Justice denied

Ferguson, N.Y. cases expose injustices, spark change

Free Press wire reports | 12/5/2014, 6 a.m.
A national movement is underway to address police brutality against African-American men and the criminalization of communities of color.
Protesters of the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. take the “hands up, don’t shoot” stance in Ferguson, Mo. as police point their weapons at them. Photo by Reuters

A national movement is underway to address police brutality against African-American men and the criminalization of communities of color.

It is being fueled by the outrage over a grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer, Darren Wilson, in the fatal Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Mo.

Adding to the outrage is a fresh decision from a Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury to exonerate a police officer who allegedly strangled a 43-year-old suspect July 17 by placing him in an illegal chokehold. On Wednesday, the grand jury declined to bring any charges against the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, in the death of Eric Garner.

Anger over the grand jury’s inaction against the police officer in Mr. Brown’s death has sparked continuing protests in Richmond and across the nation.

From coast to coast, protesters marched, staged “die-ins” and occupied shopping malls and other public spaces in calling for justice. The fledgling movement includes people of all ethnicities, faiths and backgrounds.

Their demands: An end to the senseless killing of unarmed African-Americans by white police officers, changes in the way law enforcement officers interact with people of color and an honest national conversation on race relations.

In Richmond, Police Chief Ray J. Tarasovic took a proactive approach to address possible racial biases among the department’s more than 700 officers.

He ordered his command staff to join Henrico County police in the first phase of sensitivity training that began Monday at the Henrico Police Academy.

The goal of the weeklong session is to improve the way the departments deal with suspects.

Chief Tarasovic said that planning for the training began before Mr. Brown was killed. However, he did not publicly announce the plan until Sept. 10, nearly a month after the slaying, and he did so as concern about the Ferguson case grew.

Also Monday, more than 70 Virginia Commonwealth University students staged a “die-in” in the middle of the campus at an area known as “The Compass.”

The demonstration began at 1:01 p.m., the same time Mr. Wilson shot and killed Mr. Brown.

Two dozen black students lay silent on the pavement for 4½ minutes to symbolize the 4½ hours police let Mr. Brown’s body lie in the street after he was killed.

More than 50 students circled the protesters with a chant that ended, “We have nothing to lose but our chains!”

Separately, the Urban League of Greater Richmond Young Professionals is to host a public discussion on the Ferguson case from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, at the Astyra Corp., 411 E. Franklin St. in Downtown.

The goal: To “ensure what happened in Ferguson never happens here (in Richmond),” said Victor Rogers, the group’s president. The meeting is free and open to the public.

Protests also were staged Monday on other high school and college campuses across the nation.

“Michael Brown’s death was a catalyst for a lot of issues in this country,” said Karisa Tavassoli, a 20-year-old student at Washington University in St. Louis. There, about 300 students staged a walkout Monday, the first day of classes after Thanksgiving. “We are fighting for the oppressed.”

Groups galvanized by the Ferguson case also urged supporters to refrain from shopping on “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving and a kickoff to the U.S. holiday shopping season.

Analysts later reported an overall 11 percent decline in nationwide Black Friday retail sales, though most cited other reasons than protests over the Brown case.

There was some impact. Protesters in New York City blocked the main entrance to the Herald Square Macy’s store on Black Friday and then marched into the store and confronted holiday shoppers.

“Hands up, don’t shoot,” they shouted in unison while holding signs with slogans such as, “No justice, no peace.”

The crowd then marched up Broadway, blocking traffic as they clogged one of Manhattan’s main arteries. They paused for less than an hour in Times Square, where they continued holding up traffic as police declined to intervene.

Meanwhile, President Obama continued his push for an effective national response. He requested $263 million from Congress for law enforcement agencies to purchase 50,000 body cameras for officers and for improved training.

He also asked aides to prepare an executive order that would better track the military-grade weapons and gear flowing from the federal government to local police departments around the nation.

He said African-Americans do not feel they are treated fairly by the police. He said that creates a “simmering distrust” between law enforcement and African-Americans.

At the same time, calls are intensifying for federal action against Mr. Wilson, who resigned last Saturday from the Ferguson Police Department, citing safety concerns for himself and his former fellow officers.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder quickly announced after the grand jury decision Nov. 24 that the Justice Department’s investigation into the shooting remains “ongoing,” “thorough,” and “independent.”

His comments seemed to indicate the federal government might charge Mr. Wilson for criminally violating the teen’s civil rights, or could be preparing a civil case against the Ferguson department for a “pattern and practice” of discrimination.

Mr. Wilson quit without receiving any severance pay, according to Ferguson Mayor James Knowles. Mr. Wilson, 28, had been on paid administrative leave since he killed the teen in August.

The grand jury decision sparked often-violent protests and the looting and burning of some businesses in Ferguson and other nearby St. Louis suburbs, even though the governor had National Guard troops assisting police.

The church that the teen’s father, Michael Brown Sr., attended also was firebombed, with most ascribing the action to supporters of Mr. Wilson.

On Sunday morning, the Rev. Al Sharpton delivered a 50-minute address — part protest message, part sermon — to a congregation of several hundred at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. Michael Brown Jr.’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, and his father sat in the front row with several other family members.

“We lost the round, but the fight ain’t over,” Rev. Sharpton said. “You won the first round, Mr. Prosecutor, but don’t cut your gloves off, because the fight is not over. Justice will come to Ferguson!”

That same sentiment was echoed in Richmond by the leader of the 200-member Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Richmond and Vicinity, which represents predominately black congregations.

Dr. Marlon Haskell, the group’s president and pastor at Chicago Avenue Baptist Church on South Side, called the Missouri grand jury’s decision “disturbing and deplorable. We want justice to roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” he declared.

He expressed the hope that those who have the “boldness and courage to advocate for justice and change in police practices will usher in a transformed society that is just for all people.”

Later Sunday afternoon, five St. Louis Rams players showed their solidarity with the Ferguson protesters before their NFL game against the Oakland Raiders.

Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Kenny Britt raised their arms together in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture prior to taking the field, drawing criticism from police organizations.

In Ferguson, the national NAACP began a seven-day, 120-mile march to the state capital in Jefferson City last Saturday called the “Journey to Justice.”

On Monday, Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, said, “We’ve had people offer us hot chocolate; we’ve also had people use the ‘n word’ and shout obscenities to us.”

The NAACP is calling for a reform of police practices, a new police chief in Ferguson and a national law to prevent racial profiling by police.

Some critics also want Tom Jackson, Ferguson’s police chief, to resign to promote reconciliation in the city of 21,000, where two-thirds of residents are black and the police force is mostly white.

“I think it’s impossible for this community to move forward with him still in that role,” St. Louis Alderman Antonio French said in a TV interview Sunday.

Benjamin Crump, the Brown family attorney, said the family would pursue all legal avenues to seek justice, including a potential wrongful death lawsuit. The family also plans to push for a “Michael Brown Law” requiring police to wear body cameras and forcing police departments to disclose more information to the public in such incidents.