In New York And Ferguson, Two Deaths, Two Different Responses

In New York And Ferguson, Two Deaths, Two Different Responses

8:46pm Aug 22, 2014
The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., also led to a series of protests. Many of them, like this protest on Aug. 19, featured people raising their arms and chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot." But interactions between police and protesters were mor
The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., also led to a series of protests. Many of them, like this protest on Aug. 19, featured people raising their arms and chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot." But interactions between police and protesters were mor
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
  • The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., also led to a series of protests. Many of them, like this protest on Aug. 19, featured people raising their arms and chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot." But interactions between police and protesters were mor

    The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., also led to a series of protests. Many of them, like this protest on Aug. 19, featured people raising their arms and chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot." But interactions between police and protesters were mor

    Joe Raedle / Getty Images

  • A memorial to Michael Brown sits next to one honoring Eric Garner outside filmmaker Spike Lee's offices in Brooklyn. This summer, the deaths of both unarmed black men set off numerous demonstrations in their communities, but the peaceful protests in New Y

    A memorial to Michael Brown sits next to one honoring Eric Garner outside filmmaker Spike Lee's offices in Brooklyn. This summer, the deaths of both unarmed black men set off numerous demonstrations in their communities, but the peaceful protests in New Y

    Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of police have shocked the country this summer: Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold by police in Staten Island, N.Y., and Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was shot by police in Ferguson, Mo.

Thousands of protesters will march in New York on Saturday to demand justice for Garner, and organizers say Brown's parents will speak at the rally. But while the two cases have some things in common, there are also key differences, including the way police in the local communities reacted.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who is leading Saturday's protest in Staten Island, is among those who have noticed the contrast. Sharpton has had a busy month, shuttling between New York and Ferguson.

On Wednesday, Sharpton was at the Manhattan residence of Cardinal Timothy Dolan for a meeting with the city mayor, the police commissioner and city religious leaders aimed at easing tensions after Garner's death.

"When I flew back the other day, I thought about how different it was that we're going to sit in the cardinal's residence than what I saw in the streets of Ferguson," Sharpton says.

In Missouri, days of violence and looting followed the shooting of Brown by a white police officer. New York has seen large but peaceful protests since Garner died after police arrested him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. The incident was captured on cellphone video: You can hear Garner repeating the phrase "I can't breathe" after he's placed in a chokehold and held to the ground by police.

The next day, the video went viral. Officials in New York immediately called a press conference to explain how they were responding; the day after that, the officer who used the chokehold was identified and stripped of his gun and badge. Within a week, the police commissioner had announced plans to retrain all 35,000 NYPD officers in how to use force.

That's very different from how local and county police responded to the shooting in Ferguson, according to former police officer David Klinger. "If the local officials had called a press conference early on or gotten ahead of this, I think that would've calmed a lot of the concern, because so much was going on that people just didn't understand," says Klinger, who now teaches at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, just a few miles from Ferguson.

Instead, information emerged sporadically from Ferguson and St. Louis County police. The details of Brown's shooting are very much in dispute. Still, it took Missouri officials close to a week to release some basic information about the incident — including the number of bullets that struck Brown and the name of the officer who fired them.

Norm White, a professor of criminology at Saint Louis University, says the way police handled the aftermath of the shooting contributed to further public mistrust in Ferguson.

"They've been tone-deaf from the very beginning," White says. "Communities that are already in a tense relationship with law enforcement need to have a sense that they're being respected, and they have not gotten that sense."

But White says it's not fair to blame the cops for everything that happened in Ferguson. More than 160 demonstrators — including some from outside the community — have been arrested. Police were pelted with bottles and rocks. Molotov cocktails were thrown, and businesses looted. So White says the community also bears some responsibility for the violence.

"There hasn't been what seemed to be adequate leadership in the streets," White says. That's not just the fault of political leaders and community leaders — it's a collective responsibility, White says: "I think it's all of our failure, as people who are committed to the community, that we haven't been able to figure it out."

White says that's another key difference between the two cities. In Ferguson, there's no tradition of dialogue between community organizers and the police. But in New York — for better or worse — police and community organizations have years of experience working together to plan demonstrations during moments of racial tension.

Cynthia Davis is helping to organize tomorrow's march in Staten Island, where she lives. She heads the local chapter of Sharpton's National Action Network.

"My main goal is to make sure I go around in the community and get that message out, that this is going to be a peaceful march — that we are marching for justice," Davis says.

Davis has been protesting for years against what she sees as racially biased policing in New York — but she describes the chief of police in Staten Island as a friend.

