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Topics

Eyewitness to Ferguson Police Shooting: Gunfire Did Not Come from Area of Nonviolent Protest

StoryMarch 12, 2015
Watch iconWatch Full Show

Guests
Vincent Warren

executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and part of the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee.

Osagyefo Sekou

pastor from the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, who was dispatched to Ferguson by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He went to high school in St. Louis and has family in Ferguson, Missouri.


Two police officers have been shot during a protest outside the Ferguson police headquarters early this morning. Both of the wounded officers have serious injuries. The shooting came just hours after Police Chief Thomas Jackson quit following last week’s Justice Department reports finding widespread racial bias in the city’s criminal justice system. Jackson is the sixth Ferguson official to be forced out in the wake of the report, including the city manager and the top municipal judge. We are joined from Ferguson by Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, who witnessed last night’s shooting, and Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is part of the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee.


TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Ferguson, Missouri. Two police officers were shot while a protest was wrapping up outside the city police headquarters early this morning. They are in serious condition. The shooting came just hours after the city’s police chief quit following last week’s Justice Department report that found widespread racially biased abuses in the city’s policing and municipal court. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said he believed the officers were directly targeted.

CHIEF JON BELMAR: I don’t know who did the shooting, to be honest with you right now, but somehow they were embedded in that group of folks. Now, I would have to make an assumption right now that based on the fact that these officers were standing together, and there were several officers standing right there together when this happened, that, you know, these were shots that were parallel to the ground, not up in the air or not at—they weren’t skip shots. And I would have to make an assumption that these shots were directed exactly at my police officers.

AMY GOODMAN: One officer was shot in the face; the other was hit in the shoulder. Some eyewitnesses disputed the claim the shooter was embedded with the protesters. Activist Deray McKesson tweeted, "The shooter was not with the protestors. The shooter was atop the hill." Pierre Thomas of ABC News said, "This appears to be a random shooting by someone who just showed up."

Just hours before the shooting, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles discussed the resignation of Police Chief Thomas Jackson and the Justice Department report.

MAYOR JAMES KNOWLES: As I’ve said, you know, we continue to go through that report and talk about where the breakdown was. Again, the chief, being an honorable man, decided that we need to talk about the way moving forward was with someone else, and so he left. But that is not to say that that’s an indication of anything at this point. Again, we want to go, and we have been going, through that report and identifying the breakdown.

AMY GOODMAN: Ferguson Police Chief Jackson will receive $96,000 in severance pay. City Manager John Shaw, who resigned a day earlier, will receive $120,000. The city of Ferguson will also cover their health insurance costs for a year. Municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer has also resigned.

We’ll go now to Ferguson, where we’re joined by Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, a pastor from the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, who was dispatched to Ferguson by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He went to high school in St. Louis, has family in Ferguson. Most significantly right now, he was outside the police station last night or early this morning at the time of the shooting.

Reverend Sekou, start off by telling us exactly what happened at that time. Where were you? What did you see? What happened?

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: Thank you, Amy. We were essentially wrapping up. About 40 or so protesters were across the street. They had been pushed back by the police on more than one occasion. And then, all of a sudden, three to four shots rang out north of the protesters and north of the police station. And we all turned in the direction up a hill on a one-way street where the shots were coming from, and then we saw the officer down and screaming. And then, you know, chaos ensued. Everyone took cover. We began to help clear the lot to get people out safe. The police began to draw their weapons. A number of police cars headed toward the area. And we did all we could to get people out. But the idea that the shooter was embedded inside the group of protesters, that it came from that crowd, is not true. But rather, it came up from north of the protesters, as we were between the shooter and—

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a hill near there?

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: Yes, there’s a hill, the hill on the one-way street that runs perpendicular into South Florissant, right in front of the police station.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Reverend Sekou, what do you think the impact of this incident is likely to be in Ferguson?

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: I mean, the reality is this is a no-win situation for anyone involved—for Michael Brown’s family, for the two officers who were shot, for a community that is grieving and who has been protesting peacefully and nonviolently for over some 200 days in the wake of a devastating Department of Justice report, which has confirmed the claims and cries of the protests. And so, its impact can be great. We are concerned that the protesters or this movement will be demonized for the shooting of the officers, and it is just a no-win situation for anyone involved and who has a stake in that. But we are nonetheless committed to nonviolence in this movement, and we will, in due time, in due respect, continue our activities to highlight the systematic injustice that the Department of Justice report articulated.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Sekou, one of the officers, the officer who was shot in the face, was from Webster Groves, and another was a St. Louis County cop. And there’s going to be a news conference that’s held where we’ll get more information. There have been shots fired before in these last months during the protests—again, people saying they are not part of the protest, equally condemning this, also being extremely frightened. Did you all take cover when this happened?

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: Yes, yes, we all went down. We ducked and kind of looked, and when we realized that the officer had been shot, everyone either began to run or got down behind cars. I mean, it was quite terrifying for all of us, including the protesters, as well as the police, many who went down and began to scurry themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to Police Chief Jackson stepping down, who has resisted the pressure for quite some time now?

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: Well, it is tragicomic. It is both sad and laughable that it took over 200 days of people in the street, over 600 arrests in a variety of protests and actions around, the Department of Justice report, and then, a week following, for him to resign. It speaks to a level of—a level of resistance on the part of the Ferguson system writ large to admit any wrongdoing. And to be sure, both the mayor and others have said the resignations do not represent an admittance of wrongdoing. He shall receive the severance packet, and his record will not be tarnished, but while he has participated in the violation of the civil rights of citizens and journalists over the last 200 days. So it is too little, too late. And we are—continue to be saddened by the whole affair.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Vince Warren, could you give us your response to the Department of Justice report and then these resignations among Ferguson city officials?

