Civil Liberties

Riots Erupt After Vigil for Unarmed Teenager Killed by Cops in Ferguson, Mo., Mayor Cancels Rally Today


SWAT tank in front of Walgreeens in Ferguson

It was a long night in Ferguson, Missouri, after a candle light vigil for Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old shot by cops as he attempted to flee, was followed by a riot that spread to next door Dellwood. Early this morning, Ferguson police, who were joined by cops, SWAT teams, and riot police from the region, used tear gas to disperse the crowd. According to a St. Louis alderman who joined last night's protest and livetweeted it, Ferguson's mayor threatened anyone showing up at a rally this morning with arrest, effectively cancelling it.

The fatal police shooting of Michael Brown on Saturday afternoon quickly became national news. It's not always so, as those who follow the endless stream of police brutality stories from around the country know. Residents of Ferguson began protesting immediately after the shooting, gathering at the scene of the crime and at one point chanting "kill the police."

Yesterday the Rev. Al Sharpton, an MSNBC host, said he would be making his way to Ferguson, as a civil rights leader and not a TV host. Sharpton, despite his prominence in a number of instances of police brutality, doesn't seem to have much of a track record of success. He was heavily involved in New York City community politics throughout the 1990s. He ran for mayor in 1997 against Rudolph Giuliani and in 2001 to replace him. He made no endorsement in last year's election, perceived as a snub of Bill Thompson, a black candidate, and a wink to Bill De Blasio. Newsday described Shartpon's relationship with De Blasio as Sharpton's "closest access to the seat of power since he came of age as an activist and antagonist" in 1980s New York City. Today, Bill Bratton, formerly police commissioner under Rudolph Giuliani, is back in that position, while De Blasio has defended the actions of cops even when they led to death, insisting the "law's the law" (NYC is still a sanctuary city, though) and standing by Bratton when the police commissioner suggesting correcting your behavior for police was what democracy was about. Sharpton's influence is nowhere to be found.

On the other hand, as pointed out by Thaddeus Russell on Twitter yesterday, anti-police riots have led to real police reforms before. In Cincinnati, for example, as a 2011 USA Today article explains:

When Timothy Thomas was shot by a Cincinnati police officer in April 2001, sparking riots in the city's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, officers only knew from a dispatcher that Thomas had more than a dozen warrants.

Today, they would know that the warrants were for minor infractions, things such as failure to wear a seat belt.

Also today, they could call for help from an officer specially trained in handling people with mental health problems. They carry Tasers to use as an alternative option to their guns. And they're reminded of a new police department culture that stresses customer service as much as it does catching bad guys.

In the rioting that followed Thomas' death, fires were set around Over-the-Rhine, a police officer was shot but unhurt when the bullet hit his belt buckle, and a citywide curfew was imposed — the first in more than 30 years.

The changes since Thomas' death and the ensuing riots are many. The results have been dramatic.

In the six years before the riots, 15 men — all African-American — died in confrontations with police. In the last 10 years? Eight, six of them black.

 Twitter followed the riot throughout the night. #MikeBrown was a trending topic last night, and so was #IfTheyGunnedMeDown (What Picture Would the Media Use?)

Ferguson police insist St. Louis county law enforcement will investigate the evidence, although activists are urging the feds open their own investigation.