As the world watches the unbelievable scenes out of Ferguson, Missouri, where police in combat gear and armored vehicles aim their weapons at residents angrily protesting the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown, the hacker group known as Anonymous has publicly released what it says is the name of the officer who shot Brown multiple times while his hands were raised in surrender, according to eyewitnesses.
On Thursday morning, Anonymous released the name Bryan P. Willman, claiming that was the identity of the officer that St. Louis County was trying to conceal. But in response about 90 minutes later, the St. Louis County Police Department stated on its own Twitter account: “Bryan Willman is not even an officer with Ferguson or St. Louis County PD. Do not release more info on this random citizen.”
In this fast-moving story, most of the recent attention has been focused on the police response to protests by Ferguson residents. There have been more than 50 arrests since Sunday, including the arrests of an elected official, African-American alderman Antonio French of St. Louis and reporters Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan J. Reilly of The Huffington Post—who both complained of rough treatment by police.
Many observers believe the police are exacerbating the crowd response by their apparent over-reaction to the protesters.
“Let’s be clear: This is not a war zone — even if the FAA banned flights under 3,000 feet,” former Marine Paul Szoldra wrote on the BusinessInsider.com. “This is a city outside of St. Louis where people on both sides are angry. Protesters have looted and torched a gas station and shots were fired at police, according to The Washington Post. The scene is tense, but the presence of what looks like a military force doesn’t seem to be helping … If there’s one thing I learned in Afghanistan, it’s this: You can’t win a person’s heart and mind when you are pointing a rifle at his or her chest.”
Commentators are taking a long look at the demographics of Ferguson and concluding that the frustration and anger of the crowd goes beyond the Brown killing. Rapidly over the past two decades, the town of 21,000 has gone from predominantly white to overwhelmingly Black, but the racial makeup of the police department—where just three of 53 officers are Black—and the elected officials have not caught up to the new demographic.
In addition, African-American residents feel harassed by police. While Ferguson’s Black population is about 67 percent, a state report on racial profiling obtained by Buzzfeed reveals that 86 percent of all traffic stops and 92 percent of all arrests in the town are of Black residents—though Black residents stopped by police are less likely to be carrying contraband than white residents are.
“The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling, and does not represent who we are as Missourians or as Americans,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a popular two-term Democrat, said in a statement as he canceled a scheduled visit to the state fair. “While we all respect the solemn responsibility of our law enforcement officers to protect the public, we must also safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble and the rights of the press to report on matters of public concern.”
“As governor, I am committed to ensuring the pain of last weekend’s tragedy does not continue to be compounded by this ongoing crisis,” he said. “Once again, I ask that members of the community demonstrate patience and calm while the investigation continues, and I urge law enforcement agencies to keep the peace and respect the rights of residents and the press during this difficult time.”
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson told reporters that the unidentified officer, who has been put on administrative leave, was being treated at a hospital because he had been struck in the face during the encounter with Brown and his face was swollen.
But several witnesses have said Brown was shot multiple times by the officer while Brown’s hands were raised. In fact, protesters have been using that gesture—hands raised in surrender—during their demonstrations, apparently angering police.
A moving photo of first-year students at Howard University raising their hands together in tribute to Brown during freshman orientation has been circulating on the Internet. Those students are likely all the same age as Brown, who was supposed to starting classes at a Missouri trade college this week to study heating and air-conditioning repair.
While the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office said it would take two to three weeks to complete the autopsy and toxicology report of Brown, Suzanne McCune, a former administrator at the office, said that a preliminary autopsy found that Brown died from gunshot wounds. But she provided no other details.
Benjamin L. Crump, a lawyer representing the Brown family, said the family was arranging to have its own private autopsy within the next week.
“The family wants an autopsy done by somebody who is objective and who does not have a relationship with the Ferguson police,” Crump said.
The mayor and the City Council posted a letter yesterday on the city’s website asking protesters to limit their demonstrations to daylight hours, but officials claim it isn’t a curfew.