The Aug. 9 shooting on a nondescript St. Louis suburban street has sparked a national debate on race, civil rights and policing that shows no signs of cooling down.
The clash that day between black teenager Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson has unleashed a flood of emotions, arguments and viewpoints around the country and around the world.
“I think that there are a series of events that changed it from just a regular shooting to something that takes on more significance,” said Dennis Parker, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“His body was left laying in the street for four hours, which immediately created this impression of insensitivity or sense of carelessness about how the community would react,” Mr. Parker said.
The confrontation between a black teenager and a white police officer is no different from other incidents that have occurred across the country, said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis city chapter of the NAACP. “It has actually brought to light the same sort of conditions that have existed in the African-American community for some time now when it comes to police.”
A certain viewpoint often “demonizes African-American males and portrays them as drug dealers and violent predators,” he said.
“Police have become so ingrained in that thought, when they approach [black men] and when they deal with them, that’s become part of how they approach it,” Mr. Pruitt said.
The Ferguson shooting has also sparked a national conversation on the “militarization” of police forces and the fact that law enforcement officers are increasingly having access to equipment once reserved for the military.
Mr. Parker said he saw images of police using tear gas, stun grenades, armored personnel carriers and other equipment to break up unarmed protests.
“I think this was particularly striking, and despite the efforts of the police to limit press converge, the coverage there was, I think, sending out a shocking picture,” he said, noting that he traveled to Switzerland earlier this month and even there “people were transfixed” by what they were seeing occur.
The national Fraternal Order of Police has so far declined to speak about the situation.
“We are not commenting on Ferguson because we are representing the officer who is a member and are concerned about due process for all concerned,” said Jim Pasco, the organization’s executive director.
Press coverage scrutinized
Whether “due process” is being contaminated by all the attention has been hotly debated, but media critics said they believe the press is generally doing a good job in its reporting so far.
“I think most of it’s been relatively fair,” said Anthony Fargo, a journalism professor at Indiana University’s School of Journalism. “Any time there’s one of these situations, as you know, the media a lot of times has to deal with a lack of information in the beginning. That isn’t always conducive to great reporting.”
The fact that the individual incident involving Mr. Brown and Mr. Wilson has expanded into a much larger discussion about race and its role in America has not been blown out of proportion, Mr. Fargo said.
“One thing that the media are often criticized for is not putting events in the context, so I think that criticizing the media for putting an event in the context is a little odd,” he said.
National media traveling to a town they’ve never been in before often faces certain challenges, like finding responsible spokespeople for all sides of an issue, Mr. Fargo said.
“It’s tempting to say I need one person from the police department and one person from the black community, but there are often more than two sides to every issue,” he said. “It’s helpful for journalists, I think, to tread a bit softly when they first come to a town like this where this has happened.”
David Dent, a journalism professor at New York University, said it’s sometimes difficult to judge the effect media reporting is having on a situation.
“It’s really hard to look at media coverage now in a vacuum, just because of the way the sources and the way that people get information is very ideologically centered,” he said. “There’s such a variance there that it’s really hard to talk about the media and its coverage of Ferguson from a perspective of neutrality.”
Mr. Pruitt of the NAACP said he hopes the death of Mr. Brown will start a dialogue about the police’s connection to the community, what role race plays and how law enforcement personnel treat protesters.
But, he said, “we still cannot fix everything that’s related to policing and not address the socioeconomic conditions that have served as the breeding ground for everything to happen in the first place.”