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Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown, and a Social Media Warfare Tsunami

The City of Ferguson is a municipality of northern Saint Louis County, Missouri. It is one of 89 municipalities in Saint Louis County. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Ferguson has approximately 21,000 residents. The overall population of Ferguson has remained relatively constant in recent decades, but a significant increase in African American residents has considerably shifted demographics. In 1990, Ferguson was predominantly white with 74% of the population identifying as white, and 25% as black. By 2000, African Americans made up 52% of the city’s population. Ten years later, in 2010, 67% of Ferguson’s population was black and 29% was white. Approximately 25% of the city’s population lives below the federal poverty level [2].

In terms of social causes, never before was there such use of social media warfare tactics in the United States as began on August 9, 2014, when Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. The shooting and subsequent protests gave rise to the Black Lives Matters movement, which was, and continues to be, fueled through social media. As events over the days unfolded, a massive volume of social media posts was generated, as were hundreds of hours of footage taken by major television news networks and the newly social media-empowered citizen journalists.

Over the next two weeks, there were often nightly protests and arrests. Police used teargas on protesters as well as news reporters. The police detained two reporters one from the Huffington Post and another from the Washington Post. The FBI then opened an investigation into the incident. When police decided not to release the name of the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown because of alleged threats on social media, there were more protests at the Saint Louis County Police Department headquarters.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol took control of security in Ferguson and was overseen by Captain Ron Johnson, an African American who grew up in the area. Largely organized through social media, protests and vigils appeared around the country to honor the memory of Michael Brown. Shortly after, the name of the officer that shot and killed Michael Brown was released: Darren Wilson.

Missouri’s governor called the National Guard to Ferguson after protesters allegedly shot at police and threw things at them while others looted local businesses. The National Guard helped support the protection of Ferguson city offices and police headquarters and left much of the surrounding community vulnerable to the arson, looting, and extensive damage that occurred over the period of a few days.

A grand jury began investigating whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson should be criminally charged for the death of Michael Brown. This seemed to help calm things for a while, as did a visit from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for briefings on the investigation into possible civil rights violations related to the shooting of Michael Brown. As things continued to calm down, the National Guard began to withdraw.

During the period of unrest, protesters and others accused the City of Ferguson and its police department of racial bias and economic exploitation based on a policing and court system that was geared toward drawing revenue into the city as opposed to serving real public safety issues. City and court officials along with the police department continuously denied wrongdoing.

Also during this period, there was a rather severe polarization between white and black people of the community, surrounding areas, and throughout the State of Missouri. Police officials were bitter and angry toward anyone who questioned their integrity and who didn’t support their use of force. Online fund-raising efforts for Officer Darren Wilson surpassed similar efforts for Michael Brown.

The local broadcast media curtailed its coverage of the conflict and the accusations of predatory policing method against the City of Ferguson and surrounding communities. The national media, however, continued to cover the situation in detail. Social media continued to be awash in discussions, accusations, hate messages, and pleas for peace.

Protests continued and police arrested clergy and activist-academic Cornel West as the Ferguson October movement culminated with Moral Monday protests. Activists along with hundreds of protesters marched from a church to the police station in a very organized demonstration. The community anxiously awaited a decision by a grand jury on whether Darren Wilson would be indicted or not; few people believed that the white criminal justice establishment of the Saint Louis area would seek justice for Michael Brown. When the governor stated that he would call up the National Guard to prevent any violence resulting from the grand jury decision, many people considered it to be the writing on the wall that Darren Wilson would not be indicted.

Racism in the surrounding communities and the State of Missouri was beginning to reach a fever pitch. It was as if the racists and white supremacists were rising like locusts or cicadas to make noise and spread hatred. Social media posts were scathingly racist. Even casual conversations were riddled with racist sentiment and comments. People who had never even been to Ferguson were condemning black protesters and Michael Brown. Meanwhile, Darren Wilson had widespread support among white people, especially bigots and white supremacist, which Missouri had in ample supply.

On November 24, 2014, a Saint Louis county grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson for firing six shots in the confrontation that killed Michael Brown. Protesters soon filled the streets near the Ferguson police station. A police car and some stores were torched and other stores were looted and objects were thrown at police. Gunfire was allegedly heard and there were later reports of automatic weapons being fired. It started snowing a couple of days later and protests subsided. Meanwhile, local authorities continued to deny that they were guilty of discriminatory policing practices. Protests arose across the country fueled by and organized through social media, which law enforcement agencies were monitoring.

On March 4, 2015, U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released its report on its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. The report confirmed what members of the community and the protesters claimed the Ferguson Police Department and the Ferguson courts were doing, especially to African Americans. A key summary paragraph from the report [3] appears in Table 7.1.

138 ? Social Media Warfare: Equal Weapons for All

Table 7.1 Summary Statements from Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, March 4, 2015

Ferguson's law enforcement practices are shaped by the city's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson's police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson's police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson's own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities. Over time, Ferguson's police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular.

