Ferguson – An Arab Spring moment

The Ferguson story was an Arab Spring moment when social media inspired social change. It rejuvenated the civil rights movement and started a new national conversation about race and policing.

In remarks to the Ethical Society in St. Louis on Oct. 25, GJR publisher William H. Freivogel looked back at the impact of social media on Ferguson.

I’ve been a reporter for almost 50 years, covering free speech, civil rights and the First Amendment most that time.  I’ve covered the U.S. Supreme Court, presidential campaigns, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, police brutality in the Maplewood police department, dioxin contamination of Missouri and the successful effort to keep the St. Louis-St. Louis County school desegregation program alive.

But Ferguson is the biggest, most important story I’ve covered.

We may look back on Ferguson as the beginning of the rebirth of the civil rights movement.  We may also see it as America’s Arab Spring when it comes to social media setting the agenda and spurring political change.  It’s safe to say Ferguson would not have played out as it did had it not been for Twitter.

The subject of the Ferguson story is the most important story of this nation’s life – our effort to escape the sins of slavery and segregation and to perfect our imperfect experiment in equality.  The Justice Department’s report on Ferguson’s police and municipal court system demonstrates there are a lot of imperfections.  It found racist, unconstitutional police practice in Ferguson – practices that most likely exist in thousands of Fergusons around the nation.  Those other towns just haven’t been under the Department of Justice’s microscope.

The reform of the municipal courts in St. Louis County is also a reminder that practices fair in form – say the issuance of a bench warrant when a traffic violator fails to appear in court – can wreck poor people’s lives and turn our municipal holdovers into something approximating debtors’ prisons.

One of the main points I would like to make this morning is Ferguson is complicated, with a capital C.

It’s like many ethical questions that don’t have clear right and wrong answers.  Answers aren’t found rushing to conclusions based on ideology and group affiliation, divorced from facts.  Instead, judgments should be based on core values, historical context and a search for facts.

 Let me give you a dozen examples of how complicated Ferguson is:

1.   Social media broke almost all of the news about Ferguson but they also spread most of the myths and hate speech.

2.   Social media became a way for protesters to reach out to a national and international audience, but the national media often got the story wrong.

3.   At the same time that social media became a way to reach out for a broader audience, they also spread early, inaccurate rumors and stories spread, leading to unreliable statements from supposed eyewitnesses to the shooting of Michael Brown.

4.   The Hands Up, Don’t Shoot story quickly took hold in the nation and the world, but it turned out not to be substantiated.

5.   Although a myth, Hands Up Don’t Shoot became a powerful force for addressing a long, festering problem of white police officers shooting unarmed black suspects and of police allowing minor stops to escalate into life-or-death situations.

6.   The powerful call for civil rights that emerged from Ferguson often failed to recognize Officer Darren Wilson had civil rights too, most specifically a constitutional right of due process.

7.   Ferguson may have been the rebirth of the nation’s civil rights movement, but this isn’t our generation’s civil rights movement. This is a movement of young people who have little regard for the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the past.  The same is true across racial lines.  One of the most viewed tweeters about Ferguson, Sarah Kendzior, tweeted recently, “All around me people of my generation drowning, while boomers toss out useless life vests of their memories.”

8.   Ministers in St. Louis were among the most outspoken leaders in the protest, but they too may have gone overboard in chanting for police officers to “repent.”

9.   St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch inspired little confidence that the investigation of the shooting would be fair and complete; but McCulloch’s release of grand jury testimony and his inclusion of exculpatory evidence addressed the most common civil rights criticisms of the grand jury process.

10. Even though there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Wilson on criminal charges, that doesn’t mean Wilson handled the encounter with Brown properly; he didn’t.

11. Even though the killing of Michael Brown had nothing to do with municipal courts, the reforms in the municipal court system that followed are among the most important reforms that have grown out of Ferguson.

12. That said, even though the legislation passed by the Missouri Legislature last year to reform municipal courts was called the Ferguson reform bill, it has little impact on Ferguson and its greatest impact may be to put out of business the tiny municipalities with African-American leadership.

13. Just as the press was slow in recognizing the myth of Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, it also failed to recognize the magnitude of the unconstitutional policing in Ferguson until the Justice Department revealed it excruciating detail.

