Ferguson tensions flare after police chief tries to join protesters

Jackson’s attempt to join the protesters Thursday night – a number of whom who were calling for his resignation – backfired. At least one person was arrested after a scuffle started just yards behind the marching police chief, and several others were taken into custody.

Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
Protesters lock arms, blocking S. Florissant Road in front of the Ferguson Police Department, calling for the resignation of Police Chief Tom Jackson on Thursday. A scuffle broke out after the police chief tried to march with the protesters.

After issuing an apparently heartfelt, if belated, apology for his leadership missteps after the death of Michael Brown, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson briefly joined protesters late Thursday evening as they marched outside the police station.

That the man who helmed a strong-arm crackdown on angry residents after Brown’s death on Aug. 9 would join those residents in a moment of solidarity could have been a major moment in what’s become a prolonged standoff between a white police force and a majority black city. However, Jackson’s attempt to join the protesters – a number of whom who were calling for his resignation – backfired.

At least one person was arrested after a scuffle started just yards behind the marching police chief, and several others were taken into custody following at least two other angry confrontations, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

As the scuffle suggests, reaction to Jackson’s apology has been mixed in a city still on edge, with a looming decision of a grand jury to either indict or clear officer Darren Wilson, who shot the unarmed teenager. 

The return of violent protests in Ferguson this week comes after several weeks of relative calm. Tensions appeared to have been easing before a memorial to Brown was burned on Tuesday. After that night’s protest turned violent – with rocks and at least one Molotov cocktail being thrown – five people were arrested.

Some residents say that while Jackson’s Thursday apology seemed genuine, the words mean little until some action is taken – such as the arrest of Mr. Wilson. Jackson, who was relieved of riot control duties by Gov. Jay Nixon in August after his department’s aggressive, strong-arm tactics seemed to only inflame the crowds, has fended off calls for his resignation or firing.

“Dynamite, much less an apology, will do little, in my opinion to move anyone off their opinions at this point,” said Anthony Gray, the Brown family’s attorney, in an email to the St. Louis Dispatch.

Appearing in plainclothes instead of his chief’s uniform, Jackson on Thursday apologized to Brown’s family for the teenager’s death, as well as the four-delay in removing Brown’s body from the street where he lay. Jackson acknowledged that some black residents are painfully distrustful of local law enforcement.

“The city belongs to all of us, and we’re all a part of this community,” Jackson said. “It’s clear we have much work to do.”

In community forums this week, residents said the decision to leave Brown in the street so long dovetailed into what has been perceived as a general lack of respect of police for residents demanding answers for what to many seems a needless death.

The fact that police reaction to the early protests included cracking down on peaceful protesters and targeting news media also has been seen as evidence of a disdainful attitude of a white power structure protecting its own interests with force.

Jackson also was accused of politicizing and inflaming the unrest after releasing a shoplifting video of Brown at the same moment he announced Wilson as the shooter, a move widely seen as an attempt to demonize the slain teenager and build support for Wilson. (Americans have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars toward Wilson’s defense.)

Sociologists say that part of what’s been driving the protests is a sense of lingering oppression by the city, and especially its courts and police, of poor, black people, whom studies show are stopped and arrested at higher rates than whites, even though white motorists are more likely to be carrying contraband.

Judging by the intensity of the protests, a lot of black residents feel like the police department’s actions amount to "a calculus of worth and a calculus of consequences in which black people in general and young black men in particular are not considered to be worth as much,” Drexel University political scientist George Ciccariello-Maher told the Monitor earlier this summer.

There’s also a general sense among historians that Ferguson, and other parts of greater St. Louis, has never fully reckoned with a long history of institutional bias against African-Americans, underscored by the US Supreme Court’s repeated refusal of attempts by St. Louis municipalities to segregate by zoning. 

Judging by his words, Jackson seems to have realized the depth and import of that historic and contemporary legacy as he has dealt with the unrest simmering in the city. 

“As chief of police, I want to be part of that conversation,” Jackson said in his videotaped apology. “I also want to be part of the solution.”

It’s not clear why Jackson decided to apologize now. The apology came on the same day that Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been leading two separate civil rights investigations into Brown’s death, announced his resignation. A grand jury that will decide whether or not to indict Wilson has been meeting for over a month, and has until Jan. 4 to return its conclusions.

Some critics of Jackson’s handling of Brown’s death said the gesture was appreciated, but noted that the bigger question is whether the chief’s apology and attempts at solidarity with marchers will dissolve the deep mistrust of the police’s handling of the case.

“I don’t know what this will mean to people,” state Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal told the Post-Dispatch. “I’m glad he did it, but for so many people who feel so injured, it’s kind of late.”

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