"He's working with us to make sure that this march happen, and happen properly," Davis says. "And that police are going to be as invisible as possible. They're going to be barely seen."

That would also be a sharp contrast with Ferguson — where the conflict has been defined by images of police and National Guard troops in camouflage, with military-style weapons and body armor.

Despite her respect for NYPD leadership, Davis says she has plenty of complaints about the department — including the aggressive policing of minor offenses that critics say led to Garner's death. The protesters are still pushing for criminal charges against the officers involved. But they want that message — not another clash with police — to take center stage.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The parents of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot by police in a St. Louis suburb, are expected to be in New York this weekend. They're supposed to take part in a rally for another unarmed black man who was killed this summer. Eric Garner died in Staten Island after being placed in a chokehold by police last month. The two incidents have much in common but as NPR's Joel Rose reports, there are also key differences, including the way police in the two communities manage the aftermath.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The protest in Staten Island is being led by Reverend Al Sharpton. It's been a busy month for him shuttling between New York and Ferguson, Missouri. On Wednesday Sharpton was at the tony Manhattan residence of Cardinal Timothy Dolan. For a meeting with the Mayor, the police commissioner and city religious leaders aimed at easing tensions after Garner's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL SHARPTON: When I flew back the other day, I thought about how different it was. That we're going to sit in the Cardinal's residence than what I saw in the streets of Ferguson.

ROSE: Sharpton isn't the only one who's noticed the contrast. In Missouri, days of violence and looting followed the shooting of Michael Brown and unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer. New York has seen large but peaceful protests since Eric Garner died after police arrested him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. The incident was captured on cell phone video. You can hear Garner repeating the phase, I can't breathe, after he's placed in a choke hold and held to the ground by police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC GARNER: I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

ROSE: The next day the video went viral. Officials in New York immediately called a press conference to explain how they were responding. The day after that, the officer who used the chokehold was identified and stripped of his gun and badge. Within a week the police commissioner had announced plans to retrain all 35,000 NYPD officers on how to use force. But that is not how Missouri officials responded, says David Klinger. He's a former police officer who now teaches at the University of Missouri St. Louis.

DAVID KLINGER: If the local officials had called a press conference early on or gotten ahead of this and I think that would have calmed a lot of the concern because so much was going on that people just didn't understand.

ROSE: Instead information emerged sporadically from Ferguson and county police. Details of Brown's shooting are very much in dispute. Still it took Missouri officials close to a week to release some basic information about the incident. Including the number of bullets that struck Brown and the name of the officer who fired them.

NORM WHITE: They've been tone deaf from the very beginning.

ROSE: Norm White is a professor of criminology at St. Louis University. He says the way police handled the aftermath of the shooting contributed to public mistrust in Ferguson.

WHITE: Communities that are already in a tense relationship with law enforcement need to have a sense that they're being respected and they have not gotten that sense.

ROSE: But White says it's not fair to blame the cops for everything that happened in Ferguson. More than 160 demonstrates have been arrested including some from outside the community. Police were pelted with bottles and rocks, Molotov cocktails were thrown and businesses looted. So White says the community also bears some responsibility for the violence.

WHITE: There hasn't been what seemed to be adequate leadership in the streets.

ROSE: Is that a failure of political leaders or community leaders or both?

WHITE: I think it's about failure. As people who are committed to the community that we haven't been able to figure it out.

ROSE: White says that's another key difference between the two cities. In Ferguson there's no tradition of dialogue between community organizers and the police. But in New York, for better or worse, police and community organizations have years of experience working together to plan demonstrations during moments of racial tension.

CYNTHIA DAVIS: My main goal right now is to make sure that I go around in the community and get that message out. That this is going to be a peaceful march, that we are marching for justice.

ROSE: Cynthia Davis is helping to organize tomorrow's march in Staten Island where she lives. Davis heads the local chapter of Sharpton's National Action Network. She's been protesting for years against what she sees as racially biased policing in New York. And she describes the chief of police in Staten Island as a friend.

ROSE: He's working with us to make sure that this march happening and happens properly. And that the police are going to be as invisible as possible. They're going to be barely seen.

ROSE: That would also be a sharp contrast with Ferguson, where the conflict has been defined by images of police and National Guard troops with military style equipment firing tear gas at protesters and journalists. Despite her respect for NYPD leaders of Davis says she has plenty of complaints about the department, including the aggressive policing of minor offenses that critics say led to Eric Garner's death. The protesters are still pushing for criminal charges against the officers involved but they want that message, not another clash with police to take center stage. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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