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The System's Not Broken, It Was Built This Way

Shanna Merola

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a journal of art + culture(s)  
link - issue 25: February 2016
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This text is by Shanna Merola in her capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

On Saturday, August 9th, 2014, Ferguson County police officer Darren Wilson killed eighteen year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.  The unarmed teenager was shot six times and left uncovered for four hours in the middle of a street outside of the Canfield Green Apartments.

The killing ignited outrage from Ferguson residents and it quickly spread across the United States.  By the next day, August 10th, people began to flood the streets of West Florissant Avenue in protest.  In the weeks to come, activists, faith-based groups and families from all over the country poured into Ferguson and held solidarity demonstrations in their own cities to show support.

I first heard the news through Facebook on the night of August 12th.  As I surfed through stories in my newsfeed before bed, I clicked on a live-stream video of what looked like people in a residential neighborhood running from explosives.  The dark green tint and blur of the night vision feed made it difficult to see, but I could just make out the figures surrounded by thick clouds of smoke and bright flashes in the distance.  In the midst of the chaos, some people stood in the road as others ran.  On the periphery, were homes, cars parked in driveways, gas stations and strip malls.  The surreal scene and reports that police were telling journalists to turn off their cameras had me glued to my computer into the early hours of the morning until there was nothing left to watch.

On August 14th, organizers in St. Louis contacted The National Lawyers Guild—an extensive network of human rights activists working within the legal system—with concerns about civil rights violations in Ferguson.  In addition to questioning the legality of many of the witnessed arrests, police were also using tear gas and “less lethal” forms of crowd control including smoke bombs, flash grenades and rubber bullets.  One program within the Guild provides Legal Observers, who are trained to monitor and document police activity during protests.  As the Legal Observer Coordinator for the Michigan chapter of the N.L.G., I organize legal support for activists planning protests across the state, but I’m also tapped into a national network of civil rights attorneys who will call on each other if their region needs help.  That day, as SWAT teams were brought in and the uprising began to swell, we received a call for Legal Observation to head to Missouri and organized a car from Detroit to leave the next morning.

We arrived on the afternoon of August 151th, the same day that Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson held a press conference to publicly name Darren Wilson as the officer involved in the shooting.  During the ten-hour drive from Detroit we tried to stay updated on the timeline of events, which seemed to be unfolding quickly.  Unconfirmed reports - from the possible deployment of the National Guard to the city being declared a no-fly zone - filled social media and the radio. From the night before Twitter threads included comments like, “Police on top of carriers aiming at people ‪#Ferguson”.

When we arrived, the demonstrations were large—a few thousand people—and decentralized.  A  crowd gathered nearby in the parking lot of a burned-out QuickTrip gas station.  In black Sharpie, someone had scrawled the words “QT People’s Park Liberated 8.10.14” on the side of pillar that remained standing.  A few miles away on the other end of Florissant, police closed down access to a Target parking lot and used it as the command center for vehicles and armored tanks.  For the stretch of miles in between these two locations, people sang, marched and chanted from day into night.  With the riot police and tanks temporarily withdrawn, (probably due to media and mounting public pressure), there was an almost celebratory mood as we spread throughout the crowd.

There were artists in costume preforming street theatre in parking lots, residents and street medics giving out bottles of water, and dozens of reporters conducting interviews.  As cars drove up and down Florissant, people sat on top of them, holding signs and cheering because the police had retreated.  Two women who saw my camera stopped and asked if I would take their picture.  One held a sign that read, “Came from Chicago, your child could be next. RIP Mike Brown.”  I took their contact to send them the photo and received a hug when I told them I came from Detroit.  “Our aunt is from Detroit, we’re neighbors!”

Around the corner from the QuickTrip station, we walked down Canfield and found the site where Brown’s body had lain.  Over the next few months, the makeshift memorial of flowers, t-shirts and candles, melted to the hot summer asphalt, would be set on fire and repeatedly destroyed, but always rebuilt the next day.

The following morning, on August 16th, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed nightly curfews for Ferguson residents from midnight to 5:00 am.  Tensions flared again.  Throughout the day and night, people organized, surrounded by police wherever they went.  Squad cars and officers from several Missouri law enforcement agencies - including state troopers and sheriff’s offices - circled a church event where groups held nonviolent civil disobedience trainings.  Some officers stood on nearby rooftops and watched as people linked arms in peace circles while plain-clothed police walked through the crowds.

