protests have turned the town into something resembling a war zone. Pictures from reporters show heavily armed police in full riot gear aggressively pursuing protesters.

Rubber bullets and tear gas have become the norm, with journalists even ending up in the crosshairs.

As the protests have grown more violent, the death toll has increased. Officers shot and killed a masked protester who brandished a handgun during a confrontation with authorities. A woman survived being shot in the head in a drive-by shooting just blocks from where Brown died.

“To become violent in Michael Brown’s name is to betray the gentle giant that he was,” Reverend Al Sharpton said as he pleaded for protesters to demonstrate peacefully. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said the community was “reeling from what feels like an old wound that has been torn open afresh.”

But the wound may not be so fresh, as the statistics point out, in Ferguson. And the lack of information into the investigation isn’t helping to ease the tensions.

Neither will news out of California, where a 25-year-old unarmed Black man was shot and killed by police just days after Brown’s death. Family members say Ezell Ford, who had a history of mental illness, was cooperating with authorities, laying on the ground when he was shot three times.

A Los Angeles Police Department statement on the shooting said only that officers had conducted an “investigative stop” in the area. “During the stop, a struggle ensued, which resulted in an officer-involved shooting,” the LAPD said. “It is unknown if the suspect had any gang affiliations.”

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