The Department of Justice has officially requested that Ferguson police crack down on officers who wear “I am Darren Wilson” bracelets. The strongly-worded plea comes after photos of local law enforcement sporting them amid pro-Michael Brown protests in the community went viral this week.
“We are keenly aware of the importance of individual expression of opinions, even those that some find offensive, insensitive, or harmful,” Christy Lopez, a deputy chief in the Civil Rights Division, said in a letter to Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson on Friday. Still, she said, “these bracelets reinforce the very ‘us versus them’ mentality that many residents of Ferguson believe exists.”
The DOJ also called out some Ferguson police officers for wearing blacked out name plates or no identification at all. The ”lack of name plates make it difficult for members of the public to identity officers if they engage in misconduct, or for police departments to hold them accountable,” they wrote in a separate letter to Jackson.
Meanwhile, police in Ferguson shut down a long-standing protest campsite in a parking lot of a vacant Ponderosa restaurant located near the site of Brown’s death. The activist group Lost Voices told the Associated Press that two of its members were arrested Friday afternoon in connection to the campsite closing.
This news comes on the heels of another tumultuous night in Ferguson, capping a week in which a memorial to Brown burned to the ground and the city’s spokesman was fired after revelations he once killed an unarmed man.
A melee erupted Thursday night outside Ferguson police headquarters after Chief Jackson waded into a crowd of protesters in an attempt to show unity. Instead, tussles between police and protesters broke out and several people were hauled off in plastic cuffs.
Brown was the unarmed black teenager shot dead Aug. 9 by Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, prompting days of community protests that met with an aggressive crackdown by local law enforcement. The city released a videotaped apology on Thursday from Jackson to Brown’s family, and to the peaceful protesters who’d been caught in the crossfire of rubber bullets and tear gas.
Jackson’s apology didn’t satisfy everyone. According to witnesses, a group of protesters assembled outside the police headquarters Thursday evening and began yelling that they didn’t believe it was sincere. They also called it too little, too late – coming more than seven weeks after Brown’s death.
As the chanting reached an apex, Jackson emerged from police headquarters and stood face-to-face with demonstrators.
“He asked, ‘what can I do to make this better, what can I do to build trust,’” said Patricia Bynes, a Democratic Committeewoman representing Ferguson Township.
Bynes, who said she was standing just feet away from the chief, said protesters asked Jackson to march with them as a show of unity. He agreed.
Video captured at the scene and posted on social media shows the gray-haired chief amid a gaggle of demonstrators stepping slowly up the block. Some spread their arms to create a boundary around the chief, calling out to others to back up. Chants of “We are Mike Brown!” began to rise.
Moments later came commotion, followed by shouts of “Stop pushing me!”
Witnesses say an unidentified black Ferguson police officer started barreling from the back of the crowd toward the chief, pushing people and even knocking one woman to the ground. The woman had been carrying a large American flag and was standing next to the chief when she was pushed.
In photos and video from the scene, one woman is seen being tackled to the ground by a burly police officer as she screams for them to stop.
“You’ve got to stop this, chief!” Pastor Renita Lamkin is seen and heard pleading.
“Please stop it! Please stop it! I was walking next to the chief and he knocked me down. I wasn’t doing anything. Please! Please! Please! You’re not listening to me!” the woman is heard yelling. “Why is he doing this? This is not right. This is not right. We was trying to get unity and this is what you do? This is unity?”
That was the spark that set off a standoff between police and protesters that lasted well into the early hours of Friday morning.
“It turned into a melee,” Bynes said.
A city on the edge
Despite relative quiet in Ferguson in the weeks since Brown’s death, there is lingering anger in the community over so many circumstances surrounding the shooting.
Investigators left Brown’s body uncovered in the middle of the street for more than 4 hours after his death and refused to allow family members to get close to the dead teen’s body. Outrage quickly swept through the neighborhood, eventually spilling out into the city where people smashed windows, looted and set fire to local businesses. Hundreds of protesters calling for justice for Brown eventually took to the streets, frequently clashing with police who were equipped with assault weapons and armored vehicles.
Police say Officer Wilson shot Brown as the two struggled over his gun. Numerous witnesses have said Wilson shot Brown as the teen tried to run away and then turned to face Wilson with his hands up.
The police department still has not released an incident report in Brown’s killing.
A host of public relations blunders by the city followed, including the release of a video of Brown not long before the shooting allegedly stealing a pack of cigars from a nearby convenient store and then shoving a clerk who appears to step in his way. Jackson released the video the same day that he released Wilson’s name to the public.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles has made his share of gaffes, including remarks made to msnbc that there is “no racial divide” in the city. There has also been sometimes strained communication between the city and the media, most recently around an email blast notifying reporters about a series of meetings that reporters were ultimately barred from attending.
Many of the daily public relations duties for the city fell to Devin James, head of the Devin James Group, which was contracted by the city following Brown’s death.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported this week that James, 32, had once shot and killed an unarmed man in 2004. Two years later, James was convicted of reckless homicide.
James says the charges stemmed from a self-defense shooting in which he killed a man trying to rob him at his home.
In 2009, James was jailed for 90 days, and his probation ended earlier this year in March.
Officials were aware of James’ conviction before hiring him and Mayor Knowles told the paper “We haven’t put it out there because he’s not the story.” The agency responsible for paying James has since severed its ties with him.
It was James who arranged the release of Chief Jackson’s apology on Thursday. On Friday the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership terminated its marketing contract with the Devin James Group and asked the North St. Louis County marketing project to remove them from public relations work on behalf of the city of Ferguson. They cited a “lack of transparency” on James’ part.
“While we admire his personal growth from difficult circumstances and commend him for his high quality work in Ferguson, it was the lack of information about his background that prompted us to make this move.” the Partnership said in a statement. ” Mr. James failed to inform us of his prior conviction. He also did not reveal this information to Elasticity when he was hired as a subcontractor. As of today, we are developing new vendor due diligence policies which we believe will prevent similar incidents in the future.”