As night approached, tactical units appeared and police in full riot gear formed lines against storefronts on either side of the street.  Protesters approached them, hands in the air, signs lifted in unison, and posed as reporters flocked to the scene.  The crowds were large for a while, but began thinning as rain fell and the threat of curfew loomed.  At one point, officers appeared with K-9 units and the group of about a hundred who remained on the street was eventually met with heavy resistance.

As midnight neared, the rain beat down harder and five armored tanks lined up, facing the demonstrators and blocking off traffic.  One by one, each police line retreated behind the tanks completely, as the crowd chanted and shouted under the rain and bright lights of the press.  Over a sound system, police issued arrest warnings, stating that anyone left on the street was in violation of curfew.  And then, all at once, tear gas canisters began to rain down on the chaotic but peaceful demonstration, followed by the bright pops of flash grenades and, finally, gunshots.  People scattered in every direction.  When I heard gunshots, I instinctively started running without realizing it until another Legal Observer came up behind me and shouted “Get down”.  The two of us dropped flat on the ground and remained there until the crowd had dispersed.  As we were leaving, we passed two street medics who dragged a young man to safety.  He was bleeding badly and the medics needed a flashlight.  I headed down a side street to look for one in our car but by the time I returned they were gone.

A small group of people, the only ones in sight, stood hidden in the shadows.  I joined them as one man shared similar experiences from his time in the West Bank in Palestine.  On Florissant, the armored tanks crept closer, flooding the darkness with searchlights and repeating their warning.  We watched the billows of smoke rise and hover above the rooftops and waited.

Why know your rights?

Because cops lie!

It is safest to not rely on police for truthful or thorough information about your rights or why you are being arrested.

Whether it is a planned action or spontaneous uprising, police and government agents may violate your rights as a way to maintain order.  Unfortunately, having rights and being informed of what they are does not mean the police will not trample on them anyway—but, asserting and maintaining your rights could get your charges dropped or lessened down the road, should you have to go to court.

In Detroit and throughout the country, the National Lawyers Guild (N.L.G.) works to provide legal support for activists who are often engaged in direct action and experience heavy pushback from the state.  Sometimes this comes in the form of outward threats and harassment and other times as covert surveillance operations.

There were dozens of instances in Ferguson, alone, where such tactics were used.  The tactics ranged from unconstitutional vehicle check-points, questionable curfews and an excessive use of chemical weapons, to regulations on how demonstrators could protest.  In September of 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) filed a lawsuit against the Ferguson Police Department who maintained a "Five Second Rule," threatening peaceful protesters with arrest if they did not keep moving in a grueling march on one of the hottest days of the summer.

Police in Ferguson also covered their badge numbers, refused to identify themselves and threatened reporters when they did not want to be filmed.  As media reported these actions people across the country began to question if there was something police didn’t want the public to see.  It may have been the targeted arrests of lead organizers, raids on community “safe spaces” including churches, or the fact that the overwhelming majority of Legal Observers and journalists who were arrested were African American.

The types of police repression seen during the Ferguson uprising may seem like extreme examples, but similar tactics are used everywhere as people organize to fight against large scale evictions, the expansion of pipelines and mass deportations.  Fortunately, as local police agencies become more militarized, activists and their legal teams have also become more creative in the ways they protest and litigate.

Protecting the right to dissent

Our goal, as activist legal workers is to demystify the law for people engaging in protest activity.  We maintain that everyone has the right to access and understand the law in order to protect themselves and others from unconstitutional police practices.  Know Your Rights workshops provide people with the tools to make informed and confident decisions during police encounters. They cover best practices when filming and documenting cops, technology and security concerns, and the “magic words” that let police know when you are invoking your rights.  Workshops are participatory and include opportunities to share experiences, voice concerns and ask questions. Together, facilitators and participants, perform skits that cover common arrest scenarios—complete with costumes for the actors—created in the spirit of guerrilla street theatre and the politically radical puppet troupes of the 1960’s.

Workshops are tailored to the needs of particular organizations, with sensitivity to marginalized groups and those disproportionately targeted by racialized police violence.  We believe that those most oppressed by the criminal justice system should be leading the movement and hope that our resources provide support to communities in struggle.

If you would like to request a K.Y.R. Workshop or find out more about how to become a Legal Observer with the Detroit and Michigan Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, please send your request to Shanna Merola at Locoordinator@michigannlg.org

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This article is part of the 2016 Art & Race Series organized in partnership with the University of Michigan Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and infinite mile running from January – September 2016.