Ferguson's tenuous peace: How it could hold

Police made no arrests in Ferguson, Mo., Friday night, a first after two weeks of protests, riots, and looting. The best path to keeping the peace, Sen. Claire McCaskill says, is to be clear and open about the facts in the case.

Jeff Roberson/AP
Protesters walk in laps near the spot where Michael Brown was shot. Some were in organized groups, such as clergy members. More signs reflected calls to remove the prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, from the case.

Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson likened a third day of peace on the streets of strife-torn Ferguson, Mo., as suggesting “whispering winds of change” after race-tinged riots rocked the area for nearly two weeks following the killing of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson.

Whether authorities can keep those winds from whipping back into a fiery storm is now front and center for those trying to establish exactly why, and how, Mr. Brown was killed, and whether Officer Wilson stepped outside of protocol or law.

US Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D) of Missouri, a former prosecutor, has asked law enforcement, including Attorney General Eric Holder, to speed up the investigations into Brown’s death and, when the time comes, release all available forensic facts at around the same time the local investigation is completed. Laying out an entirety of known facts that either lead to charges or exoneration, experts say, may be critical to how the community responds.

Whether the peace can, or will, hold may be tested as early as Monday, when Brown will be buried.

"What we want to avoid is a decision being made without all the information being available to the public also," Sen. McCaskill told the Associated Press, since any hint of secrecy on the part of prosecutors could "create more stress and certainly much more fear that we would be back to worrying about people being able to protest safely."

Local reports suggest that protests are still ongoing, but have become smaller and more peaceful. There were no arrests Friday night, after nearly 200 over the last two weeks, most for failing to disperse.

The sequence of events since Brown’s shooting can certainly serve as a learning curve for local police, whose initial response to anger and protests, critics said, seemed secretive, militaristic, and arrogant.

“Angered by both the shooting itself and a lack of answers from local authorities, residents took to the streets of the St. Louis suburb to protest,” writes Slate’s Iowa City-based correspondent Josh Vorhees. “The police stoked those protests by brandishing military-grade equipment, sparking an aggressive response by some that in turn brought an even harsher crackdown from police. That cycle repeated itself on an almost nightly basis for the next 10 days.”

Local police continue to cause problems for their colleagues trying to keep the peace. A local officer was suspended this week after a video appeared showing him calling himself a “killer.” Another was punished for pointing a rifle at protesters and saying, “I’ll kill you.” In another case, news cameras caught one police officer calling protesters "animals."

At times, police brass, too, seemed to be playing a game instead of taking allegations of murder by police seriously. Even when releasing the name of the police officer, police also released a video showing Brown taking cigars from a liquor store and pushing a manager – but neglected to point out that the robbery is not why Wilson confronted Brown. Coming after a night of calm, the video release caused mayhem through the weekend.

But if local police haven’t helped matters, critics say neither has AG Eric Holder, whom some accuse of fanning the flames of anger with racially-charged rhetoric. “I understand that mistrust” between citizens and the police, Holder said during a visit. “I am also a black man.”

“Such words,” writes Linda Chavez for the Patriot Post website, “inflame racial mistrust – and, even more importantly, undermine justice.”

Meanwhile, there’s much still in play, both factually and politically.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) has for now declined to remove St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch from the case. Civil rights activists say Brown can’t receive justice from Mr. McCulloch, who has publicly empathized with police after the shooting, and whose own father, a St. Louis cop, was killed in the line of duty by a black suspect.

More immediately, a grand jury in St. Louis – made up of six white men, three white women, two black women and one black man – has begun a process that could take weeks to determine whether there’s “probable cause” to charge Wilson with any crime. If the grand jury says there’s probable cause to charge Wilson, many of the details could remain sealed until the trial.

A jury would then have to determine whether Wilson committed a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which may be hard given Wilson’s facial injuries, which suggest Brown had the ability to use his hands as weapons. Experts hope forensics and corroborating accounts will shine a light on whether Brown raised his hands in surrender before being shot, or whether he, as new accounts have suggested, rushed Wilson after the officer chased him.

The role of transparency in keeping the calm played out this week in another St. Louis tragedy. On Aug. 19, two St. Louis police officers were recorded gunning down a 25-year-old shoplifter after the man advanced on the police with a knife, yelling, “Shoot me!”

For one, that incident demonstrated how fast a citizen-police standoff can escalate into officers taking deadly action. The big difference – and many believe it is a key difference, going forward – is that St. Louis police immediately released a trove of 911 calls, videos, and eyewitness accounts that, while still troubling, may have kept the controversial police shooting of a black man from launching a fresh wave of protests.

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