Demonstrations have lessened in intensity in Ferguson, Missouri, where a young black man was killed by a police officer on August 9, but wounds remain sharp.
I’m walking down West Florrisant Avenue. Florrisant, like the adjective derived from “florir,” the ancestor of the verb “fleurir” (to bloom, to flourish). Walking around Missouri is like walking in the footsteps of French colonialists, come to explore this region in the 17th century.
Meandering on West Florrisant these days is to rub up against a sort of perfect storm of crooked social proportions that’s been eating away at the richest country in the history of humanity. This is an opportunity to talk about race and racism, of justice and especially injustice, of a police that’s militarizing itself, of poverty and systemic poverty…
Wednesday evening, I arrived after the storm. There were maybe 200 [people] across a kilometer near a McDonald’s at the intersection of Canfield Drive, the street where Michael Brown, 18 years old, was killed on Aug. 9. And [acting as] the frame, at least five times as many police officers.
A group of about 50 people — mostly black, some white — strode across the asphalt rectangle between McDonald’s and Canfield Drive, more often than not with their hands in the air, like a suspect surrendering.
“No justice, no peace.”
“We are Michael Brown.”
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
And everywhere in the rectangle, there were people that wanted to talk, denounce, pester and swear that they’ll be here tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, this winter if they have to.
Tory Lowe came here from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he campaigns for civil rights. Like everyone who’s come to demonstrate here, the young Lowe is convinced that Michael Brown was the victim of a system that holds African-Americans as second-class citizens.
“What do you hope for, a month from now?”
“That Wilson is accused. If the police officer isn’t accused, [I hope] he still has problems because of it.”
Lots of young people will tell you the same thing: Darren Wilson must be accused of murder. There’s no doubt in the spirit of those who march on West Florissant Avenue: Wilson is a murderer.
Tell them that maybe they should let justice follow its course and they’ll tell you without fail that justice is for white people. For black people, forget it.
They immediately invoke Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin was attacked in Florida in 2012 by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was privately patrolling the area and saw Martin, a young black man, as a little shady. There was a row, a fight. Zimmerman shot at Martin and killed him.
Justice acquitted Zimmerman.
Justice, that’s it — they’ll tell you [about it] here on West Florissant.
In the early afternoon of Aug. 9, Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson were walking in the middle of the road on Canfield Drive, which crosses an archipelago of small apartment buildings in Ferguson.
Police officer Darren Wilson was passing nearby in his patrol car. Walk on the sidewalk, he told them, before continuing his route.
Suddenly, he backtracked. Later, Johnson would say that the police officer shouted at Michael Brown, “What did you say to me?!”
The police officer opened the door on the young Brown. We know that a brawl ensued, that the police officer tried to hold onto Brown by the neck while he was still in his vehicle. The police officer shot a first gunshot, still while sitting behind his steering wheel.
After having left the car, he shot five more bullets at Michael Brown.
“Don’t shoot, I’m unarmed,” Brown had the time to say, before collapsing, dead.
Did Officer Wilson feel threatened?
Did the young Brown try to disarm him?
Nothing is certain. Nothing is confirmed. Everything is the subject of absurd rumors.
Maybe the story is simple. Maybe Michael Brown was killed by a young, racist police officer by the name of Darren Wilson. Those who have been demonstrating in Ferguson, Missouri for two weeks think exactly that.
They think that Brown, 18 years old, was a victim of the racism of the police in a country where there are heaps of indications showing that black people are still the victims of systemic racism, even though they were emancipated from slavery more than 150 years ago.
A young, unarmed black man murdered by the police: It’s not that rare in this country. In the months preceding the death of Michael Brown, four black men were killed at the hands of police elsewhere in the United States. Business as usual — almost.
The difference is that Ferguson took a stand and protested. It protested loudly. That’s terribly more rare.
The intensity of protests in Ferguson, home of 21,000 inhabitants who were unknown until now, has drawn national and international attention — and placed the question of racial relations in the United States at the forefront.
These demonstrations gave troublemakers the ideal excuse to light fires, to loot stores. One would be wrong to reduce these demonstrations to such misbehaviors. But the damage also gave Governor Jay Nixon the perfect context to dispatch nothing less than the Missouri National Guard to Ferguson …
Imagine soldiers in camouflage showing up in Hummers in a flat, dreary version of Terrebonne. Imagine especially that the military arrived (they left on Thursday) to lend a hand to an already-militarized police force, to play RoboCop with their equipment bought at a discount from the Pentagon.
Read on one poster: “Welcome to Fergustan.”
The processing of Darren Wilson will maybe take place one day. The local authorities are looking into it. Looking over their shoulder, the federal government is also going to investigate, a question of assurance of whether Officer Wilson didn’t target the young Brown because he’s black, of whether he had ridiculed his civil rights, of whether he is a federal authority.
The arraignment of Darren Wilson may happen one day. But the trial of Michael Brown has already begun.
The Ferguson Police Department stubbornly refuses to make public certain information about the shooting. The autopsy report is being kept secret (Brown’s family called for one privately; this is how we know that six bullets were fired). The incident report is also being kept secret.
But despite the federal government’s objections, a video was made public of Brown in the process of stealing from a convenience store and menacing the store’s owner. During the sequence, the giant Brown had the air of a thick brute.
The subliminal message is clear: See who Darren Wilson snuffed out.
The police also gave Fox News information that said that Officer Wilson had suffered a fracture to his eye socket during his fight with Michael Brown. You are probably saying, these ultraconservative Fox commentators hold onto this hypothetical fracture like a shipwrecked sailor hangs onto a buoy in the middle of an unrelenting ocean …
The Ferguson Police Department has not seen fit to publish the photo of Officer Wilson with a skull fracture, nor a medical report attesting to this supposed fracture.
I’m writing all of this on Friday night in the Starbucks inside Target, at the end of West Florissant, while Ferguson rediscovers its calm. The barista comes to tell me that I’ve arrived late to Ferguson.
Looking out the window, he tells me that three or four days ago, there were five times more news trucks in the parking lot …
I look outside and it’s true. Off the top of my head, there are two times fewer than yesterday.
And so with every TV team that packs up and leaves, slowly but surely, Michael Brown and the questions he raised while dying on Canfield Drive are in the process of being tucked away in the attic of the American conscience.
It’s true that I arrived late in Ferguson. But can one be late to a story that has lasted for more than 150 years?
I will be writing about Ferguson in the coming days.