NEW YORK/WASHINGTON – There was little violence after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer last July. Peace prevailed when at least four other unarmed black males were killed by police in recent months, from New York to Los Angeles.
Then 18-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri. And waves of rioting have convulsed the St. Louis suburb for more than 10 days.
The response to Brown’s death turned violent because of a convergence of factors, observers say, including the stark nature of the killing in broad daylight, an aggressive police response to protests, a mainly black city being run by white officials, and the cumulative effect of killing after killing after killing of unarmed black males.
“People are tired of it,” said Kevin Powell, president of the BK Nation advocacy group, who organized peaceful protests after Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was found innocent in Martin’s killing.
Powell is heading to Ferguson as an organizer and peace activist after the killing of Brown, who was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson. Battles have raged in Ferguson almost nightly, with stores looted, police firing tear gas and rubber bullets and people tossing Molotov cocktails. There have been dozens of arrests — though only seven so far were of Ferguson natives.
When police first confronted protesters with armored military vehicles, assault weapons and dogs, it reminded Powell of images from the 1960s civil rights movement.
“Zimmerman was one person. This is an entire police force,” he said. “It feels like the whole system doesn’t care.”
There are no reliable national statistics on people of any race killed by police. One study, relying on Internet searches of media reports, found 18 unarmed black people had been killed by police and security personnel in the first three months of 2012, including Trayvon Martin.
Some of the rioters, according to media reports, are hardened, violent young men who speak of seeking “justice,” which is often confused with revenge. Some are coming to Ferguson from out of town, whether to show solidarity or fight the crackdown, or possibly drawn to the media spectacle. Police have reported arrests of people from New York and California.
“It feels like a turning point,” said Blair L.M. Kelley, a history professor at North Carolina State University. “I think because so many black men die at the hands of the state.”
Body left for hours
Kelley and Powell both said that the nature of Brown’s killing fueled anger: He was shot at least six times in broad daylight, in the middle of the street, in his own housing complex. Then his body lay in the street for hours, uncovered, in a pool of blood, before being taken away.
“There were more than 100 people there looking at his body,” Kelley said.
She mentioned the killings of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man who was shot by a white officer after crashing his car in North Carolina last September, and a black woman, Renisha McBride, who crashed her car in Detroit, went to a nearby house and was shot dead through the front door.
“Those happened at nighttime, away from the public gaze,” Kelley said. “To leave Brown in the street like that, it was a disregard they could feel and taste and see.”
The last riots over an unarmed black death were in 2009, when Oscar Grant was killed by a white officer while lying face down on a train platform in California. Hundreds of businesses were damaged, cars were overturned and smashed, and more than 100 people were arrested.
Similar circumstances led to unrest in Cincinnati in 2001 and in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1996. One of America’s worst race riots ever was in 1992 in Los Angeles after the acquittal of four white officers who beat the black motorist Rodney King.
“Riots erupt when all other options have been closed,” said Cathy Schneider, an American University professor who studies race riots. “When people really feel vulnerable in the face of police violence and local authorities are totally impervious to community demands.”
Ferguson is 67 percent black; the mayor, city council, school board and police force are almost all white.
Schneider said that the riots of the 1960s gave rise to individuals and groups who could effectively negotiate tensions with police. That infrastructure may not exist in Ferguson, where the population has rapidly changed due to white flight, she said.
Local officials promised Tuesday to make changes and be more receptive to community concerns.
U.S. government prosecutors investigating the Ferguson shooting face an uphill fight delivering the swift or sweeping results demanded by rights activists.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch expects a local grand jury investigating the killing to take evidence until mid-October, while a federal investigation may take longer and with results just as uncertain.
Protesters have called for the arrest of Wilson since the killing of Brown. Defenders of the officer say he acted lawfully to defend himself during a confrontation with Brown.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder answered calls for an independent investigation this week, putting 40 FBI agents along with prosecutors in his Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division on the case.
What makes it difficult for the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute local police for criminal civil rights violations, even when a death results, is the high bar of proving an officer’s intent to violate civil rights.
Under laws in the United States, criminal charges of murder or manslaughter are most often left to the states, and federal criminal charges typically are brought against local law enforcement as violations of people’s civil rights.
“The government has to show that the police officer acted with specific intent to use more force than was reasonably necessary under the circumstances. You can’t prosecute a police officer for making a mistake or even for a lack of judgment,” said William Yeomans, a former acting head of the Civil Rights Division.
“That can be particularly hard,” he said. “They rarely set out to shoot someone.”
One of the Justice Department’s more notable successes prosecuting law enforcement officers on criminal charges was perhaps also one of the most prominent cases of the last 25 years: the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.
After being acquitted by a state jury, two officers were convicted in federal court, though four others were acquitted. Both were sentenced to 30 months. The two were criminally charged with deprivation of rights under color of law and aiding and abetting that deprivation of rights. It was a rare success for federal prosecutors, although the legal proceedings lasted some five years. King died in 2012.
In another case, federal prosecutors obtained convictions against five New Orleans police officers for killings in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The convictions were thrown out last year because of prosecutorial misconduct, but a judge has ordered a new trial.
In 2011, federal prosecutors secured a conviction of a police officer in Spokane, Washington, for a fatal beating five years earlier. The officer had pleaded not guilty. He was sentenced to four years and three months in prison.
Legal experts say that more often than not, federal prosecutions fall short. In 1999, four New York police officers fired 41 shots at unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo and killed him. Local prosecutors charged the officers, who were white, with second-degree murder and other counts.
A jury acquitted them in 2000, and in January 2001 federal prosecutors declined to bring a case of their own, citing a lack of proof that the officers had specific intent to use unnecessary force.
Federal prosecutors declined to bring charges also after New York police killed Sean Bell, an unarmed black man, on his wedding day in 2006. Since 2008, they have declined to charge police officers in other high-profile killings in California, Illinois, New York, Ohio and Washington state.
This time the pressures are greater on the Justice Department because of the nightly disturbances underscoring the community’s racial tensions and because of demands from civil rights leaders for federal government action.
Now a fellow at American University, Yeomans predicted the federal government would stand aside if St. Louis County brought a criminal case that validated the Justice Department’s interest in civil rights and only act if the state seemed unable or unwilling to vindicate the civil-rights interest.
Robert Driscoll, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, said that if it acts at all, the Justice Department would most likely bring a non-criminal civil rights case, such as one about patterns of possible police violations of people’s rights under the U.S. Constitution.