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Year later, AP reporter recalls origins of Ferguson movement

AP reporter recalls US protests that launched national "Black Lives Matter" movement

Year later, AP reporter recalls origins of Ferguson movement

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- EDITOR'S NOTE -- A year ago, most Americans had never heard of the Missouri town called Ferguson. But after a white police officer fatally shot a black 18-year-old in the street and a grand jury later declined to indict him, the name of the middle-class community became virtually a household word. From the first hours after Michael Brown's death, Associated Press reporter Jim Salter watched as a neighborhood protest launched a national movement that came to be known as "Black Lives Matter" that seeks to raise awareness about police brutality toward minority. What follows is an excerpt of the introduction to "Deadly Force: Fatal Confrontations with Police," an upcoming book published by The Associated Press (www.ap.org/books ).

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Until August 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, wasn't the kind of place that generated much news. It was a mostly quiet suburban town of 21,000, a mix of beautiful old homes and working-class neighborhoods. Like a lot of communities in north St. Louis County, it had seen significant white flight and was now two-thirds African-American.

My wife's grandmother lived in Ferguson until she died in 1991, so I spent some time there as a young man. But since joining the St. Louis office of The Associated Press in 1993, I had never been to Ferguson as a reporter.

On Aug. 9, I returned home from a bike ride to learn that a young black man had been fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer. By that humid Saturday evening, hundreds of people were congregating near the scene where Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson. The crowd was angry. Some witnesses said the 18-year-old had his hands up in surrender when he was shot.

The next day, as Ferguson police prepared for a news conference to explain what happened, I was among a crowd of reporters who heard distant chanting. As I walked toward the noise, I could see in the distance hundreds of people, many holding signs. The chant soon became clear: "Hands up! Don't shoot!"

Shootings by police are not uncommon, a sad reality of urban life. So what was different in Ferguson? Brown and Wilson had their fatal encounter in the middle of a street surrounded by apartment buildings. It was almost noon on a Saturday, and many people were outside.

Word quickly spread from witnesses who believed the shooting was unjustified, that Brown was trying to surrender. What we didn't know at the time was the depth of mistrust between black residents and the predominantly white Ferguson Police Department, a level of suspicion that no doubt fueled what happened next.

On Sunday evening, thousands of people crowded the same street where Brown was killed for a vigil. The anger was evident, but the event was peaceful. Suddenly, a young woman came running: "They're rioting on West Florissant."

I ran the three blocks to the busy four-lane street lined with retail businesses. My attention was drawn to a large group of people cheering and yelling obscenities in the direction of convenience store.

By the time I got there, it was on fire. People were running out, their arms full of stolen goods.

Never before had the anger been as intense in Ferguson. Young men began hurling bricks through store windows, kicking in doors, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at police cars.

The destruction that night led police to adopt a tougher stance. By Monday, hundreds of officers in riot gear, some in armored trucks, lined the streets. Now police were becoming more aggressive. Some aimed their threats and angry words at protesters and journalists.

AP reporters, photographers and videographers from around the nation arrived, and the words and images we helped capture became part of the national debate about police interaction with black communities, the police response to protests and economic disparity between the races.

It was often harrowing work. Our journalists faced threats from protesters and police. Gas masks and bulletproof vests arrived, but many of us on the front lines of the riots felt the sting of tear gas when we failed to deploy the masks quickly enough.

The unrest lasted for months, worsened by a series of fatal police shootings in neighboring St. Louis. Most of the protests were nonviolent.

When it was announced that Wilson would not be charged on the evening of Nov. 24, that night produced striking visuals of buildings engulfed in flames and riot police massed under a "Season's Greetings" banner. The next morning, law enforcement forces rolled in and the community assessed the damage.

Ferguson became the impetus for a national movement that sought to highlight the issue of police abuse and race. Soon, other fatal police encounters with black suspects across the nation drew similar scrutiny.

After Ferguson, old presumptions are gone and new questions asked. The events there intensified how the nation looks at law enforcement, the use of deadly force and the inflamed relations between blacks and American police.


Updated : 2021-09-23 01:13 GMT+08:00