Police fire teargas in Ferguson, Missouri. 13th August, 2014. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
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Why are US police firing tear gas and rubber bullets in Ferguson, Missouri?

Armoured vehicles, journalists arrested and protestors shot at – a summary of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of teenager Michael Brown.

Last night, police in Missouri fired tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds protesting against the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. The shooting occurred on Saturday afternoon, and demonstrators have now gathered for four consecutive nights, and have been met with a “military” style police response.

Police claim officers were responding to violence from crowds, while other reports suggest that protestors were “backing away with their hands up” when being shot at. Officers were reported to have warned crowds before firing, declaring that the “peaceful protest is no longer peaceful”. The confrontation involved armoured trucks, and sniper rifles were reportedly trained on demonstrators.

Among those arrested were two journalists, raising concerns over press freedoms. The editor of the Washington Post, the employer of one of the arrested reporters, commented that the event was “an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news”. The Huffington Post also criticised the “militant aggression” of the police response.

Meanwhile, an Al-Jazeera camera crew have reported being shot at with rubber bullets. Further concerns about media reporting were raised after county police imposed a ban on flights operating below 3,000 feet above the city, which is believed to have restricted coverage from news helicopters.

There is widespread anger about how the case has been handled, and crowds are demanding to know identity of the police officer who carried out the shooting. Although having planned to release the name of the officer, the police reversed their decision, citing “threats made against all Ferguson officers on social media sites” as their reason. It is understood there are currently no plans in place to release the officer’s identity.

Accounts of the shooting vary. Details released by St Louis County Police Department suggest that a scuffle took place after officers asked Brown and another teenager to get out of the street. Following this, an officer fired at Brown from inside the patrol car. The officer reportedly received hospital treatment for a facial injury after the event.

However, others recount the shooting differently. One witness recalled how Brown was grabbed by police after refusing to get on the pavement, before being shot multiple times as he tried to run away. St Louis County Police are still investigating, with a spokesperson claiming that being unable to speak to many “critical witnesses” was slowing the investigation.

A key issue is the concern about racism within the police force. Ferguson’s 21,000 population is two-thirds black, yet the town only has three black police officers out of a total of 53.

Police have asked protestors to only gather during the day and to disperse “well before evening hours”. Yet citizens are concerned about this limitation on their liberty, with one protestor commenting that he planned to “retaliate to the force they are using”. Despite demonstrators mainly consisting of younger members of the community, reports suggest that they have the sympathy of older generations, and it is unclear what course future events will take. 

See below for CNN's video footage of the event:

 

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war