FERGUSON, Missouri — If there is any growing national sense of weariness over the unrest and protests in Ferguson, it was personified by a white Army veteran talking with an activist here Monday night.
“When you guys first started all this, I was with you. I hate the pigs, too!” said the man, who wouldn’t give his name but had no problem speaking his mind.
In the year since Michael Brown’s death here, the movement known as Black Lives Matter has had success in raising consciousness but not lowering black America’s temperature, still boiling at injustice.
“At first they seemed like they had some meaning,” the veteran said, “but now they just seem destructive and pointless. Is the idea just to piss everyone off? Because that’s what’s happening."
“It is to piss people off!” Hermz, a protester from Atlanta, replied. “In order for there to be a paradigm shift, there has to be a sacrifice.”
But the Army vet, with his long gray hair and motorcycle vest, wanted to know what the movement is concretely trying to accomplish.
“What’s the next level? I don’t understand how out of all this confusion and tearing up people’s buildings that don’t have shit do with your problems makes anyone help you.”
Hermz didn’t have a direct answer, but prominent activist Deray McKesson did: end mandatory minimum sentences, reform drug laws, put body cameras on all police, task independent bodies with investigating shootings by police.
That final demand has already been met in at least one instance: A Justice Department report found insufficient evidence to charge Officer Darren Wilson with wrongdoing for killing Brown, supported Wilson’s account, and echoed most grand jury testimony that Brown attacked Wilson inside his vehicle before Wilson killed him.
So McKesson and Black Lives Matter got the independent investigation they wanted, just not the conclusion they sought. (McKesson insisted the report only cleared Wilson of violating Brown’s civil rights.) For the movement, Wilson will never be justified in killing Brown. Furthermore, McKesson said he did not believe that any of the police shootings “that have gained national attention this year” were justified.
As for the one Sunday night, in which 18-year-old Tyrone Harris Jr. was shot after allegedly firing on police, McKesson demurred.
“I’ll say that I still have more questions than answers,” he told The Daily Beast.
Harris fired twice at undercover detectives as they pursued him in a car with lights and sirens blaring, police said. When police shot back, Harris was struck badly enough to be hospitalized in critical condition. The image of a black man bleeding out on the street, cops overhead, bore eerie resemblance to the image of Brown face-down in his blood.
Brown’s death marked the beginning of a pattern for activists. When a black person dies at the hands of a police officer—especially a white one—activists begin investigating the events of the fatal confrontation. Inevitably there are conflicting statements, the most glaring of which came in the case of Walter Scott, whose killer lied about having his taser grabbed and in fact planted one near the dying man’s body. Thankfully, that horrendous act was caught on tape.
But unless there is irrefutable evidence to indict an officer, activists remain forever suspicious. That’s why, when hundreds gathered over the weekend to honor VonDeritt Myers Jr., shot and killed last year by a St. Louis cop, there was no mention that Myers was found to have fired at police with a stolen gun and then fled before being shot. That is according to a 272-page report made public by the St. Louis Police Department that was separate from another investigation carried out by prosecutors. That investigation also found Myers shot at the off-duty cop, who was justified in returning fire.
“He actually didn’t shoot at the police. That’s a lie,” McKesson said, claiming that ballistics testing showing Myers had gunshot residue on his body that could have come from the officer if he had patted down the suspect after the shooting.
McKesson and others stopped short of passing judgment on Harris. For his part, McKesson said a day of protest that included his brief arrest had prevented him from reading up much on the police shooting that put Harris in the hospital in critical condition.
Hermz said he simply didn’t know anything about it.
Neither McKesson nor Hermz wanted to discuss the hypothetical that underpins the clearest legal justification for use of force by police: If someone points a gun at an officer (and even fires it), is the officer justified in using lethal force?
“If someone killed your child, what would it take for you to say it was justified?” McKesson asked.