Everything That’s Going Wrong in Ferguson

Documenting the police response to the latest round of Michael Brown protests.

Ferguson, Missouri August 20, 2014
Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, reacts to hearing a grand jury decision to not press charges against the white police officer who shot dead her unarmed 18-year-old son, on Nov. 24, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Photo by Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

After the announcement that a grand jury had declined to indict Darren Wilson, Ferguson, Missouri, was the site of “many fires, frequent bursts of gunshots, looting, and waves of tear gas,” in the words of the New York Times. Before the night was out, “West Florissant Avenue—the epicenter of the summer riots after the shooting—was again in flames,” reports the Washington Post. According to the Associated Press, “Monday night’s protests were far more destructive than any of those that followed Brown’s death.” More than a dozen businesses were burned, at least 14 people were injured, and 61 arrests were made in Ferguson, with an additional 21 in nearby St. Louis. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, speaking at a press conference at 1:30 a.m., said that he personally heard at least 150 gunshots in the Ferguson area.

The grand jury’s findings were never going to settle the debate about Wilson’s decision to open fire on the unarmed Michael Brown—an indictment simply would have pushed prosecutors to move forward with a trial. What’s happening now isn’t just about the decision not to charge Wilson. It’s about how the community is voicing its frustration and how—or perhaps whether—authorities are allowing them to do so. When the unrest began this summer, police escalated confrontations on the ground, brandishing military-grade riot gear in response to both the largely peaceful protests and the occasionally violent ones. That crackdown was greeted by an aggressive response from protesters, which in turn brought an even harsher crackdown from police. That cycle repeated itself on a nightly basis for more than a week.

In the wake of this summer’s most heated protests, we offered our best attempt at a comprehensive timeline that documented law enforcement behavior that ranged from rational and possibly justified to highly questionable and downright unconstitutional. The question this time is whether authorities have learned from their mistakes or are doomed to repeat them. Below, you’ll find our latest installment documenting the interplay between how the protesters are protesting and the police are policing. We will continue to update the timeline in the days to come. Our original timeline is also reprinted below the rundown of more recent events.


Monday, Nov. 17: Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declares a pre-emptive state of emergency.

The governor, who was criticized this summer for his slow response to the original protests, was eager to avoid being caught flatfooted again. “Regardless of the outcomes of the federal and state criminal investigations, there is the possibility of expanded unrest,” Nixon said in his executive order, which authorized the deployment of the National Guard to Ferguson. “The state of Missouri will be prepared to appropriately respond to any reaction to these announcements.” Not everyone was pleased with the plan to declare an emergency before anyone had done anything, particularly given how the police’s aggressive response this summer fanned the flames of unrest. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie reminded us: “[A]t first dozens, then hundreds of people gathered to peacefully protest the shooting and demand answers for why Brown’s body was allowed to lie in the sun for four hours before police took action. If there was unrest that day, it was less because of the protesters and more because of police.”


Monday, Nov. 24: St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch schedules a prime-time press conference to announce the grand jury’s decision.

Community leaders had asked that McCulloch provide a 48-hour warning before announcing the grand jury’s decision in hopes that the delay would help keep the peace. Not only was McCulloch unwilling to wait two days—he scheduled the announcement for 8 p.m. local time, ensuring that the early demonstrations would occur overnight. The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery pointed out on Twitter that “Announcing at night allows for rush hour traffic to clear, schools to get all children home.” Still, it’s hard to image that an 8 a.m. press conference, followed by hour upon hour of daylight, could have made things worse. McCulloch’s announcement itself, meanwhile, was lengthy and yet somehow still frustratingly vague.


Monday, Nov. 24: Protests begin in earnest.

Small groups had been demonstrating in and around Ferguson for days ahead of the decision, and a large group had gathered at the Clayton courthouse to await the grand jury’s announcement. Almost immediately after McCullouch announced there would be no charges for Wilson, the protests began in full force. While many of the protesters behaved peacefully, some demonstrations devolved into violence. News cameras captured a group of protesters vandalizing a police car. Before the night was out, several buildings were burned and some businesses were looted.

Monday, Nov. 24: Local authorities deploy tear gas to break up demonstrations.

