St Louis torn apart by race, police power

SLAIN BY POLICE: Michael Brown, 18.
SLAIN BY POLICE: Michael Brown, 18.

Five days after a police officer shot 18-year-old Michael Brown dead in suburban St Louis police have yet to cast any light on the killing or even name the officer who pulled the trigger.

In the official silence more witnesses have come forward to corroborate the grim story first told by the young man Brown was with when he died, 22-year-old Dorian Johnson. In turn this has provoked protests and a ferocious police response that has shocked observers nationwide.

According to Johnson the two young men were walking along a street in the suburb of Ferguson, a small community with its own police force, when police officers in a pick-up truck rolled past them and ordered them to "get the f--- on the side-walk". An altercation followed. Johnson says the officer leaned out of the window and grabbed Brown around the neck. The two wrestled, a gun discharged and the boys ran.

Police confirm that Brown's body fell 10 metres from the truck. Johnson says Brown was hit once, turned and raised his hands only to be shot several more times.

On Wednesday (local time), Tiffany Mitchell who was driving past as the incident happened appeared on CNN with her lawyer and said that she observed Brown trying to pull away from the officer as they grappled through the window before running down the road.

"He starts running, as he runs the police gets out of his vehicle and he follows behind him shooting and the kid's body jerked as if he was hit from behind.

"And he turned around and he puts his hands up ... and the cop continues to fire until he dropped down to the ground and his face just smacks into the concrete."

Hours after the shooting protesters gathered and a riot broke out. Several businesses were vandalised and over 30 people were arrested. Many more made their point peacefully though, kneeling before officers with their hands in the air chanting "don't shoot".

Each night since Saturday crowds have gathered and police have responded with arrests, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Police fired tear gas, stun grenades and smoke bombs to disperse some 350 protesters late Wednesday. Some demonstrators hurled rocks at police as others scattered down side streets and into cars, while smoke engulfed the area.

The nation has been shocked by images of police SWAT teams who appeared indistinguishable from combat troops, training military weapons on peaceful protesters.

One officer lay on the roof of an armoured vehicle and peered through the scope of a rifle at the crowds.

Many believe that the police response to the shooting has provoked the ongoing tension.

They point out that Brown's body was left in the street for four hours after he died and no ambulance was called. Mitchell told CNN that when his grieving family arrived at the scene they were treated with hostility and given no details about what had happened. When she tried to tell them what she saw police sought to prevent her, she said.

Two days after the shooting police had not even interviewed Johnson and had ignored his lawyer's attempts to make contact, MSNBC reported, though by then the FBI had opened an investigation into the shooting.

On Tuesday President Barack Obama addressed the tensions, offering condolences to Brown's family and calling on the community to "comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds".

It is impossible to exaggerate how seriously the US takes the spectre of race riots, especially in the wake of perceived injustice. Many of its cities have been scarred by civil discord, and while protests in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin remained peaceful, they revealed how deep the racial divide can still run.

In the New York Times on Thursday columnist Charles Blow captured the sense of despair the incident has provoked among many African Americans.

"There is an eerie echo in it all - a sense of tragedy too often repeated. And yet the sheer morbid, wrenching rhythm of it belies a larger phenomenon, one obscured by its vastness, one that can be seen only when one steps back and looks from a distance and with data: The criminalisation of black and brown bodies - particularly male ones - from the moment they are first introduced to the institutions and power structures with which they must interact," he wrote.

Heavily armed police remain in Ferguson, as do protesters who are demanding that police reveal the name of the officer who shot Brown.

After his officers again met protesters with tear gas on Wednesday night St Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar congratulated them for their work during long tense hours on the street.

"We've had protesters, like the last few nights, who are unwilling to listen tonight," he said. "To maintain that restraint, it is, frankly, remarkable.

"We are doing the best we can to protect life and property, and while it looks remarkable, perhaps, to people across the nation, it should be noted that no protester has been injured and only one police officer was injured, and he suffered a twisted ankle."

Cold comfort to Michael Brown's family.