The report also concluded that Ferguson court practices impose unnecessary harm overwhelmingly on African Americans and are run in ways counter to public safety. Most strikingly, it was revealed that the court issues municipal arrest warrants not based on public safety needs, but rather as a routine response to missed court appearances and required payment of fines. In 2013 alone, the court issued over 9000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations. Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s municipal court routinely issued warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to pay related fines and fees on time. Under state law, failure to appear in municipal court for a traffic charge involving a moving violation can result in license suspension. Ferguson had made this penalty even more onerous by only allowing the suspension to be lifted after payment of a fine is made in full. Many pending cases still included such charges that were imposed before a court recently eliminated them, making it as difficult as before for people to resolve these cases [3].

On Thursday, March 17, 2016, the Justice Department and City of Ferguson resolved a lawsuit against the city with the Agreement to Reform the Ferguson Police Department and Municipal Court to Ensure Constitutional Policing [4]. Under the agreement, Ferguson is to implement reforms to bring about constitutional and effective policing. These are the areas covered by the agreement:

? Community policing and engagement: Creating a community engagement strategy that requires meaningful engagement between Ferguson Police Department (FPD) officers and all segments of the Ferguson community.

  • ? Bias-free police and court practices: Requiring implicit bias-awareness training of all court staff and FPD personnel and ensuring that Ferguson does not discriminate on the basis of race or other characteristics.
  • ? Stops, searches, and arrests: Ensuring that FPD’s stop, search, citation, and arrest practices adhere to the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and do not discriminate on the basis of race or any other protected characteristic; and prohibiting Ferguson from developing or implementing any law enforcement action in order to generate revenue.
  • ? First Amendment: Protecting all individuals’ First Amendment rights, including their right to record public police activity, lawfully complain about police activity free from retaliation, and engage in lawful protest.
  • ? Use of force: Reorienting FPD’s use-of-force policies toward de-escalation and avoiding force except where necessary; retraining all officers; and investigating all uses of force thoroughly, objectively, and in a timely manner.
  • ? Officer supervision: Requiring close and effective supervision of officers; requiring FPD officers and other personnel wear and use body-worn and in-car cameras; and requiring supervisors to review camera footage as part of misconduct and force investigations.
  • ? Accountability: Requiring Ferguson and FPD to fully and fairly investigate all allegations of officer misconduct and take corrective and disciplinary action.
  • ? Civilian oversight: Establishing a civilian review board to review, generate findings, and recommend disciplinary action for investigations of complaints involving excessive force, abuse of authority, the use of discriminatory slurs, and other misconduct; review FPD policies and training plans; serve on officer hiring and promotion panels; and review crime, racial profiling, and complaint data.
  • ? Officer assistance and support: Ensuring that officers are provided access to support services, including physical and mental health services, and requiring Ferguson to develop protocols to ensure that officers are provided relief support during public demonstrations and periods of civil unrest.
  • ? Recruitment: Requiring Ferguson to develop a recruitment plan that will assist FPD in attracting and retaining a highly qualified officer workforce.
  • ? Mental health crisis intervention: Requiring that Ferguson and FPD implement and train officers in specialized responses to incidents involving individuals in mental health crisis.
  • ? Data collection, reporting, and transparency: Requiring FPD to collect the data on its operations needed for it to continue to learn and improve upon its police and court practices.
  • ? School resource officers (SROs): Ensuring that Ferguson SROs have the skills to work lawfully, productively, and fairly with youth; requiring SROs to divert students toward alternatives; and minimizing the use of force in schools.

? Municipal court reform: Enacting reforms to ensure that municipal code enforcement is driven by public safety, not a desire to raise revenue; implementing an amnesty program for all open cases and associated warrants initiated prior to January 1, 2014; eliminating unnecessary fees and altering the court’s fine and warrant practices to ensure due process; increasing transparency of court operations; eliminating the use of secured money bonds; ensuring that no person will be jailed for being poor; and ensuring the independence of the court from the city prosecutor and the impartiality of the municipal judge.

An independent monitor was to be selected by the Justice Department and the City of Ferguson to assess implementation of the consent decree, provide technical assistance to Ferguson, and report on Ferguson’s implementation of reforms through periodic public reports. The consent decree required two consecutive years of compliance by Ferguson before the agreement could be terminated.

The settlement agreement helped to vindicate the citizens of Ferguson and partially satisfy members of the Black Lives Matter movement. But by that point the movement had gained momentum as demonstrated by activities that took place between the time the Saint Louis County grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson and the U.S. Justice Department released its report on policing in Ferguson. Both the citizens of Ferguson and the supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement clearly demonstrated the power of social media warfare tactics to motivate and mobilize people to support a social cause.

It should be noted that, upon further investigation, it was found that numerous municipalities in Saint Louis Country relied on the same policing and court practices as Ferguson to increase their revenues. The Missouri legislature took steps to impose dollar limits on what municipalities can generate through such practices. However, this is still a hotly contested issue in Missouri and municipalities are trying to fight back and protect their revenue streams regardless of how harmful and discriminatory their practices are toward minorities and the poor.

 
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