"Crisis is the leading edge where change is possible," Lisa Fithian, an itinerant protest organizer, once told me. Nowhere does that seem more true right now than in Ferguson, Missouri, where ongoing protests have drawn attention to a deep national vein of racial animus. It's not surprising, then, that national figures have begun parachuting into town: the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, actress Keke Palmer, Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey—and the list goes on. The threat of "outside agitators" is a meme that has accompanied protests dating back to the civil rights era and beyond. But in Ferguson, there are indeed complaints from local organizers that some outsiders are making the situation worse.
On Monday, when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed an order to bring in the National Guard, he cited "violent and criminal acts of an organized and growing number of individuals, many from outside the community and state." On Tuesday, US Sen. Claire McCaskill said on MSNBC that the protesters "have now been invaded…by a group of instigators, some coming from other states, that want a confrontation with the olice." An officer told the Washington Post that visitors to Ferguson are engaging in "looting tourism."
Arrest statistics appear to bear them out, up to a point. Of the 78 people arrested Monday night, police told reporters, 68 percent were from the St. Louis metro area, but 18—or 23 percent—had come from out of state, some from as far away as New York and California.
So who are these outsiders, and what do they want? I went looking for every nonlocal organization claiming to have members protesting in Ferguson, from fringe to mainstream. Here are some I found:
Ferguson, Missouri, has been consumed with protests since Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was shot to death by police on Saturday. Brown was not the only African-American man killed by police in recent weeks under disputed circumstances. Consider these three other recent incidents:
Eric Garner, Staten Island, New York / July 17: Eric Garner, a 43-year-old asthmatic father of six, was confronted by New York City police officers for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. When he resisted being cuffed, an officer appeared to put him in a chokehold—a tactic banned by the department since 1993. A video of the arrest, first obtained by the New York Daily News, shows Garner gasping,"I can't breathe!" while officers relentlessly smother him:
More MoJo coverage of the Michael Brown police shooting
The city medical examiner later ruled Garner's death a homicide, saying neck compression from the chokehold killed him. But the officers involved in the arrest may not face charges if the homicide is found to be justifiable. Staten Island district attorney Daniel Donovan is investigating the case.
John Crawford, Beavercreek, Ohio / August 5: Two police officers responded to a 911 call about a man waving a gun at customers inside a Walmart store. According the Beavercreek police department, 22-year-old John Crawford disregarded officers' orders to disarm before being fatally shot in the chest. Crawford's gun turned out to be a .177 calibre BB rifle that he'd picked up from a store shelf. Walmart surveillance camera footage was turned over to the police but hasn't been released to the public or Crawford's family. "Why did John Crawford, a Walmart customer, get shot and killed carrying a BB gun in a store that sells BB guns?" asked Michael Wright, the family's attorney, during a joint press conference with the NAACP. "All the family demands is answers." The Ohio Attorney General's Office is investigating the case.
Ezell Ford, Los Angeles, California / August 11: When police conducted an "investigative stop" of 25-year-old Ezell Ford on a Los Angeles sidewalk, he "wheeled around and basically tackled the lead officer," then went after his weapon, an LAPD spokesperson told the LA Times. But in an interview with KTLA News, a woman who identified herself as Ford's mother said he was lying on the ground, complying with the officers' orders, when he was shot in the back. On Sunday afternoon, a handful of people protested the shooting outside LAPD's headquarters. The LA County District Attorney and the department's Force Investigation Unit are looking into the shooting.
So how often are unarmed African-American men getting shot by the police? The short answer is that nobody really knows, but it's clear that blacks are often disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. In Missouri, for example, African Americans were 66 percent more likely than whites to be stopped by police in 2013, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. A similar disparity exists in many other states and cities.
UPDATE (8/14/14): Another case has come to light in California:
Dante Parker, Victorville, California / August 12: A Victorville resident told police that a robbery suspect had fled on a bicycle. The police detained Dante Parker, a 36-year-old pressman at the Daily Press newspaper, apparently because they found him nearby on a bike. Though Parker had no criminal record (other than a DUI), a scuffle ensued and Parker was tased repeatedly when he resisted arrest, according to witnesses. He began breathing heavily and was taken to a hospital, where he died. The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department is conducting an investigation.
This was just posted by @theanonmessage, a twitter account affiliated with Anonymous' Operation Ferguson, a member of which I interviewed last night. According to @theanonmessage, this recording contains audio excerpts from St. Louis County police dispatch over several hours on August 9, 2014, the day Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer. The dispatcher starts talking about the Brown shooting around the 10-minute mark, while intermittently handling other calls. See below the recording for an updating list of interesting moments, with time stamps included.
9:35: "Ferguson is asking for assistance with crowd control . . ."
10:58: "Now they have a large group gathering there, she doesn't know any further. . ."
11:20: "We just got another call stating it was an officer-involved shooting . . ."
11:30: "Be advised, this information came from the news . . ."
11:55: "We're just getting information from the news and we just called Ferguson back again and they don't know anything about it . . ."
