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Why did peaceful Ferguson protests quickly turn violent?

Why did peaceful Ferguson protests quickly turn violent?

Saturday, December 06, 2014, 21:39 GMT+7

Editor’s Note: Terry F. Buss is a Fellow at the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration. He wrote this column exclusively for Tuoi Tre News.

Let’s be honest, writing about race riots in America is dangerous. Nonetheless, it’s important to keep talking about the issues.

Riots in Ferguson, Missouri, began immediately after a white police officer killed an unarmed Black teenager on August 9. Ferguson and county police, the Missouri Highway Patrol, along with the National Guard, using questionable strong-arm tactics, likely contributed to all-out rioting. Protests and rioting occurred throughout August-November.

On November 24, a grand jury found no “probable cause” to try Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, and he was set free. Within minutes of the decision, riots broke out in Ferguson. Police took little action, possibly allowing riots to worsen, according to experts.

Small protests occurred across the U.S., but there was no rioting.

Whether Officer Wilson was guilty or not, or whether Brown was a victim or not, I cannot say.

Do police discriminate against and victimize Blacks? Yes! For years, people have been debating research findings with no closure. Research seems irrelevant: if a large segment of the Black community feels victimized, it is an issue that needs to be resolved.

So why did peaceful protests quickly turn violent?

Outside groups descend on Ferguson

Immediately following the killing of Michael Brown, organized outside groups began to converge on Ferguson to exploit the crisis. Consider these examples…

Amnesty International – a group focusing on international human rights abuses – deployed 13 trainers to organize protestors during August 14-22. This was the first time Amnesty organized a protest in the U.S. Amnesty issued a report heavily critical of the police.

An affiliate of the computer hacker group, Anonymous, issued threats to Ferguson indicating that if the police interfered with protestors, they would crash the city’s computers – which they did. On August 14, the group released the name of a police officer they claimed was Michael Brown’s killer. Their intent was to cause this person great harm. It turned out to be the wrong police officer. Twitter immediately suspended their account.

Even a group of Tibetan monks traveled to Ferguson to protest.

In addition to groups as above, national Black civil rights leaders – including Al Sharpton –immediately appeared in Ferguson to comfort parents and friends of Brown, while at the same time demanding justice, seemingly by agitating for wide-spread protests. To many critics, these activists seemed to have had no interest in calming tense situations down and resolving issues.

CNN and other media become activists

After the shooting, CNN and other media began reporting that Ferguson was “the event” that would (or should) launch the national dialogue on police discrimination. Day after day, panels of experts opined about racial injustice and worried over the grand jury’s verdict on Wilson.

In the days following the verdict in November, CNN, according to critics, seemed to downplay the obvious violence and rioting on the one hand, while broadcasting opinions of some panelists that violence was justified on the other. One CNN commentator, Marc Hill, said of the violence, “this is what democracy looks like!”

Others joined in. Time Magazine published an article “In Defense of Rioting.” Most national media deplored the violence but still were sympathetic to it.

Even the Chinese Xinhua News Agency got involved: “Obviously, what the U.S. needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others.”

National political leadership

National political leadership was absent from Ferguson in the minds of many. President Obama only made cursory pronouncements about racial discrimination and law enforcement being a long-standing problem for Blacks and that it needed to be addressed. He called for calm and non-violence. But many people seemed to be looking for leadership, and didn’t get it: for them, Obama had promised to be the first post-racial president in 2008, but had not delivered.

Eric Holder, America’s Attorney General and a Black, appeared to his critics to fan the flames of protest when he went to Ferguson in August, declaring he too had been discriminated against and police were a problem. A few weeks later, he announced an investigation into the Ferguson Police. That investigation is ongoing. He launched another investigation against Officer Wilson for civil rights violations. He also is in frequent contact with Al Sharpton.

Protestors, rioters, looters and arsonists

Protesting is the right of every U.S. citizen guaranteed by the Constitution. No one should question the right of citizens who feel that they are discriminated against or treated unjustly by law enforcement.

On November 24 when the grand jury failed to indict Wilson, the stepfather of Michael Brown took to the streets and began repeatedly shouting “burn this [f------] down.” Some believe that this launched the violence in Ferguson.

Rioters then began attacking symbols of authority, particularly police cars, a favorite target of arsonists. Having been successful at burning cars, arsonists turned to buildings.

Mobs eventually formed and began to taunt police, or police began to harass them, or both. Agitators antagonized both sides trying to get a melee started. The mob began to throw rocks and occasionally shots were fired. The police reacted with tear gas. Because there was mass confusion, it remains unclear who started what.

Once riots began, opportunists emerged. In the confusion, they saw opportunities to break into businesses, public buildings, churches and residents to steal whatever they could. In Ferguson, wide-spread looting occurred mostly against Black-owned businesses, showing that opportunists were not aggrieved protestors.

To ensure maximum damage and confusion, rioters set numerous fires, then waited for firefighters to arrive to put them out. Just as fire trucks arrived, rioters began firing weapons sometimes at firefighters. Firefighters then left fearing for their lives. Buildings were left to burn.

Finally police acted to quell riots, but critics suggest they waited too long. Police seemed hesitant to intervene in the riots, fearing renewed criticism that they had overreacted in the August riots.

Local leadership

Justifiably, criticism from all quarters has been directed not only at police and National Guard leadership, but also at the city mayor, city council, governor and virtually any other official responsible.

In my view, perhaps the biggest mistake was police failed to work with local clergy who had volunteered to help keep order. Police unaccountably treated them as if they were rioters.

So, Ferguson – a small city of 21,000, 65% Black – attracted an army of American and foreign press; the police and military; organizers from civil rights and human rights; national civil rights activists; rioters, looters, arsonists, agitators, opportunists, fraudsters, and sightseers with little or no connection to the issue; local, state and national politicians; and some local legitimate protestors to a small public space. The only possible result, despite the best efforts of any of these groups to the contrary, was a sustained, full-scale riot.

Terry F. Buss


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