At the Ferguson city council’s first public meeting on Tuesday since the shooting death of Michael Brown, hundreds of protesters and activists spoke passionately about their experiences with the town’s now-infamous police force and continued to call for the immediate arrest of Officer Darren Wilson, who killed Brown, among other demands.
The atmosphere, while not hostile, was "volatile," Tory Russell, an activist with Ferguson grassroots coalition Hands Up United, told Common Dreams. "It was the first time that [residents] got to address the people who should have been held accountable, in a formal manner. For a month now, they've been missing in action."
The council had pledged on Tuesday to introduce new reforms to Ferguson’s court system and law enforcement policies, which had been criticized for trapping many of its low-income black residents in a cycle of victimization and harassment, in an effort to “improve trust within the community and increase transparency,” according to councilman Mark Byrne. Among the proposals were a cap on court fees and a citizen review board that would help hold police accountable for their conduct.
But with more than 600 in attendance at the meeting in the Greater Grace Church, many holding signs and wearing shirts that read, "I Am Mike Brown," it became clear early on that protesters’ frustration and mistrust would not be quelled with so few reforms and a lack of response to bigger demands.
Tensions ran high from the beginning. As the meeting started with the Pledge of Allegiance, many grew angry at the final phrase, "with liberty and justice for all.”
While some of the reform proposals, such as the warrant recall initiative, were well-received, many residents were still outraged by larger issues of the city’s "Mike Brown had to die for our voices to be heard."
—Debora Young, Ferguson residentinstitutionalized racism, police harassment, and lack of oversight and responsibility by its government—particularly Ferguson Mayor James Knowles. The city leaders’ apathy was demonstrated when they heard, but rarely responded to impassioned comments. Knowles, who at one point referred to citizens as “customers,” said he had given jurisdiction of the case to the St. Louis County police department and refused to answer whether Wilson is still being paid.
"The mayor has called us gremlins, outside agitators... He's said there's no racism in Ferguson," Russell said. The meeting allowed residents to tell the council that "we won't take it lying down anymore."
Debora Young, a Ferguson resident, told the council that when she reported her car being stolen last year, the police arrested her instead, the New York Times writes.
“Mike Brown had to die for our voices to be heard,” Young said.
“I just want to say to y’all, how did you feel when you saw that man laying in the street?” another man said. “To know that somebody who’s supposed to be protecting and serving me can kill me — I’m afraid.”
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Attendees were also angry at the fact that one councilwoman, Kim Tihen, is a former Ferguson police officer who, along with others on the force, allegedly beat a handcuffed man and then charged him with destruction of city property for bleeding on their uniforms.
The most commonly asked question Tuesday night was the same one that has been repeated since the day of Brown’s death, more than a month ago—shouted in protests, written on placards, and spread on social media: Why has Darren Wilson not been arrested?
Wilson has been on administrative leave since the shooting and has yet to be seen in public. Grand jury hearings in the case, which have been ongoing for the past three weeks, are likely to continue for at least another month, even as the jury’s official term ends tomorrow.
As the Washington Post reports, prosecutors in this case, including controversial county prosecutor Robert McCulloch, are not telling jury members what charges they think Wilson should face, but are presenting all the relevant evidence—including photos, videos, and DNA and other test results—and involving them as co-investigators. St. Louis University School of Law professor Susan McGraugh told the Post that the practice of allowing jury members to determine which charges a defendant should face is often used to shield prosecutors from public blame.
In another atypical move, McCulloch’s office is also entering the evidence into consideration immediately, rather than waiting for the FBI or the St. Louis County police to complete their own investigations. Protesters have long demanded that a special prosecutor be appointed for the case, as McCulloch’s history shows a bias in favor of police officers and a pattern of racist prosecution. In 2001, when two white officers shot and killed two unarmed black men sitting in their car in a restaurant parking lot, McCulloch refused to charge them. He said of the deceased men, "These guys were bums."
A group of community leaders and activists launched a shutdown of Interstate 70 in Ferguson on Wednesday to protest McCulloch’s involvement.
"This is real life for everybody in St. Louis."
—Tory Russell, Hands Up UnitedRussell, of Hands Up United, said that while some of the new measures were a step in the right direction, it's important to ensure that the citizen review board receives subpoena power so that it can be more actively involved in the investigation.
"Of course we want the immediate arrest, firing, and charge of Darren Wilson. I know if... civilians [were] imbued with subpoena power, we would have more information at this point," Russell said, adding that it will be an essential component of future reform and accountability. Without it, he said, "the people will still be powerless."
Activists are "still waiting for our demands to be met fully," Russell said. "This is real life for everybody in St. Louis."