According to CNN, officials suggested prior to the grand jury announcement that they would not deploy tear gas as they had this summer. That promise quickly went unfulfilled. Shortly after the demonstrations began, police began firing tear gas canisters into the crowds of protesters, small groups of which had already turned destructive. As Dahlia Lithwick and Daria Roithmayr previously explained in Slate, the use of tear gas by police for crowd control is generally unconstitutional. The due process clause of the Constitution bans officers from using excessive force even when they are attempting to control a crowd or arrest a suspect. “And tear gas is in a category all its own,” Lithwick and Roithmayr wrote. “Not only is unleashing it into a crowd an unconstitutional exercise of excessive force, but its use is banned by international law.”

Monday, Nov. 24: Police justify calls for dispersal by pointing to traffic.

Local authorities had suggested they would give demonstrators a relatively wide berth to voice their frustrations. The one catch? Protesters are not allowed to disrupt traffic—a requirement that led even the most peaceful demonstrators to run afoul of the ground rules.

Monday, Nov. 24: The Federal Aviation Administration places temporary flight restrictions over Ferguson after deeming it a hazardous area.

The restrictions bar media helicopters and commercial planes from flying within a 3-mile radius of the city if they’re flying under 3,000 feet. According to the Los Angeles Times, the “no-fly zone is the strictest kind legally available to the FAA.” The agency issued the same restriction this summer at the request of local police, who claimed at the time that the ban was needed because one of its own choppers was shot at “multiple times.” Despite those ostensible safety concerns, audio recordings show that “local authorities privately acknowledged the purpose was to keep away news helicopters during violent street protests,” according to the Associated Press.

Tuesday, Nov. 25: Gov. Nixon orders more Missouri National Guardsmen to Ferguson.

Shortly after 1 a.m. local time, the Missouri governor announced that he had ordered the deployment of additional guardsmen. “The Guard is providing security at the Ferguson Police Department, which will allow additional law enforcement officers to protect the public,” the governor said in a statement.

Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 25: Gov. Nixon triples National Guard presence.

At an afternoon press conference, Nixon announced that there would be 2,200 guardsmen available Tuesday, more than triple Monday’s total. “Last night was a disaster. It’s very disappointing,” Nixon said. “Criminals intent on lawlessness and destruction terrorized this community.” The governor’s announcement came after Ferguson Mayor James Knowles complained that state officials had been slow to deploy the National Guard on Monday. “Unfortunately as the unrest grew and further assistance was needed, the National Guard was not deployed in enough time to save all of our businesses,” the mayor said at his own press conference.

Tuesday night, Nov. 25: Second night brings skirmishes, but less destruction.

The second night of post-grand-jury protests was significantly less chaotic, a result that officials and some observers credited to the heavier law enforcement presence. Still, there were a handful of flare-ups and skirmishes, including several instances of people throwing “rocks, tents poles, and bottles—some containing urine—at officers,” according to the Associated Press. Some demonstrators took their anger out on a police car, breaking its windows, flipping it, and ultimately setting it on fire. A second blaze was set at a local Walgreens.

The most significant confrontation occurred outside Ferguson City Hall, where several windows were shattered—an act that prompted police to deploy tear gas for what officials said was the only time that night. Shortly before midnight local time, police instructed the crowd to leave the area, an order that was eventually imposed with physical force. “It took about an hour for the authorities to clear the street, by charging into the crowd with shields and clubs, and spraying some people with pepper spray,” according to the New York Times.

All told, officials said they had made 45 arrests overnight, seven for felonies with most of the rest for failure to disperse. “I think, generally, it was a much better night,” St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said.

* * *



Saturday, Aug. 9, early afternoon: A white Ferguson Police officer, later identified as Darren Wilson, shoots and kills Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old.

Two competing narratives quickly emerged about the incident, one from police who say that the officer acted in self-defense and one from several witnesses who have said that Wilson was the aggressor. What both sides agree on is that Brown was unarmed at the time of the shooting. County prosecutors began presenting evidence to a grand jury 11 days later, but it will likely take months before jurors reach a decision on whether Wilson should be charged. If he ultimately is, many details of the official investigation could remain sealed until trial, making it likely that questions about what happened in the moments before Wilson opened fire will remain unanswered for the foreseeable future.


Saturday, Aug. 9, early afternoon: Wilson allegedly does not alert dispatch to the shooting.

This detail remains unconfirmed. It stems from comments made by the attorney for Dorian Johnson, the friend who was with Brown during the confrontation with police. The lawyer complained to the Washington Post that in the immediate aftermath of the shooting the “officer doesn’t attempt to resuscitate [Brown]. … He does not call for medical help. The officer didn’t call it in that someone had been shot.” But, as PunditFact has explained, there is reason to doubt that claim. Incident reports later released by Ferguson police indicate a prompt response, and an audio recording from the St. Louis County dispatch also suggests that police requested assistance with crowd control in the area.

Saturday, Aug. 9, afternoon: Brown’s body remains at the scene of the shooting for several hours, a large portion of that time uncovered.

This grisly detail is undisputed. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson told reporters that one reason for the delay in processing the crime scene was that officers at the scene heard gunfire nearby (although those shots were never confirmed). Adding to the community’s anguish at seeing Brown’s body in the middle of the road was the fact that his mother, Lesley McSpadden, was at the scene pleading with police. “Why y’all got my son out in the street?” McSpadden told the officers, according to a neighbor who was present. Even Jackson would later admit that he was “uncomfortable” with how long Brown’s body remained in the open.

Sunday, Aug. 10, morning: Police provide only limited information about the shooting.

At a morning press conference, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the shooting was sparked by a physical confrontation instigated by Brown, and that Brown at one point reached for the officer’s gun. Belmar declined to provide further details or release the name of the officer. As for the number of times the unarmed teen was shot, Belmar offered up a sound bite that encapsulated what many saw as authorities’ cavalier attitude about Brown’s death. “It was more than just a couple, but I don’t think it was many more than that,” the chief said.


Sunday, Aug. 10: The police respond to growing protests with military-grade riot gear.

Ferguson residents gathered at the scene of Brown’s death on Saturday, and a smaller group of roughly 100 people rallied outside Ferguson police headquarters later that night. The demonstrations gained significant steam on Sunday night, with a growing number of residents congregating on West Florissant Avenue. While largely peaceful, the protests were not entirely so. A candlelight vigil was marred by violence as protesters smashed car windows and looted local businesses.

Fearing the worst about what was then still largely a peaceful demonstration, authorities responded by deploying officers in military-grade riot gear and armored trucks, quickly setting the tone for what would unfold over the following days. Radley Balko, who literally wrote the book on the militarization of American police, has already documented how dressing for battle increases the chances that you’ll engage in one. Several police chiefs have also expressed reservations about the gear in the past. “Some say not using it exposes my officers to a little bit more risk,” Chris Burbank, a police chief in Salt Lake City, told Balko last fall. “That could be, but risk is part of the job. I’m just convinced that when we don riot gear, it says ‘throw rocks and bottles at us.’ It invites confrontation. Two-way communication and cooperation are what’s important.”

Sunday, Aug. 10: Officers respond with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Local police, playing the part for which they are dressed, confronted protesters by firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. Dahlia Lithwick and Daria Roithmayr have already explained in Slate how such actions are unconstitutional. The due process clause of the Constitution bans officers from using excessive force even when they are attempting to control a crowd or arrest a suspect. “And tear gas is in a category all its own,” Lithwick and Roithmayr wrote. “Not only is unleashing it into a crowd an unconstitutional exercise of excessive force, but its use is banned by international law.”

Sunday, Aug. 10: Authorities dispatch officers with police dogs to help control the crowds.

Deploying tear gas and rubber bullets garnered the most attention, but the police made another highly questionable decision in attempting to control the crowds. Authorities also dispatched a number of officers with police dogs, a move that drew comparisons to how police used similar tactics during the Jim Crow era. As former Seattle Police Chief Norman Stamper, who was in charge during widespread protests in his city in 1999, later told Vox, “using dogs for crowd control is operationally, substantively, and from an image point-of-view just about the worst thing you can do.”

Sunday, Aug. 10: Officers use an LRAD sound cannon in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

A journalist live-streaming the demonstrations for Argus Radio captured the sound cannons, which blast pain-inducing noises over long distances, on film. The technology has previously sparked fears that it can cause permanent hearing loss, particularly if an officer isn’t properly trained in how to use it. “Human discomfort starts when a sound hits 120dB, well below the LRAD’s threshold,” Gizmodo explains. “Permanent hearing loss begins at 130dB, and if the device is turned up to 140dB, anyone within its path would not only suffer hearing loss, they could potentially lose their balance and be unable to move out of the path of the audio.”

Tuesday, Aug. 12: Police backtrack on releasing the name of the officer involved in the shooting.

Chief Jackson canceled plans to release the name of the officer who shot Brown, citing concerns for the safety of the officer and his colleagues. This decision further inflamed an already frustrated community, further fueling unrest among protesters who had been demanding answers (and getting none) for several days.

Tuesday, Aug. 12: The FAA bans low-flying aircraft over Ferguson.

The agency issued the temporary restrictions—which effectively barred news helicopters from the city’s skies—at the request of local police, who claimed the ban was needed after one of its own choppers was shot at “multiple times on Sunday night,” according to a spokesman.​ The ban was originally supposed to last one week but was extended for another seven days on Monday, Aug. 18, “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities,” according to the FAA.

Wednesday, Aug. 13: Ferguson police officers reportedly remove their nametags and refuse to identify themselves when asked.

Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly was among the first to point out the lack of ID, a fact that was then confirmed by numerous photos. Some states require a police officer to identify him- or herself, but former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom, now a professor of criminal justice at the University of MissouriSt. Louis, told Slate that he was “not aware” of any law that required police in Missouri to wear identification or give their names if asked. Still, the seeming anonymity, and resulting unaccountability, of officers in Ferguson would become a running theme.

Wednesday, Aug. 13: Police arrest the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post’s Reilly at a local McDonald’s.

The two reporters were using the fast-food joint as a staging area during their coverage of the protests outside when police entered the establishment and instructed them to leave. According to Lowery, the police gave conflicting instructions on how they were supposed to exit and eventually decided that they weren’t leaving fast enough, at which point they were taken into custody. The arrests prompted critical responses by a number of media organizations, as well as President Obama, who had this to say the following day: “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.” Even in the moment, Ferguson authorities appeared to see the problem. Told what had happened by a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, the local police chief responded, “Oh, God.”

Wednesday, Aug. 13: Police arrest Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, along with a dozen or so protesters.

The detention of reporters generated the most coverage of any arrests in Ferguson, with this possible exception. French, a local official who had been meeting with protesters and documenting the actions of police, remained in jail overnight (unlike Lowery and Reilly) despite no formal charges ever being filed. French said that his arresting officer told him he was being taken into custody “because you didn’t listen.”

Wednesday, Aug. 13: A group of Al Jazeera America journalists is hit by tear gas while preparing to broadcast.

The incident was captured on camera, and the images quickly spread on social media, along with rumors that police also confiscated the crew’s equipment. The following day, however, the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department released a statement saying that the journalists were not specifically targeted. Once a SWAT team discovered the Al Jazeera crew had been caught in the cloud of tear gas, the department said, members helped the journalists to safety and later disassembled their equipment for them. A representative for the department also said the reporters “thanked their officers” for the help. Al Jazeera later confirmed that police eventually did come to the aid of its crew, but cameraman Sam Winslade disputed the suggestion that he and his colleagues weren’t originally targeted. “We were fired at from a police MRAP vehicle,” Winslade told the Wrap, referring to the armored vehicles the police were using. He said that after seeking shelter between houses, a different police vehicle eventually pulled up. “They opened the back of the vehicle and ordered us inside,” he said.

Thursday, Aug. 14: Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson takes charge of operations on the ground.

Johnson, a black Ferguson native, was brought in to coordinate the police response and quickly instituted a less aggressive policy toward protesters. That night’s demonstrations went smoothly. The iconic moment of the night was Johnson marching with—and hugging—protesters. As the Associated Press put it: “Within hours [of the change in command], the mood among protesters becomes lighter, even festive. The streets are filled with music, free food and even laughter.”

Friday, Aug. 15: The Ferguson Police Department releases the name of the officer—but also surveillance footage purporting to show Brown robbing a convenience store shortly before he was shot and killed.

Almost a week after the shooting, the Ferguson police finally heeded the calls to name the officer who shot Brown: Darren Wilson. But they released the surveillance footage at the same press conference, despite the fact that police would later admit that Wilson was unaware that Brown was a robbery suspect at the time of the shooting. The release of the video came against the wishes of the Justice Department, which reportedly feared that the footage would only elevate tensions. Such concerns proved correct: The good will that Johnson earned the previous night was in fact largely undone after the Ferguson Police Department’s press conference.

Saturday, Aug. 16: Gov. Jay Nixon declares a state of emergency and imposes a curfew.

The curfew—from midnight to 5 a.m.—largely failed as a crowd control effort, with clashes between protesters and police beginning on Saturday and Sunday in the hours before the curfew even began. Sunday’s unrest was particularly intense, marking one of the more violent days since the demonstrations began. It’s impossible to know if the curfew was to blame for the chaotic events, or if it simply failed to prevent them. Either way, the curfew was lifted on Monday, Aug. 18.

Sunday, Aug. 17: Officers make explicit threats to members of the media.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was threatened with mace and, in one of the more troubling moments caught on film since the demonstrations began, Mustafa Hussein, a journalist who had been live-streaming the unrest for Argus Radio, was warned by an officer to turn off his camera light lest he be “shelled.” While the previous week’s arrest of Lowery and Reilly appeared to happen almost by accident, Sunday night’s events suggested some officers had begun to specifically target members of the media.

Sunday, Aug. 17: A police officer is captured on camera shouting at protesters, “Bring it, all you fucking animals! Bring it!

Such language, Samuel Walker, the emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told Slate, was only a sign of the larger problems. “If they know they can get away with that type of language, that really defines the culture of the department,” Walker said.

Monday, Aug. 18: An anonymous source leaks details from the official autopsy that suggest Brown had marijuana in his system at the time of his death.

While the official results of the death investigation were still under wraps, an unnamed source leaked this detail in what many said was an attempt to smear Brown’s character. “Let me be real clear to everyone here,” Anthony Gray, an attorney for Brown’s family, told reporters. “This family never said Michael Brown was a perfect kid.”

Monday, Aug. 18: The governor calls in the National Guard.

Nixon made the decision to bring in the guardsmen without first alerting the White House. Calling in the guard was within Nixon’s rights, but clearly it irked the president. “I’ll be watching to see that it’s helping, not hindering, progress,” Obama said of Nixon’s decision to use the guard in a support role. Officials would not say how many members of the National Guard were deployed to Ferguson, although they suggested that they would mostly be used as a second line of defense at the unified command center.

Monday, Aug. 18: Several more reporters are arrested while doing their jobs.

CNN’s Don Lemon was shoved by police, and his colleague Jake Tapper was forced to flee tear gas. Getty photographer Scott Olson was arrested after he ventured outside one of the preapproved areas that police had been using to sequester reporters, and the Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux and others were detained overnight. “[N]eedless to say, it’s an outrage that he was stopped and handcuffed by police in the course of lawfully doing his job on the streets of Ferguson,” Intercept editor John Cook wrote in the hours after Devereaux’s arrest.

Tuesday, Aug. 19: Gov. Nixon says he won’t replace the county prosecutor despite concerns about his strong ties to police.

Residents, already fearing that there wouldn’t be a fair investigation into Brown’s death, worry that St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s family history will further stack the deck. According to the Associated Press, “McCulloch’s father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for the St. Louis Police Department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect.” Nixon, however, was unmoved by that evidence.

Tuesday, Aug. 19: An officer points his weapon directly at a protester.

The protests were largely peaceful Tuesday night, leading Johnson to declare at an overnight press conference, “I believe there was a turning point made.” But despite the relatively good vibes, there were still isolated issues that caused concern. An officer was seen pointing a semiautomatic assault rifle at a protester. When members of the crowd verbally confronted the officer, he responded: “I will fucking kill you. Get back.” Asked his name, he offered a similar rejoinder: “Go fuck yourself.” After the ACLU lodged an official complaint, the officer was relieved of duty and suspended indefinitely the following day.

Wednesday, Aug. 20: Cooling down.

The protests shrunk from large demonstrations to smaller groups circling the streets downtown. “The story of Ferguson isn’t over,” Slate’s Bouie wrote in a dispatch from the ground the following day. “There’s still a lot of energy, and local activists hope to channel it into something durable and long lasting. … But if [Wednesday] night is any indication, the large, mass protests of the last week are over.”

Thursday, Aug. 21: The National Guard begins to leave.

Nixon orders the Missouri National Guard to begin withdrawing from Ferguson, saying that the situation on the ground has greatly improved. In total, at least 155 people have been arrested since Brown’s shooting, with roughly 80 percent of those charged with “refusal to disperse.” While the large-scale demonstrations appear to have subsided for now, protesters are far from satisfied. On Thursday, attention shifts to those who are outraged by Nixon’s decision to allow McCulloch to lead the investigation into Brown’s death.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Ferguson.