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14 August 2014

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.

By George Gillett

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.

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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: