The arrival of Al Sharpton in St. Louis could have been predicted. And his departure can’t come soon enough. On Tuesday morning, Sharpton, the New York City-based minister, civil rights leader and media personality, was in town supposedly to defuse the ongoing street violence following the fatal shooting last Saturday by a white police officer in nearby Ferguson, Missouri of a local black youth, Michael Brown. As revealed days later by hidden video footage, Brown very likely had robbed a convenience store. Moreover, Brown minutes later assaulted the officer and tried to grab his gun. Sharpton has demanded that police release the name of the officer and arrest him. Early today, he got his first wish. Hopefully, the cop, Darren Wilson, won’t have to hide for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon yesterday ordered State Police to take control of the riot area.
The rioting and looting over several days by black mobs in the streets of Ferguson, a north suburban St. Louis community of a little over 20,000 people, two-thirds of whom are black, has rocked the metro area and the nation. Local NAACP leaders claimed that the violence was a justified if unfortunate response to a police execution of an “unarmed” 18-year-old local black youth, Michael Brown, this past Saturday around noon. Police say that Brown was a suspect in a theft and assault at a convenience store only minutes prior to the shooting, though they were unaware of his participation at that time. Officer Wilson spotted Brown and a companion, Dorian Johnson, walking in the middle of a nearby street. He told the pair to move to the sidewalk. This is a standard request by police everywhere. There was nothing necessarily “racial” about it. Rather than comply with the directive, however, Brown flew into a rage and assaulted the cop. He then shoved the officer into his vehicle and attempted, unsuccessfully, to take his pistol. Brown then walked away from the scene. Seconds later, for whatever reason, Brown wheeled around and charged at Officer Wilson at top speed. Fearing for his life, Wilson pulled out his revolver and shot Brown multiple times. The initial hits having failed to slow the assailant’s charge, Wilson then fired the kill shot.
Police say this was a case of self-defense. Given the police report, it was hard to dispute. As for Brown being unarmed, formally that was true – and meaningless. Hundreds of crimes are committed every day in this country without the use of a gun, knife or other weapon. More apropos, Brown had attempted to arm himself; that was the whole point of trying to steal Wilson’s gun. As for the supposed injustice of allowing Brown’s corpse to lie on the street for hours, the purpose was to enable police to prepare an accurate crime scene report, not to unleash any hidden sadistic impulses within the local police force.
Certain eyewitnesses tell a different story. One witness, Phillip Walker, said he was on the porch of an apartment complex overlooking the scene when he heard gunfire and saw an officer with Michael Brown on the street. Walker told the Associated Press that Brown “was giving up in the sense of raising his arms and being subdued.” The officer “had his gun raised and started shooting the individual in the chest multiple times” and then, with Brown lying on the pavement wounded, “stood over him and shot him.” Walker admitted that he did not see the circumstances that led to the first shot. Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, told KMOV-TV in St. Louis that the pair were walking home in the middle of a street from a convenience store when a police officer, from inside his squad car, ordered the pair to move to the sidewalk. Johnson and Brown ignored the directive. In response, the officer got out of his vehicle and fired his gun. “We wasn’t causing harm to nobody,” Johnson remarked. “We had no weapons on us at all.” The officer, he insisted, fired a shot, causing the pair to flee. “He shot again, and once my friend felt that shot, he turned around and put his hands in the air, and he started to get down. But the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and fired several more shots.” The attorney for Brown’s family, Benjamin Crump, who had represented the family of Trayvon Martin in Florida, says Brown “was executed in broad daylight.”
These two versions of the story were so divergent that it was impossible to reconcile them. News of the killing quickly spread throughout the neighborhood. Predominantly black crowds gathered in the streets of Ferguson to protest. And the protests continued for several days. While the daytime demonstrations were more or less peaceful, the nighttime demonstrations decidedly were not. Large portions of the overwhelmingly black crowd rioted, smashing windows of a number of local businesses, breaking into the premises, and looting merchandise. They also burned at least two stores. St. Louis County Police SWAT teams arrived on the scene, firing tear gas canisters at crowds assembled at a gas station that served as an impromptu staging ground. Officers marched in their direction of the rioters, ordering them, and reporters filming the events, to disperse. As of Wednesday, police had arrested 65 persons, including two reporters. Two police were injured in clashes Wednesday night.
The official response has been to deplore the violence, while not singling out either side for opprobrium. In a prepared statement, Gov. Nixon remarked: “The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling and does not represent who we are as Missourians or as Americans. While we all respect the solemn responsibility of our law enforcement officers to protect the public, we must also safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble and the right of the press to report on matters of public concern.” President Obama also expressed an even-handed rebuke. “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism and looting,” he said. “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Reverend Al Sharpton, a close friend and ally of Obama, also has called for peace in the streets during his visit to St. Louis. Appearing at a news conference with Brown’s family, he described Brown as a “gentle giant.” To become violent in the wake of his death, he emphasized, would be to betray his name. He and others later spoke at a local church before an overflow audience. This sounded reasonable – on the surface. But there is good deal more to the story.
First, Sharpton has a long history of public demagoguery not only to justify black violence but to incite it. On a practical level, while black defendants deserve a presumption of innocence, white defendants deserve a presumption of guilt. His many racially-motivated campaigns since the mid-1980s have created character assassination and at times criminal violence. Sharpton’s background is documented in my 2009 Special Report titled Mainstreaming Demogoguery: Sharpton’s Rise to Respectability. (I have recently updated and expanded the report into book form. It will be published within several weeks.) Sharpton is not a peacemaker.
Second, Sharpton, who ran for president in 2004, is a savvy politician. He knows as well as anyone that making an inflammatory statement in this situation would be the kiss of death for his future as a player on the national stage. He has tasted power and influence at the highest levels in recent years, and especially with Barack Obama as the nation’s president. He has been a frequent visitor to the Obama White House – a shadow cabinet member. Sharpton isn’t about to risk losing his newfound (and undeserved) “pragmatic” reputation by making reckless statements. He knows he’s more effective on the inside looking out than on the outside looking in.
Third, during his visit he publicly demanded that Ferguson police arrest the white police officer accused of shooting Michael Brown. Even the most naïve among us surely understands that to release the name of that cop, with or without an arrest, is put to a target on his back. Any number of St. Louis-area blacks would love to go to prison for killing him; if convicted, they’d be prison royalty. The officer and his family would have to go into hiding. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson is fully aware of this. He said: “If we come out and say, ‘It was this officer,’ then he immediately becomes a target. We’re taking the threats seriously.” Undaunted, Sharpton is seeking a conviction. He spilled the beans to a prominent conservative St. Louis-area blogger, Adam Sharp, who, though aligned with the local Tea Party, managed to outflank Reverend Al from the Left. Alluding to the phrase “Snitches Get Stitches” spray-painted on a QuikTrip convenience store that was looted and torched Sunday, Sharp accosted Sharpton and his entourage, and interviewed him. Here is the key portion of the transcript:
Sharp: “Since you are a federal snitch, sir, do you fear for your life?
Sharpton: I’m not a snitch, but today I want to tell the feds about a cop that needs to go to jail.
Sharp: “Are you in fear for your life being a federal informant and…
Sharpton: I want to inform on this policeman today.
Sharp: Are you here to snitch on the rioters?…Are you here to work with your FBI partners?
Sharpton did not respond to this question. Beyond this point, the interview broke down. It’s hard to deny this “journalist” was an obnoxious and presumptuous bully, content to repeat an absurd accusation until he obtained a “gotcha” response. That said, he deserves credit for teasing out Sharpton’s real motive for being in town. Earlier today, with area blacks also clamoring for the release of the officer’s identity, Ferguson police, reluctantly, released his name. The outed cop, Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran on the force with no record of disciplinary action against him, may have to take a long vacation. Even before Wilson’s name had been released to the public, Michael Brown’s mother had called for his death. Keep in mind that Al Sharpton is her “adviser.”
Fourth, Michael Brown was hardly a “gentle giant.” Granted, at 6’4″ and nearly 300 lbs., he was physically large. But gentle he was not. Recently-released video footage (more here) shows a large black man, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Brown, threatening and grabbing a small, hapless shopkeeper. Reportedly, Brown had helped himself to about $50 worth of free cigars. Only minutes later after this incident, Brown and his companion, Dorian Johnson, were sighted by Officer Wilson walking in the middle of a nearby street. Family attorney Benjamin Crump has expressed outrage over the release of the video, as if there were anything defamatory about showing it. Michael Brown is not around to issue a denial, but the video may well bolster the case for exonerating the police. That’s exactly what Crump doesn’t want to happen. As for Brown’s lack of a prior criminal record, that hardly lets him off the hook. All that means is that he hadn’t been caught yet. Countless street criminals commit a great many crimes before the law of averages finally catches up with them. Brown himself may well have amassed a lengthy criminal record while as a juvenile, but was lucky enough to have that record hidden or expunged. Even if he was clean until last week, there is a first time for every criminal.
One hopes the riot phase of this conflict is over. Ferguson Police Chief Jackson told reporters Wednesday that the county investigation of the shooting could take weeks to complete. The last thing anyone needs during this tense period is large numbers of people jumping to conclusions or jumping on bandwagons. But Al Sharpton is no stranger to jumping to conclusions or leading bandwagons. His visit to St. Louis gives every indication of morally enabling the riots. And he’s planning to stay for a while.