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5 things to know about the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri

Published on Aug 19, 2014 4:15 PM
Police advance through a cloud of tear gas toward demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on Aug 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. The small city of Ferguson in St. Louis has been rocked by violent protests and looting for more than a week after an unarmed black teenage was shot dead by a white police officer. -- PHOTO: AFP

FERGUSON, Missouri - The small town of Ferguson in St. Louis has been rocked by violent protests and looting for more than a week after an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a white police officer.

The unrest has continued unabated despite the deployment of hundreds of National Guard troops on Monday, Aug 18, to assist the police. Here's what you should know about the situation in Ferguson.

A demonstrator carries a picture of Michael Brown during a protest along Florissant Avenue on Aug 16, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. -- PHOTO: AFP

What happened?

On Saturday, Aug 9, Michael Brown, 18, and a friend allegedly stole a box of cigars from a convenience store. About 10 minutes later, Brown, a recent high school graduate, was confronted by police officer Darren Wilson while he was walking with a friend.

There are conflicting accounts of what actually happened shortly thereafter.

Police, who acknowledged the theft and shooting were unrelated, said the confrontation began because Brown and his friend were walking on the street and were "blocking traffic". There was a physical confrontation between Brown and the police officer. The police officer shot Brown, who was unarmed, multiple times and he died in the middle of the street.

Brown's friend Dorian Johnson, however, said the victim did not "touch the officer in any type of a threatening way". He said the officer reached out through his car window to grab at Brown and the teenager was trying to get away when he was shot. Brown held up his hands in a sign of surrender, but the officer got out of his patrol car and shot him several times.

Brown family attorney Daryl Parks points on an autopsy diagram to the head wound that was likely fatal to Michael Brown during a news conference in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

What did the initial autopsy show?

A preliminary private autopsy, requested by Brown's family, found that he was shot at least six times - including twice in the head. Dr Michael Baden, who conducted the autopsy, said one of the bullets entered the top of his skull, suggesting that his head was bent forward when it struck him, killing him. It was likely the last of the bullets to hit him, said the former chief medical examiner for New York City who flew to Missouri at the family's request to conduct the separate autopsy.

Providing details for the other injuries, Dr Baden said another bullet shattered Brown's right eye, travelled through his face, exited his jaw and re-entered his collarbone.

He was also shot four times in the right arm, said Dr Baden.

The autopsy showed all the bullets were fired into Brown's front. The bullets did not appear to have been shot from very close range because no gunpowder was found on his body. However, that determination could change if it turns out that there is gunshot residue on Brown's clothing, to which Dr Baden did not have access.

Demonstrators hold up roses while protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown make their voices heard on Aug 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. -- PHOTO: AFP

How did the community react?

A candlelight vigil on Sunday, Aug 10 - a day after the shooting - turned violent as some protesters rioted and looted nearby stores. Since then, daily protests have taken place and clashes have broken out on most nights between the protestors and heavily armoured police, who used tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse the crowds. The police have also fired rubber bullets at rioters who threw Molotov cocktails.

Even the deployment of National Guard troops on Monday, Aug 18, has not quelled the unrest. Several hundred people turned up at night to protest and the police tried to move the crowd into designated zones to clear a main street that had been the scene of violence. Several rounds of gunfire, described by a senior police officer as "potshots in the area", were heard.

Police launch tear gas at demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on Aug 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.-- PHOTO: AFP

How did authorities react?

Authorities have made several frantic attempts to quell the violence. In the days after the shooting, state and local law enforcement authorities have swerved from one approach to another: taking to the streets in military-style vehicles and riot gear; then turning over power to a state Highway Patrol official who permitted the protests and marched along; then calling again for a curfew.

On Thursday, Aug 14, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon visited Ferguson and announced that security would be turned over to the Missouri Highway Patrol and that Captain Ron Johnson, an African-American raised in the community, would be in charge. Johnson marched with protesters on Thursday, Aug 14 and the demonstration was largely peaceful, but it turned violent again the next day.

President Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president, waded into the escalating crisis, saying there was no excuse for local police to employ "excessive force." He has ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson as Washington pursues a civil rights investigation into the case.

As the unrest persisted, the Missouri governor declared a state of emergency on Saturday, Aug 16, and implemented a curfew from midnight to 5 am. Two days later, Governor Nixon announced that the National Guard troops had been called in to restore order in the city and they would operate under Missouri Highway Patrol supervision.

About 200 Missouri National Guard soldiers were deployed in Ferguson on Monday, Aug 18, with snipers posted on rooftops near a police command centre.

Demonstrators protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown make their voices heard on Aug 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. -- PHOTO: AFP

What are the problems in Ferguson?

Ferguson, a town of 21,000 residents in St Louis, Missoiuri's state capital, has wrestled with racial tension for decades. While most of St. Louis County is white, Ferguson and neighbouring towns are predominantly black. The city's leadership and police force have remained mostly white.

Ferguson's mayor and five of its six City Council members are white. Only three of the town's 53 police officers are black.

There is frustration among blacks who say local authorities are not attuned to their concerns.

Aliyah Woods, 45, once petitioned Ferguson officials for a sign that would warn drivers that a deaf family lived on a block. But the sign never came. "You get tired," she said. "You keep asking, you keep asking. Nothing gets done."

There have been a series of reported incidents that have added to the unhappiness among the African Americans. For example, community members voiced anger earlier this year after the all-white, seven-member school board for the Ferguson-Florissant district pushed aside its black superintendent for unknown reasons. That spurred several blacks to run for three board positions up for election, but only one won a seat.

In another incident, a white police lieutenant was sacked after it emerged that he had ordered officers to target blacks in shopping areas.

Experts say the protests and violence in Ferguson is emblematic of growing suburban poverty, particularly since the last recession in 2008. The poverty rate was 22 per cent in 2012, the most recent available, up from 10.2 per cent in 2000, according to US Census Bureau figures.

While Ferguson's median income in 2000 was on par with that of Missouri that year, it has since fallen behind. The median income of US$37,000 (S$46,032) trailed the statewide figure of US$47,300 in 2012.

Source: Washington Post, New York Times, Bloomberg, AFP, Reuters