By William H. Freivogel
Few people outside of St. Louis had heard of Ferguson on Aug. 8, 2014.
To St. Louisans who did know it, Ferguson was a nice little town in north St. Louis County that had refurbished its business district of nice restaurants and shops and was more racially integrated than most of St. Louis’ other highly segregated communities.
Then came the death of Michael Brown and the vivid, though flawed, social media story of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Ferguson became the national and international symbol for racial segregation and America’s failure to root out the vestiges of slavery and segregation.
Why did Ferguson go viral? There were many reasons.
1 -- A torrent of social media posts – some 35 million -- that flew by on phone and computer screens faster than they could be read.
2 – Leaving Michael Brown’s body from the street for more than four hours. Patricia Bynes, the Democratic committeewoman and an influential presence on social media under the Twitter handle Patricialicious, explained that the front doors and windows of the apartments in Canfield Green look out on the street where Brown lay. Uni Selah, executive director of Dream Defenders told the British newspaper the Guardian that she remembered thinking, “Oh my God, they left him in the street. That was particularly barbaric. It just showed the value they placed on his body, even in death.”
Former Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said he felt uncomfortable about the time Brown’s body lay in the street and former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom also criticized the long period of time. But police also noted there were gunshots from an undisclosed location during the investigation and that the investigation of the scene was crucial to figuring out what really happened.
3 -- Not immediately naming the officer who shot Brown. Withholding the officer’s name is common police policy, but cities such as Cincinnati, which have made progress on handling police shootings, have decided prompt disclosure of the names of the shooters is important to establishing community trust.
4 -- Similar deaths of other unarmed black men at the hands of police -- from Staten Island to Cleveland to North Charleston to Tulsa to Baltimore.
5 -- Police with dogs reminded people of Bull Connor, the segregationist public safety director of Birmingham whose use of police attack dogs and fire hoses against civil right demonstrators in 1963 shocked the nation. Researchers found that one of the most retweeted posts Aug. 9 came from a white high school student in Kentucky @brennamuncy, who showed German Shepherd police dogs in Ferguson next to police dogs threatening protesters in the South half a century ago. “What year is it again?” the student tweeted.
6 -- Militarized police who resembled an occupying army - clad in riot gear, backed by armored military vehicles and pointing red-laser sights pointed at protesters’ chests.
7 -- Ignoring the First Amendment. Police tried to ban night-time protests, tried to force protesters to keep walking, overused tear gas and arrested reporters, hassling and threatening others. PEN America documented 52 instances of infringement of journalists’ rights, including 21 arrests.
8 -- America realized its racial problems were not just history. Brown’s high school was of poor quality and unaccredited. He lived in a segregated housing project. Ferguson engaged in racist policing. And almost the entire city leadership and police department were white.
In other words, all the elements of historical racism were present and quickly held up to the world through social media that empowered those without power. Demonstrators with phones in their hands, reached over the heads of traditional media to tell their story in real time to people thousands of miles away. Ferguson took its place next to Selma and Birmingham in the civil rights lexicon.