When Shots Are Fired at the Unarmed, Communities Choose Predictable Ways to Lash Out

Residents in Ferguson, Mo., have responded to the death of unarmed 19-year-old Michael Brown with protests and looting.

Police guard a Quick Trip gas station in Ferguson, Mo., that was burned when protests over the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown turned to riots and looting on Aug. 11. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Nicole Pasulka has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and New York Observer. She lives in New York City.

Early on the morning of March 10, 2013, two plainclothes New York City police officers stopped 16-year-old Kimani Gray in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The officers said they stopped Gray because he looked suspicious, and he pointed a gun at them. Gray’s friends, who were nearby, say he was adjusting his belt. The officers fired 11 times and killed Gray, who was of Guyanese and Jamaican descent. A revolver that contained four live rounds but had not been fired was found near his body.

Gray’s friends and residents of the neighborhood where the shooting occurred erupted in protest, claiming it was the result of racial profiling. For days crowds marched; at one point protesters looted a drugstore; in another instance, they threw bottles at the 67th Precinct police station in East Flatbush.

The days-long protests over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American 19-year-old who was shot by Ferguson, Mo., police Saturday, echo the response to Gray’s death. 

According to news reports, protesters in Ferguson have both assembled "peacefully" and broken into local shops and destroyed property at night.  

Whether you call such events looting or civil disobedience, video evidence of police misconduct, social media, and a persistent sense that police disregard the rights of black and Latino people create a perfect storm for public outbursts.

When deadly use of force occurs there is often a video of the incident, such as when an NYPD officer killed Eric Garner with a choke hold last month. The news can also break and spread via social media—Brown’s death inspired the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Regardless of how the news travels, increasingly there’s a swift and furious outcry when police kill young black and Latino men.

When it comes to community response, “social media plays a huge role,” said Samuel Walker, professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Media, social or mainstream, doesn’t just spread the word when a death or an act of misconduct occurs; it also provides evidence that these things happen. Walker points to the Rodney King beating of March 3, 1991—in which a video camera recorded Los Angeles police officers kicking and beating King with a baton—as a “turning point.” A “not guilty” verdict in the case against the officers sparked the 1993 Los Angeles riots—in which 53 people were killed and 2,000 were injured across six days.

“There are so many people who just don’t believe these things occur,” Walker said; a video forces people to recognize that choke holds and other police violence happen. 

While most have condemned property destruction or looting in the aftermath of a police shooting, it’s important to recognize why it happens.

Some people lash out “because they’re angry and frustrated,” said Delores Jones-Brown, a former prosecutor and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, who has written extensively on police abuse.

The recognition “that you can’t protect your own children” can lead to massive public grief and anger. Michael Brown was a teenager and was about to start college. He was the “kind of person that, if he was white, the likelihood that he’ll be shot by police is almost nonexistent,” said Jones-Brown.

Sometimes those who loot or riot “want to express that in a way people can understand, and this is tied to material things and property. ‘You’re not going to respect my rights—I’m not going to respect yours,’ ” Jones-Brown said. 

When "people not close to that phenomenon, people that can’t imagine this happening to people they care about," see looting or civil disobedience after Brown's death, "they think, ‘Oh, these people are animals,’ ” she added.

In more ways than one, Jones-Brown thinks that these deaths are a "widening gap between those who are supposed to be meting out justice and protecting people and the black and Latino communities."

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