One Year After Michael Brown’s Death, Police and Public Struggle for Common Ground

An otherwise peaceful day of protest came to a violent end when gunfire erupted.
Civilians and police take cover as gunfire erupts on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, on Sunday night. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Aug 10, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Activists who gathered in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, on Sunday night to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown were met with an unwelcome sense of déjà vu. Gunfire shattered what had been a day of peaceful protest, and local resident Tyrone Harris Jr. was shot by police after allegedly firing multiple shots at a group of St. Louis County police officers. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports 18-year-old Harris was a friend and classmate of Brown.

Police Chief Jon Belmar described the shooters as “criminals,” quickly distinguishing them from the protesters, at a press conference. Harris is in critical condition.

“There is a small group of people out there who are intent on making sure we don’t have peace that prevails,” Belmar said.

Addressing the National Fraternal Order of Police in Pittsburgh, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch opened her speech by commenting on the violence in Ferguson.

“I strongly condemn the violence against the community, including police officers, in Ferguson,” Lynch said. “As we have seen over the recent months and years, not only does violence obscure any message of peaceful protest, it places the community, as well as the officers who seek to protect it, in harm’s way.”

Harris’ father, Tyrone Harris Sr., however, was skeptical: “We think there’s a lot more to this than what’s being said,” he told reporters. Harris’ doubt was echoed online as the #FergusonTaughtMe hashtag gained steam on Twitter.

The hashtag shaped an online space for reflection and remembrance of Brown.

While in many ways the scene was unlike the shooting of unarmed Brown, a black teenager, by white police officer Darren Wilson, Brown’s death brought heightened attention and scrutiny to police shootings of civilians—particularly black civilians—in the past year. Citizen- and journalist-driven projects attempting to track officer-involved shooting deaths across the country have documented 585 fatal shootings by police in 2015 alone.

Harris’ shooting on the anniversary of Brown’s death seems to beg the question: Are shootings of civilians by police inevitable? Initial reports say Harris fired multiple shots at a group of police officers, endangering their lives and those of community members in the crowd. The use of force by police, at least based on these early reports, appears far less questionable than it has in the numerous instances of police shootings of unarmed men and women documented by the aforementioned projects.

On Friday, New York Police Department officials announced that the department would spend up to $4.5 million to increase the number of Taser stun guns available for its officers. The idea is to give more NYPD officers nonlethal alternatives to firearms. Training more officers to safely use Tasers, the theory goes, could be one way to reduce the number of fatal shootings.

Still, using a Taser to subdue a suspect doesn’t guarantee the suspect will survive. A 2012 study from the American Heart Association confirmed that misusing stun guns can cause sudden cardiac arrest and death. This research shows why training officers to safely use all tools at their disposal—firearms and nonlethal alternatives alike—is of utmost importance.