Ferguson – symbol for injustice

The question I’m asked most often is why Ferguson went in a few days during the summer of 2014 from being the obscure name of a quiet, residentially integrated suburb to a word known around the world as a symbol for everything wrong with America.

Here are some of the key factors that turned the shooting of Michael Brown from a small story that probably wouldn’t have made the national news or the local front page into a national crisis.

1)   Leaving Michael Brown dead on the street for four hours.  The Justice Department after-action assessment released this September stressed the role this four-hour period played in angering the crowd – although the report also pointed out that shots were fired at the police performing the forensic analysis and that the results of the forensics were crucial to the resolution to the case.

2)   The failure to immediately name the police officer who shot Brown. Did the press have a right to the name?  Probably not. But in Cincinnati officials have learned from past shooting like Ferguson and name the officer right away and release any video.

3)   The similar deaths of other unarmed black men at the hands of police, creating a critical mass of tragedies of this kind – Staten Island, Cleveland, North Charleston, Tulsa, Baltimore.

4)   Police with dogs, reminiscent of Bull Connor.  The Justice Department after action report stressed the role of dogs in angering demonstrators and urged that police departments not use dogs in crowd control.

5)   Police in military gear with military vehicles and red lasers pointed at protesters’ chests.

6)   Failure to respect the First Amendment rights of citizens and journalists.  Police tried to ban night-time protests, tried to force protesters to keep walking, overused tear gas and arrested reporters, hassling and threatening others.

7)   A whirlwind of social media, cable and national and local media, often failing to check out facts before they were tweeted or reported to the nation. #ferguson flew by on the screen faster than it could be read – and far faster than a community or nation could comprehend.

8)   Most importantly, Ferguson reminded us we haven’t solved many of the racial problems we hoped we had gotten past.  Mike Brown’s high school was broken and unaccredited.  He lived in a segregated housing project.  And the town of Ferguson was engaged in racist policing.

Violating the First Amendment

Many of the violations of constitutional rights occurred in the couple of days after Brown’s shooting. Five days after the shooting, Gregory Magarian, constitutional law expert at Washington University law school put it this way in a story for St. Louis Public Radio: “Police and officials in Ferguson have declared war on the First Amendment. Since Sunday’s police shooting of an unarmed student, Michael Brown, local officials and law enforcement have blatantly violated three core First Amendment principles: our right to engage in peaceful political protest, the importance of open government; and the freedom of the press. In the space of one evening, police in Ferguson conducted a master class in destroying the freedom of the press.”

Reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post had been arrested in a McDonald’s restaurant when they did not quickly obey a police order to leave.  St. Louis alderman Antonio French, whose blogs from the protests have been journalistic, was arrested for not leaving a protest that had been declared an illegal assembly. And police fired tear gas close to an Al Jazeera America crew setting up for a report.

PEN America released a report in October documenting 52 instances of infringement of journalists’ rights, including 21 arrests. The other instances of interference included 13 incidents of journalists threatened with guns or bodily harm, 7 who faced tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds, and 11 instances where police obstructed reporters. PEN noted freedom of expression and the press are not just rights guaranteed by the First Amendment but universal rights guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The main abuses of the rights of protesters and the press were:

1)    Trying to enforce a rule that required protesters to keep moving instead of stopping to assemble – the so-called 5 second rule.   A federal court ruled that policy unconstitutional after a suit by the local ACLU.

2)    Overuse of tear gas.  A federal court ruled police did not follow strict protocols for when tear gas is appropriate, failing to give proper warnings and failing to consider whether the crowd had ways of escaping the gas.

3)    Threatening to arrest reporters and demonstrators who recorded the officers’ actions. Police don’t have the authority to make that threat.  It is uniformly improper for police to stop photography, tell journalists to turn off their cameras or try to make journalists erase photographs.  The public is entitled to see with its own eyes, through media photography, whatever is happening.

Press’ Mistakes

I’ve dwelled so far on the mistakes made by law enforcement.  But there also were mistakes by the media – both traditional and social.  Here are a few examples:

–      First example: Fox misreported Brown had broken Officer Wilson’s eye socket.