VINCENT WARREN: Yeah. Well, first of all, I agree with the reverend that situations where police officers get shot in the midst of these protests are very complicated, and it’s complicated and terrifying for the protesters and for the police officers. But one thing that needs to happen is that—what shouldn’t happen is that all a sudden all of this energy starts getting shifted towards the protesters. I mean, clearly these are people that are—like what happened in New York, that come and shoot police officers out of some crazy motive. And it has this tendency to try to deflate the movement, and that really shouldn’t happen.

But I think it’s important to recognize that with the Department of Justice inquiry here, that it was a scathing report that essentially put the entire system—saying in an official DOJ paper what the protesters had been saying out there for 200 days, and I think that’s really important. But we should remember that even though the mayor called the police chief an "honorable man," what was really happening here is that the police department is trying to preserve itself. This is actually strengthening its bargaining position with the DOJ, because what happens next is that they’re going to have to show—the police department is going to have to show: We can fix ourselves. And we know that no system, and particularly no police system, can fix itself. And it’s hard to see how you can be an honorable man when you’re presiding over what’s essentially a structural racism factory in the guise of a police department for a very long period of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Vince Warren is executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. We were both this weekend in Selma, where—it could be possibly 100,000 people—80,000 people marched for voting rights 50 years after Bloody Sunday, when 600 voting rights activists marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were beaten by Alabama troopers. Well, among the people who were there was Lesley McSpadden, yes, the mother of Michael Brown, also Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I started by asking Lesley McSpadden, Mike Brown’s mom, if she thinks there should be more federal monitoring of the Ferguson police.

LESLEY McSPADDEN: Being honest, I don’t think there should be a Ferguson Police Department anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: What should there be?

LESLEY McSPADDEN: The police department should be disbarred and maybe took over by a more—you know, a better set of people, maybe even just fire them all and just hire in some new cops. And with this new training that you’re giving to an old cop, just start fresh with a new batch, and they’ll get the proper training that you’re saying you failed to give the cops that are already working.

AMY GOODMAN: So, do you think Jackson should go, the police chief?

LESLEY McSPADDEN: Do you think Jackson should go?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Mayor Knowles should go?

LESLEY McSPADDEN: Do you think Mayor Knowles should go?

AMY GOODMAN: What about the governor, Governor Nixon?

LESLEY McSPADDEN: Oh, same question. What do you think?

SHERRILYN IFILL: My name is Sherrilyn Ifill. I’m the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask a question. I just spoke to Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And I asked her about the DOJ report and what she thinks—

SHERRILYN IFILL: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —and about the federal monitoring of the Ferguson Police Department of Ferguson and retraining. And she said they should all be fired. Why try to retrain the old? Why not bring in a whole new group? What do you think about that?

SHERRILYN IFILL: I think I’d go a step further. It’s not clear to me that the Ferguson Police Department shouldn’t be entirely disbanded. It’s not clear to me that this town of 21,000 people needs its own police department. There are 90 jurisdictions in St. Louis County. We need to begin to look at some regional policing issues, so that we can get some quality control. You cannot get your hands around all of those tiny jurisdictions. Ferguson is but one of the 90 jurisdictions in St. Louis County. So, honestly, if we want real change to happen there, we’re going to need to have a regional policing solution.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and, before that, Mike Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden. Vince Warren, this issue of disbanding the local police force entirely and what would that create?

VINCENT WARREN: Yeah, I agree with Sherrilyn, you know, because even if the Department of Justice is successful with changing the Ferguson Police Department, what you get is an island of OK in sea of really terrible. And that is actually not structural change. If you look at it on the county-wide level and you’re beginning to deal with all of these municipalities, this is going to cost a lot of money for this department to make the changes that it needs to make. We need to find a resource base, and we also need to be able to have some sort of oversight, systemic oversight, over all of these departments, so that it’s not a series of sort of racist Mayberrys that are happening and everybody is firing police chiefs and the Department of Justice has to come in 90 times. You can create a structural solution that actually creates a better police force and better system of oversight through looking at the county.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Reverend Sekou, the feelings there on the ground in Ferguson?

REV. OSAGYEFO SEKOU: I mean, this only happened a few hours ago. Many of us are just still in shock, having seen an officer go down and having heard the gunshots. And so, there’s definitely an uneasiness. There is a concern that this movement will be blamed for the shooting of these two officers. And we, nonetheless, will continue to raise our voices in the rich tradition of nonviolence and bear witness to the realities that has been set forth by the Department of Justice, and, quite honestly, try to keep track of all the grieving, of all the weeping, of all the wailing that has been going on in this small hamlet of Ferguson. And we’ll continue to organize in such a way that we highlight the structural violence and the structural racism that has been manifest through the municipal courts and policing systems in Greater St. Louis.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, we want to thank you for being with us, pastor from the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, who was dispatched to Ferguson by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He went to high school in St. Louis and has family in Ferguson. When we were in Ferguson, we always saw Sekou there on the streets. Thanks so much for being with us. Vince Warren, we’d like to ask you to stay with us, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, as we move on, after break, to Oklahoma and the controversy around a fraternity and racist songs and the expulsion of two students. Stay with us.

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