Captain Ron Johnson and law enforcement officials in Ferguson, Missouri, are constructing a false narrative to rationalize their unconstitutional and unconscionable attacks on peaceful protesters. After Sunday night’s police violence, which some are calling the worst so far, police representatives are defending their deployment of tear gas on a peaceful march including children, elders, and youth.
At a press conference Monday morning, and later in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Capt. Johnson repeatedly claimed that tear gas attacks on marchers, several hours ahead of the curfew, were provoked by bottles and ‘Molotov cocktails’ thrown by protesters. Numerous eyewitness accounts contradict this. There is no video I am aware of that supports police contentions that objects were thrown before they unleashed tear gas on nonviolent marchers.
By obscuring the timeline, police are attempting to use bottle throwing that may have happened later in the evening to justify earlier attacks on a peaceful march. This is a well-worn charade; police in Seattle floated the same misinformation and inverted sequence during the WTO protests in 1999. In Seattle, the police’s faulty narrative was naively transcribed and reported by national media, as documented by Seth Ackerman for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Despite using pepper spray and tear gas on nonviolent protesters in Seattle as early as 9 to 10am on November 30, 1999, police and media later spun such police aggression as a ‘response’ to window-breaking at NikeTown and other stores that did not occur until hours later, at approximately 1 to 2pm.
By portraying their illegal assault on civil disobedience as a justified ‘response’ to vandalism that had not yet occurred, the police are able to hide their violence, aided and abetted by lethargic corporate media.
Refusing to parse the sequence of events, Dan Rather and CNN happily passed along the Seattle police’s story. "The meeting of the World Trade Organization was thrown in to turmoil by violent demonstrations," stated Rather on December 1. "That brought on today’s crackdown." Likewise, a CNN report asserted, "as tens of thousands marched through downtown Seattle, a small group of self-described anarchists smashed windows and vandalized stores. Police responded with tear gas and pepper gas."
The media’s acceptance of this looking-glass narrative had a permanent distorting effect on the public memory of events in Seattle.
But as Ackerman notes, this framing of ‘protestor violence’ and ‘police response’ is contrary to fact. "The sequence of events described in this report was wrong. As Detective Randy Huserik, a spokesperson for the Seattle police, confirmed, pepper spray had first been used against protestors engaged in peaceful civil disobedience."
Twenty-five years later, Ferguson police are making a similar attempt to shape the story into a cloak to hide their violence. By twisting the timeline, they render invisible their assaults on nonviolent demonstrators exercising their constitutional rights to ‘peaceably assemble’ and ‘petition the government for a redress of grievances.’
Today, when Capt. Ron Johnson tried to ‘pull a Seattle,’ and convince the press that police had not in fact attacked a peaceful march the night before, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, one of the organizers on the ground in Ferguson, was able to go on air and quickly correct the record. (See video here: "Clergy contradict Ferguson police.")
REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: "I was actually on the frontline, leading and holding the line, as we were marching up the hill, and there were children, mostly twenty-somethings in the line. ‘Hands up. Don’t Shoot.’ All of a sudden three urban tanks came, cut us off; cut the front of the line off; said ‘disperse immediately’; began to shoot tear gas. They began to shoot tear gas; chaos ensued. There was a ledge not too far from where we were, so people kind of ran up the ledge to get away from it. They continued to shoot tear gas with children on that ledge, and kept continually moving forward to us."
CHRIS HAYES: "You’re all saying you did not see bottles, Molotov cocktails."
REV. SEKOU: "Any violence that occurred, occurred after police attacked peaceful protests."
Kudos to Chris Hayes for consistently challenging unconfirmed police claims of ‘Molotov cocktails,’ and thanks to Rev. Sekou for demolishing them with his first-hand account.
While police mendacity about the timing of tear gas is only one small part of the complex situation unfolding in Ferguson, police lies, and the systemic racism they uphold, are central to the community’s heartbreak and their struggle for justice.
In this precarious moment, arguably one of our nation’s most significant in decades, all of us are called to stand for accountability, community, connection, transparency, and the healing that can come only from racial justice and social change.
Forty-six years ago, as US society faced a similar crisis, Martin Luther King Jr. sought to foster understanding of the historical dynamics at play and the structural changes needed. "Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention," King said in 1967. "There is no other answer." That same year King noted, "It is clear that the riots were exacerbated by police action that was intended to injure or even to kill people."
As despair and uprisings erupted in American cities following King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, his prophetic voice continued to offer a vision of hope and transformation. In an article published in Look magazine 12 days after his death, King wrote, "We have, through massive non-violent action, an opportunity to avoid a national disaster and create a new spirit of class and racial harmony."
May the wisdom of King’s words echo across the decades and into our hearts. May we respond to the pain of Fergurson’s and the nation’s families, and may we emulate the courage and leadership of Ferguson’s youth, rising up together to build a world beyond systemic oppression, a world of connection, justice, and compassion.