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Media black outs. Militarised police. What the hell is going on in the US?

18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed.

Over the past few days, you might have seen the hashtag #Ferguson on social media. And, despite how amazing she is, it has nothing to do with ABC’s Sarah Ferguson.

The Missouri town has become the topic of international news headlines, after a young black man was shot multiple times by police. Peaceful protests have inspired a militarised response from the authorities – and now the world wants to know what’s really going on in Ferguson.

What started the protests in Ferguson?

18-year-old Michael Brown was days away from starting college, when he was stopped by a police officer in the street on August 9. Reports regarding the lead up to his death differ. SBS summarised the arguments of both sides:

What do the police say?

The St. Louis County’s police chief says that Michael Brown was walking with a friend in the middle of a street. When a police officer pulled up and tried to get out of his car, Brown pushed the police officer back into the car. The police say Brown proceeded to climb into the car, and tried to steal the officer’s gun. One shot was fired inside the car, before both Brown and the police got out of the car. On the street, Brown was fatally shot multiple times.

What do witnesses say?

Dorin Johnson, a friend who was walking with Brown in the middle of the street, says that the police officer pulled over and told them to “get the eff onto the sidewalk”. Then, the police officer grabbed Brown around the neck from his vehicle, and pulled him into the car.

Piaget Crenshaw, a second witness, says that after this altercation she saw police chasing Brown. “He ran for his life,” she said. “They shot him and he fell. He put his arms up to let them know that he was compliant and he was unarmed, and they shot him twice more and he fell to the ground and died.”

Multiple witnesses say that they saw Brown unarmed with his hands above his head, as he was shot multiple times.

Photo from one of the peaceful protests, from local councillor Antonio French’s twitter account.

The issues of race and law enforcement have again been pushed into the spotlight in America, with the peaceful protests organised around Ferguson being dealt with harshly by police. The officer who shot Brown is on administrative leave; but the protesters want the officer named and shamed.

What has been happening at the protests?

Protests started soon after the shooting, with people gathering at the spot where Michael Brown had died and chanting “Killer cops have got to go”.

The ABC reports that once the protests were under way, over 100 police officers were called to the scene. A petrol station was subsequently set on fire, and then tear gas was used on the crowd.

The Ferguson mayor issued a statement saying that anyone protesting on Monday morning would be arrested. This from the ABC:

Looting and riots were reported in neighbouring towns, and reports emerged on Wednesday of police using rubber bullets and wooden baton rounds on protesters.

As the protests gained momentum, more and more residents took to the streets to vent their anger about racial inequality in the town, as well as the increasingly militarised tactics employed by police forces across the country, especially towards ethnic minorities.

Michael Brown’s stepfather.

But it was when the protests turned digital that people started really paying attention to what was going on in Ferguson. A photo of Mr Brown’s stepfather holding a sign saying, “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son” was retweeted thousands of times.

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Photos of the police forces in Ferguson also started circulating, depicting the militarised police force with batons, riot shields, and armoured vehicles.

Another two shootings have occurred during the course of the protests. On Wednesday a St. Louis County police officer shot at a man who was reportedly pointing a gun at him, critically wounding the man. The same night a woman was shot in the head by another protester, but was not seriously injured.

Wednesday night appears to have been the turning point in the story, with clashes between police and protesters becoming more serious. Associated Press are reporting that some protesters were throwing Molotov cocktails at police on Wednesday night, while other reporters said that the protesters were mostly peaceful.

The images circulating on social media of the protests, have been likened to images coming out of war zones.

How has the situation escalated since last week?

Over the weekend, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced a state of emergency and curfew in Ferguson from midnight until 5am. During one clash, police moved to break up a protest that continued after midnight, after hearing reports of an armed break-in at a restaurant and a shooting.

Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson explained to reporters why the police moved in, explaining, “We have a shooting victim in critical condition that may lose her life.”

“We had a subject standing in the middle of the road with a handgun,” he continued. “We had a police car shot at tonight. And, yes, I think that was a proper response tonight, to maintain officer safety and public safety.”

Earlier in the week, Johnson – a local black man – replaced Ferguson Police Chief Jon Belmar, to ease tensions in the wake of the shooting. Today he gave a formal apology to the family of Michael Brown, saying, “I wear this uniform, and I should stand up here and say that I’m sorry.”

“I’ll tell you right now, I came in today and saw people cheering and people clapping; this is what the media needs to put on TV.”

Johnson has also reportedly been trying to promote a ‘hands off’ approach from the police since Thursday, replacing military-style gear and riot shields with regular police uniforms. He has also encouraged police to give peaceful protesters space.

Why are police trying to stop the media from reporting the story?

As the story grew, police started putting pressure on media outlets to stop reporting the story. ABC reports that camera crew from FOX and MSNBC were being told to turn off their cameras. Two reporters were also assaulted and detained while working inside a McDonalds, after police surrounded the fast food chain and ordered them to leave. One journalist was slammed into a drink machine, and the other had their head pushed against the glass window as they left the restaurant.

Further, tear gas and rubber bullets have been fired near TV network Al Jazeera. The network said in a statement that, “Al Jazeera is stunned by this egregious assault on freedom of the press that was clearly intended to have a chilling effect on our ability to cover this important story.”

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On-the-ground citizen journalists became the main sources of information in Ferguson, including tweets from the local councillor Antonio French. The Councillor was active on social media and covering the event on Wednesday night – but was then arrested.

Are black people treated unfairly by law enforcement in Ferguson?

The protesters are asking that the police officer who shot Brown to be named and fired from the force – but they also have another request. The community has stated that they want the police force to more accurately reflect the predominantly African-American community (currently there are only three black men in the police force); and that they don’t want to be racially targeted. Is racial targeting a problem in Ferguson?

SBS reports that:

Blacks make up 65 per cent of Ferguson’s population, yet they accounted for 93 per cent of arrests after traffic stops, 92 per cent of searches and 80 per cent of traffic stops in the city last year, according to a racial profiling report by the Missouri attorney general.

When stopped by police, blacks in Ferguson were twice as likely as whites to be arrested — even though police found contraband for 34 per cent of whites stopped, versus 22 per cent of blacks — said Scott Decker, a criminologist on a team contracted by the attorney general’s office to compile the data.

Obama has called for peace.

What’s next?

President Barack Obama has called for peace in the town. “Now is the time for healing. Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson,” he told reporters.  “Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done.”

Obama further said that he had asked the Department of Justice and the FBI to investigate the shooting.

“We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances. He was 18 years old and his family will never hold Michael in their arms again,” he said.

“When something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death and how they are protecting the people in their communities.”

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