–       Second example: Ferguson was portrayed as a symbol of segregation and white flight – a ring of fire around St. Louis, the New York Times said – when Ferguson actually is one of the most residentially integrated suburbs in an otherwise residentially segregated St. Louis area.

–       Third example: The New York Times committed journalistic malpractice by reporting the name of the street where Darren Wilson had lived and then refused to admit to the ethical breach.

–       Fourth example: ProPublica published an influential data analysis concluding young African American men were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts in the past three years.


 Most of the mainstream media picked up the report as gospel.  Few paid attention to the work of Peter Moskos, a criminologist at John Jay, pointing out the disparity was so large partly because of the way ProPublica sliced the data.

Looking at the bigger, 15-year picture, Moskos found black youths were about 6 times more likely than white youths to be killed by officers – still too many but far from the 21 times.


–       Fifth example:  When the press showed up at McCulloch’s press conference the night of the decision not to indict, reporters put on the most pitiful performance I have ever seen.  Three reporters asked the same unanswerable question – what was the vote of the grand jurors.  One reporter began his question with a polemic about the law not protecting African-Americans. Reporters were offended McCulloch blamed social media for distortions, but the DOJ report released in March proved him right.

–       Example 6:  I had a personal window into one of the press’ failures.  I reported for St. Louis Public Radio that McCulloch had changed the legal instructions to the grand jury at the last minute – making it easier to indict Wilson, not harder – MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell picked up the story, distorted what had happened, injected factual inaccuracies and claimed it was a reason for a new grand jury.  O’Donnell’s distortions were picked up as gospel by a liberal echo chamber.

Hands Up, Don’t Shoot

Overall, much of the national media followed a narrative trail that prejudged Wilson as guilty based on initial, unreliable eyewitness accounts to the media.  The story of the gentle giant on his way to college who had his hands up in a don’t shoot surrender mode and who was supposedly shot in the back by police – didn’t hold up under scrutiny.

The same day the Justice Dept. issued its stinging indictment of the unconstitutional police practices in Ferguson, it issued another report effectively clearing Wilson in Brown’s death.  It turned out not one witness had heard Brown say “don’t shoot” and none of the 22 witnesses who said Brown’s hands were up when he was shot was found to be credible.  Eight admitted lying, another admitted hallucinating. Others said they just wanted to be part of something important for the neighborhood.


The DOJ report described the way in which the media contributed to the creation of this myth. The story of the Jefferson County contractors is a good illustration:

A month after Wilson killed Brown, CNN broadcast what looked like a blockbuster “exclusive.” It was a videotape of two white construction workers who said Brown had his hands up when killed.  CNN reported the video was taken in “the final moments of the shooting.” One worker even gestures with his hands up.


At MSNBC, Chris Hayes carried a long report and Lawrence O’Donnell followed up. Vox had a story as did the Washington Post. Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept included an account of the workers in its summary of evidence against Wilson entitled, “Down Outright Murder.”

But instead of a game changer or evidence of a crime – as Jeffrey Toobin put it on CNN – the contractors turned out to be two of a score of unreliable witnesses and the clearest example of how the media helped create the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” myth.

The video was not taken in “the final moments of the shooting,” as CNN reported.  Nor were the accounts of the contractors credible.

The man who thrusts his hands in the air told a TV station that three officers were at the scene when only Wilson was there. That was the tipoff error that convinced the Justice Department the men hadn’t seen what they claimed.  The other tipoffs were that the men’s view of the end of the encounter was blocked by a building and no one else heard Brown say over and over, OK OK OK.

It turned out that the person who shot the video of the contractors put down the Ipad and it picked up the conversation of people talking right after the incident who claimed to have seen the shooting but said things that couldn’t have happened.

The Washington Post rated the hands up don’t shoot story as 4 Pinocchios.

St. Louis’ Arab spring

Up to this point I’ve mostly focused on the mainstream media.  But that’s misleading because of the enormous impact of the social media.

I don’t think it is a stretch to say social media – Twitter in particular – had a greater impact on the public’s view of what happened in Ferguson than did the mainstream media.

Social media had many positive and negative impacts:

On the positive side:

–       Social media provided a way protesters could get their message out and not feel they were limited to what the traditional media would report.

–       Social media enabled the protesters to attract the attention of the national and international media, making Ferguson and all of the other ensuing police shootings of black men into big stories instead of small local ones.

