After police officer Darren Wilson fired the eight gunshots that would end the life of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug. 9, 2014, the world’s spotlight turned to cases of police officers killing unarmed black citizens in the United States.
According to the Washington Post, protests erupted almost immediately in Ferguson. Hours after Brown’s death, bystanders created a memorial of rose petals and candles to commemorate Brown and began raising their hands in a symbolic gesture like Brown’s alleged last position. This continued the next day, when protesters began to gather and chant “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” These protesters believed that Wilson unfairly shot Brown, a young black man.\
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the area where Brown was fatally shot has been occupied by protesters almost daily. Even five months later, on Jan. 12, 2015, approximately 50 protesters peacefully demonstrated next to 200 Ferguson Police Department supporters.
One of the main reasons the confrontation between Wilson and Brown has sparked controversy is due to the uncertain details concerning the shooting and autopsy reports. The reports of the incident given by Wilson and Dorian Johnson, the witness who was with Brown at the time of the event, differ greatly, especially when describing Brown’s demeanor during the encounter. According to the Grand Jury Witness Interviews, Wilson claimed that Brown was the main aggressor, while Johnson claimed that Wilson instigated the violence.
However, the grand jury decided not to indict Wilson. According to The Wall Street Journal, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch stated that the jury did not find probable cause for the charges against Wilson. After evaluating over 70 hours of testimony from 60 witnesses, they concluded that there was not adequate reason to charge the officer with anything from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder.
Thanks to social media, the news of Brown’s death spread across the country within hours. On websites such as Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook, the news of the shooting and the resistance to the alleged police brutality reached all corners of the globe. Photographs, videos, and updates of protest times and demonstration arrest numbers encouraged those on the Internet to either support or oppose Wilson’s decision to fatally shoot Brown.
MSNBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom used the active Twitter following of the movement to express her disappointment with the grand jury’s findings.
“So many missed opportunities for cross examination of Wilson. Should have been a grueling session, not the tea party the transcript shows,” Bloom wrote on her account @LisaBloom on Nov. 25, 2014.
With this rapid relay of information travelling so fast, protests manifested in cities around the country to show civilian anger towards the alleged racial discriminatory violence. In Los Angeles, protesters gathered in front of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) headquarters. According to The Los Angeles Times, on Nov. 24, the city saw more arrests, totalling 183, than in any other city protesting the decision. These arrests stemmed from violent and disruptive actions from the demonstrators, including blocking the 101 Freeway and violating juvenile curfew.
Marlborough alumna Jade Harvey ’13 published an article in the Yale Daily News, now on Buzzfeed, that explains why the post-Ferguson protests are so important.
“Though blacks are no longer slaves and convict labor leasing is no longer legal, mass incarceration, police brutality and harassment are all examples of racial oppression in our policing and courts. Jim Crow law may be dead, but its ghost continues to rear its ugly head,” Harvey wrote. “Brown’s hands may not have been up at the time of his death, but they have figuratively been raised since the moment he was born a black child in America.”
When Wilson was not indicted by the grand jury, movements to represent citizen outrage erupted in cities around the globe. Photos from Palestine, Hong Kong and Brazil via Twitter have shown people supporting the protesters. Account @Gistoffreedom posted a series of photos of these supporters, including a woman holding a sign with the message: “We are FERGUSON. We are GAZA, because we are HUMAN.” In another series of photos, children hold up another sign from Palestine that reads: “I can’t breathe! Justice for #EricGarner #FromPalestineToFerguson.”
Eric Garner is another unarmed black male who was killed by a police officer. He died on July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, New York, shortly after police officers approached him for selling untaxed cigarettes. The officers quickly became physical with Garner, bringing him to the ground with an officer’s arm around his neck, even as Garner gasped that he could not breathe.
The medical examiner on the Garner case concluded that Garner was killed by the chokehold. However, the grand jury announced that there would not be an indictment on Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put his arm around Garner’s neck.
During a press conference on Dec. 3, 2014, Eric Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner, commented on the apology Pantaleo issued the family after the grand jury decision. Esaw Garner rejected the apology without hesitation.
“Hell no,” she responded, “The time for remorse would have been when my husband was yelling to breathe.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, the lack of indictment led to an abundance of protesters in Manhattan, chanting Garner’s final words: “I can’t breathe!”
In Cleveland, Ohio on Nov.12, 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, was fatally shot by a police officer. According to The New York Times, Rice was reported to be playing with a toy gun in a park. When told to put his hands up by two police officers, Rice reached for his waistband for the weapon when one of the officers shot him twice.
As of Dec. 12, 2014, the Cleveland police department ruled the shooting to be a homicide, and Rice’s family has sued the officers and the city, according to CNN. There have also been protests over the boy’s death.
There have been many symbols born from the Ferguson and Garner protests. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” has become a hashtag rampant on both Twitter and protest signs, alluding to racial inequalities still apparent in the United States. The “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” pose and chant has also become an iconic symbol and motto of the movement.
According to NBC News, multiple players for the St. Louis Rams demonstrated their solidarity with Brown and with protestors by raising their hands in the position before their game on Nov. 30, 2014. Additionally, on Dec. 8, 2014, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, players for the Cleveland Cavaliers, wore “I can’t breathe” shirts during their warm-up.
According to Time, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a lawsuit on Jan. 5, 2015 against Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor in the Ferguson case, on behalf of an anonymous juror. He or she wants to lift the jury’s gag order for the case, since grand jurors have critical opinions and knowledge about the incident and would like to become a part of the national discussion.