With two police shootings in the weeks before, the world was watching—and thinking—when Brown was gunned down. Just two weeks after Garner died in a police chokehold, there was John Crawford, 22, who was killed while carrying a pellet gun in an Ohio Wal-Mart. A customer called 911, telling dispatchers that Crawford was pointing the gun at customers. (He later recanted.) Police arrived on the scene, and fatally shot Crawford while he was on his cellphone talking to the mother of his two children. And each incident compounded the other. Conversations about police violence after Crawford’s death built on ones around Garner's death, and the entire discussion of Michael Brown was informed by those previous cases, and soon, subsequent ones. For example, two weeks after Brown died, Kajieme Powell, 23, was shot and killed in St. Louis after stealing snacks from a convenience store. Cops claimed he attacked them with a knife, which forced their hand.

Americans didn’t just hear about these incidents. They saw them as raw video, collected by cellphones and surveillance cameras, and broadcast by social media. And in almost every case, what they saw ran counter to what the police claimed: Crawford wasn’t threatening anyone; Powell, in reality, wasn’t even near the police when they killed him. For the first time, at least since Rodney King, Americans who distrusted the police had clear evidence for their beliefs, and Americans who typically placed their faith in law enforcement were newly challenged in their trust.

With that as the backdrop, it’s no wonder that Ferguson—already troubled with inequality, segregation, and unfair policing—was the town that eventually burned. Brown’s death was the final spark in a summer of violence against Black Americans, exacerbated by police misconduct and the attacks on Brown’s character, meant to minimize or even excuse his death. And in turn, this explosion inaugurated a new, more urgent phase in the national argument over racism.