–       Social media became the means by which a new generation of civil rights leaders began organizing and assuming power.

On the other hand:

–       Social media and citizen journalists created a chaotic scene where police couldn’t tell who was a reporter and who was a demonstrator.

–       The sheer volume of the tweets added to the chaos. Five days after the shooting of Michael Brown. Twitter users had shared 3,648,032 and another 3.5 million on the 6th day.

–       The rumors about Hands up don’t shoot were magnified by social media.

–       Although the main impact of social media was to promote the protesters’ cause, there were also many racist posting on sites like yic yack.


Anonymous was one of the most poisonous of the online media – misidentifying the shooter and then claiming to name the officers in the offending department – but naming the police in Florissant, not Ferguson.

Livestreaming video became especially important, but once again could distort.  Bassem Masri was identified by the Sunday New York Times as one of the citizen journalists most prominent in recording what happened in Ferguson.

One would think livestreaming would be the most objective way of reporting on a story – live video can’t lie – right?  The problem is the Masri and other live streamers would inject their own interpretations and sometimes diatribes.

 In one of Masri’s livestreams he is recording a shoving match at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen last winter when the board considered a civilian review board.  On the video someone is shouting a stream of profane, racist invective at Jeff Roorda, a white police union official.  It turns out the invective was coming from Masri himself.  Some citizen journalist.


In Baltimore lst spring, there was a replay of the way false rumors can spread like wildfire from angry demonstrators, careless reporters and livestreamers. Mike Tobin, a Fox correspondent broadcast having seen a police officer shoot a fleeing black man in the back.  Hannah Allam, a seasoned war correspondent, also sent out misleading tweets of what she thought she saw. Then a livestreamer, recording a chaotic Baltimore street scene, began repeating over and over on Ustream.

Baltimore police shot a man in the back and they’re macing people – Tweet it out.



Yet the police didn’t shoot anyone and the alleged victim in dire condition wasn’t shot.


Just because Hands Up Don’t Shoot was a myth does not mean there is no problem with police shooting unarmed blacks and Hispanics.

The killing of Michael Brown shouldn’t have happened.  Darren Wilson didn’t commit a crime, but he didn’t use the best police tactics either.  Many of the cases where black citizens are killed by white police officers are the result of officers confronting citizens over minor infractions and allowing the situation to escalate.

Wilson should have called for backup before confronting Brown, police experts say.  The Cleveland officers who killed the young man with the starter pistol drove up too aggressively and closely.  The confrontation with Eric Garner did not have to play out as it did.  The same can be said of the shooting in North Charleston, the confrontation with Sandra Bland and the Texas swimming pool confrontation.

I don’t believe I’m overstating things when I say Ferguson has helped revitalize the civil rights movement nationally, has focused new attention on the need for better training and discipline of police and has reminded the nation and the community that they haven’t come close to solving the problems of race.

–       The recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing are promoting more training on community policing and de-escalation and more cameras on squad cars and officers.

–       The Justice Department’s detailed studies of the way law enforcement responded to the disturbances in Ferguson provides lessons for police – don’t use police dogs to control demonstrators, don’t use military equipment to shine laser sites on demonstrators, don’t use flashbangs, warn protesters before using tear gas and allow them a way to escape it and finally have a unified command structure.

–       The Justice Department’s review of St. Louis County policing also makes important recommendations for better training in de-escalation and community policing.

–       And the Ferguson Commission’s 100-plus recommendations provide a challenge to the St. Louis community to improve more than just policing but also housing and education.

No, we’re not in a post-racial society.  I don’t think any of us here will experience such a society.  The challenges that face us in St. Louis and as a nation are monumental.  The recommendations of the Ferguson Commission aren’t suddenly going to provide students with an equal education.  Brown v. Board outlawed separate but equal education 60 years ago, but the students in Normandy and so many other school districts are attending separate but unequal schools today.  Similarly, St. Louis remains one of the five or six most racially segregated places in the country when it comes to housing.  Remedying that is the work of decades, not years.

But there is quite a bit of evidence that one very good thing that grew out of Michael Brown’s tragic death is that St. Louis and the nation have woken up and recommitted themselves to equality and justice.