The incredibly tragic death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last weekend has sparked a wave of protests in the Midwestern city—and reignited a national conversation about racial inequalities in America (one that was last visited broadly with the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012). Last night, the conflict between the citizens of Ferguson and the police department intensified. Police used tear gas and riot gear to confront protesters in the St. Louis suburb, as journalists on the ground documented the increasingly volatile situation. While questions still remain about the initial incident, there is no doubt that what’s going on in Ferguson concerns us all. Here’s a brief look at what we know so far.
The initial tragedy
Brown was a black 18-year-old about to begin his first year of college. On Saturday afternoon, walking unarmed, he was shot and killed during a confrontation with police officers in Ferguson, Missouri.
The St. Louis County Police Department chief, Jon Belmar, claims that Brown was walking down the street when an officer approached in his vehicle and attempted to get out of his car. Brown, the police say, pushed the officer back in the car and fought for control of the officer’s gun. A shot was fired inside the car, and both men got out onto the sidewalk, at which point Brown was shot an unknown number of times, fatally. The officer who shot Brown has not been identified, which has been a source of consternation for the media, protestors and, one can assume, Brown’s family.
But witnesses disagree with the police’s version of events. A friend of Brown’s, Dorin Johnson, told Fox 2 News that the officer approached Brown, reached out of the car window and grabbed Brown around the neck. Another witness said she saw the police chase Brown and hold his arms up to signal that he was unarmed.
What the reaction has been like
An outcry of mourning, including parades and peaceful protests against racial profiling, followed Brown’s death. On Sunday night, demonstrations turned into rioting and looting, leading to the arrest of 32 people for burglary, theft, or assault. On Monday night, demonstrators faced off against the police who sported riot gear, shot rubber bullets, and, according to journalists’ reports, brought tear gas, dogs and tanks.
The Ferguson race profile and statistics
Of the 21,000 residents of Ferguson, 65 percent are black, but they account for 93 percent of arrests and 80 percent of traffic stops, the Los Angeles Times reports. Of the 53 total commissioned officers in Ferguson, only three are black.
What the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown is all about
In response to Brown’s death, many social media users began using the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to question which version of themselves the media would promote after a similar incident. It’s a way of calling attention to the discrepancy often seen in the coverage of black men and women in the news: Will the newspapers run a picture of you hanging with your buddies or the one at your high school graduation? And will the decision be based on the color of your skin? People are tweeting dueling photos to show how easy it is to misrepresent someone in the media, especially in the wake of violence. It’s a disturbing, insightful expression of the mounting frustration over inequality in this country. As one person tweeted, “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown tweets should be required reading in every journalism class in America.”