Last night, I was attending a concert in St. Louis planned as part of the commemoration of the one-year-anniversary of Mike Brown’s death when we received things were “getting bad” in Ferguson. This was hours after the ceremony organized by Brown’s father and his charity at the scene of the young man’s death, and the march that ensued after, and not long after an event where Cornel West joined fellow clergy/activists and modern-day African-American folk hero Bree Newsome (she of Confederate Flag snatching fame) came together at a packed church to discuss the role of the Black church in modern-day movement work.
The day had been defined by reflection, solidarity and support for a grieving family and after two days of watching the Ferguson police sit almost idly by during protests outside of their headquarters. Some wondered if they were saving their energy for Sunday night, while others suspected they were aware of the media presence around the anniversary and had decided not to contribute to the headlines.
“It’s too many White folks out here for them to start acting out,” an activist quipped to me earlier in the day.
As the group of writer friends I was traveling with turned our attention away from the festivities and towards social media, “getting bad” was soon escalated to “the police killed someone else.” We got in the car and headed to West Florissant Avenue. As we were leaving the venue, Mike Brown, Sr. had just arrived. Imagine that someone would now have to tell him what had allegedly taken place on the occasion of his son’s death, a day he had attempted to use to bring healing and unity to his city.
We would soon learn that Tyrone Harris, Jr. was not dead, but in grave condition. According to St. Louis County Police, Harris was one of two people observed shooting at one another on West Florissant Avenue, the major thoroughfare that was “Ground Zero” for much of the past year’s unrest. They claim that the 18-year-old then ran, and was followed by plainclothes officers in an unmarked police vehicle, at which point they say he began to shoot at their car. As the detectives exited their vehicle and pursued Harris on foot, he then “stopped, turned and reengaged the detectives” before being shot multiple times and critically wounded. The gun said to be recovered from Harris was reported stolen a few years ago.
Tony Rice, an activist who tweets as @Search4Swag captured video (WARNING: graphic images and profanity) of Harris lying prone and bleeding on the ground. In it, you hear Rice begging for officers to provide medical attention—“He’s still breathing!”—before he is apprehended himself and told he is under arrest. Chief Jon Belmar would later state that Rice was detained because “the scene was not secure,” but that he was released and not charged.
We spent about an hour and a half on West Florissant, live-streaming, talking to people and watching August of 2014 replay itself: mace, smoke and what felt and smelled like teargas; M-16s; a police line, tanks, screaming citizens, people occasionally throwing water bottles and small rocks in the direction of officers—not legal, but not lethal, not an actual threat to someone wearing a helmet and shield.
As it did last year, this level of response and the haunting visual of militarized-looking police occupying a Midwestern suburb seemed to only escalate the frustration of the crowd—many of whom believed Harris to be dead and were unsure of the circumstances of the shooting. It seems that here in Ferguson, police continue to have something in common with some of the young Black people they have been accused of targeting: the inability to de-escalate conflict peacefully. The difference, of course, being that a hotheaded teenager who has been made to feel by law enforcement and society-at-large that his life lacks value cannot fairly be judged by the same standards as an armed agent of the state.
In regards to last night’s events, questions have begun to arise about the role of the officers in Ferguson at that time. “The police had prior knowledge that there were going to be events taking place this weekend in Ferguson. It was a poor decision to use plain clothes officers in a protest setting because it made it difficult for people to identify police officers, which is essential to the safety of community members,” said Kayla Reed, a field organizer with the Organization of Black Struggle, in a statement.
“After a year of protest and conversation around police accountability, having plain clothes officers without body cameras and proper identification in the protest setting leaves us with only the officer’s account of the incident, which is clearly problematic.”
It remains unclear if the detectives ever identified themselves to Harris as police. Chief Belmar stated that Harris may have been running at the time he encountered officers “out of fear” that he would be shot by another civilian. Is it possible that he thought the detectives, in plain clothes and an unmarked vehicle, were with that person? We may never know for sure, considering the possibility that Harris will not recover and to able to share his side of the story.
During the one o’clock hour, the crowd near the old Red’s BBQ was told, “This is no longer a peaceful protest,” and that failure to disperse would result in arrest. “We plan to use chemical weapons,” an ominous voice boomed; a settlement following last year’s unrest resulted in a ruling that officers must warn before using any sort of chemical agent on civilians. (It was somewhat surreal seeing two of the lead plaintiffs in that suit in gas masks prepared for those chemicals to be deployed on a night where many of us thought it was highly unlikely.)
However, many people were unable to get to their homes and vehicles due to closed off streets—even after chemicals had been deployed.
As we continue to seek answers about the incident—and other reports of violence in the area—it is important to be mindful in how we process that a “Black-on-Black crime” may have been the inciting incident that ended in Harris’s shooting. Never would I suggest that the trauma experienced by young people in this area prior to and especially following the events of last year would give one a pass to shoot another person as a means to handle conflict. Creating ways to help our most disenfranchised young people avoid unnecessary violence is one of the greatest challenges facing our community, one that most activists take quite seriously.
However, intra-community violence is not a recent phenomenon, and it is not one relegated to Black youth, nor inner cities. Anyone who engages in police work must be equipped to respond to these incidents without further traumatizing civilians. Chief Belmar—whose tone and language in recent press conferences and interviews would imply that he has taken seriously some of the lessons of 2014—stated that the persons involved in the shooting were “criminals,” not protestors. Yet it was the protestors who were ordered off the street, prevented from getting off the street, and then subject to chemical agents. Again, a massive group of people has been treated like a criminal element, and as a result, the rift between civilians and law enforcement grows wider at a particularly difficult time.
Says Reed, “Even in moments of crisis, people still have the right to assemble and demonstrate. The use of chemical agents and violent tactics last night were excessive and antagonistic. Road blockades prevented people from getting to their vehicles, putting them in a position to be antagonized by police.”
A year after the death of Mike Brown, the change in Ferguson and Greater St. Louis is palpable—new community organizations, personnel changes in local government and law enforcement, proposed and passed legislation designed to make the criminal justice system more just for all—a significant amount of shifting in a small amount of time. However, the events of last night are a painful reminder that the work for both citizens and local police has only just begun.
Jamilah Lemieux is EBONY.com’s Senior Editor. She tweets: @jamilahlemieux.