20:00: ". . .destruction of property . . ."
21:55: "They are requesting more cars. Do you want me to send more of your cars?"
43:55: "Attention all cars, be advised that in reference to the call 2947 Canfield Drive, we are switching over to the riot channel at this time . . ."
Update, 4:40 p.m. ET: I tried to verify the dispatch recordings with St. Louis County Police but their media contact, Brian Shelman, did not answer the phone and his voicemail was full.
Update 2, 5:05 p.m. ET:Mashableis confirming that the St. Louis County Police Department is "aware of this and currently investigating."
Update 3, 6:05 p.m. ET: A twitter follower of mine points out that the dispatch recording probably comes fromBroadcastify, a database of public safety radio audio streams that's available to anyone who pays for a subscription. It's "far from a hack," he says.
Update(August 13, 4:12 p.m. ET): Anonymous has obtained and posted St. Louis police dispatch tapes from the day of the shooting.
Update 2 (August 14, 12:07 p.m. ET): @theanonmessage, A Twitter account affiliated with Operation Ferguson has released the name of a police officer who it claims shot Michael Brown. Although the main Twitter account for Operation Ferguson retweeted the announcement, it later said that the name does not match the one provided by its source.
The police chief of Ferguson, Missouri, says he is withholding the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, out of concern for the safety of the officer and his family. But that might be easier said than done. Just a few hours later, the hacktivist group Anonymous announced on Twitter that it was now "making a final confirmation on the name of Mike Brown's murderer," adding: "It will be released the moment we receive it."
"Our source is very close personally to the officer who killed Mike Brown…and terrified to be our source."
I traded emails last night with one of the half-dozen core Anonymous members working on Operation Ferguson, as the group's effort to pressure and shame the local police department is known. They were still working to verify the identity of the shooter. "I can only tell you that our source is very close personally to the officer who killed Mike Brown, and that this person is terrified to be our source," said the anon, whom I will call Fawkes. He added that the source "reached out to us, we did not seek out this person."
The claim to have outed the Ferguson shooter comes only two days after Anonymous announced the launch of Operation Ferguson in this video:
The computer-generated voice, graphics, and hacking threats are trademark Anonymous, but one aspect is unusual: a demand for federal legislation "that will set strict national standards for police misconduct and misbehavior." Though Anonymous has a strong anarchist strain that disdains politics, Fawkes told me that the idea wasn't controversial within the group. "We have done a few of these 'justice ops' and it seems there needs to be a larger solution to the problem on a nationwide level," he told me. "There was no debate—everyone on the team embraced the idea."
It has been a busy few days for Operation Ferguson. The hackers shut down the city's website for a few hours on Sunday night and Tuesday morning, posted the home address and number of St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar, and dropped an email bomb that crammed city and police inboxes with junk messages. The goal was "to get journalists like you to do interviews with us, and incidentally maybe talk about the issue at hand in the process," Fawkes told me. "Looks like it worked."
In previous "justice ops," Anonymous hackers have targeted the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system to protest the Charles Hill and Oscar Grant shootings and the transit system's attempt to dampen protests by shutting down cellphone signals. Other Anonymous ops have uncovered criminal evidence or the names of suspects. "It's actually back to the classics," said McGill University cultural anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, author of the forthcoming book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, whom I met last night in a chatroom where hackers were plotting their next moves. She added that "a lot of old-school folks came back for this," though they've been careful to avoid the attention of law enforcement and other anons by using fresh pseudonyms.
The police "can look after themselves," Fawkes says. "This is psychological and information warfare, not a love fest."
But the veterans' participation hasn't stopped Op Ferguson from seeming unhinged at times. On Tuesday afternoon, one Anonymous Twitter account threatened to release information about the police chief's daughter unless he disclosed the name of the officer who'd killed Brown. (The threat was later withdrawn.) And the op's Twitter account repeated a bogus internet rumor attributing a screenshot of a racist Facebook tirade to Belmar's wife—the tweet has since been deleted.
"We are not exactly known for being 'responsible,' nor for worrying overly much about the safety of cops," Fawkes told me. "After all, they have vests and assault weapons. I think they can look after themselves. This is psychological and information warfare, not a love fest."
Half outlaw, half idealist, Anonymous has always operated at the margins of legitimacy, its tactics ranging from gumshoe detective work to illegal hacking and shameless PR stunts. It's hard to know whether its current claim to have ID'd Brown's killer will be borne out. "I don't think they have it," Coleman told me. But, she added: "I would not be surprised if they do soon."
Should you automatically go to jail for leaving your kid alone in the car? That question has gained new attention since the arrest of Shanesha Taylor, an unemployed single mom who left her two young children in her vehicle during a 45-minute job interview in Scottsdale, Arizona. After her arrest, Taylor's tearful mugshot elicited broad sympathy. Yet the temperature inside Taylor's car that afternoon had risen above 100 degrees and her kids were crying and profusely sweating. (The prosecutor agreed to dismiss the child abuse charges against Taylor.)
While Taylor's case may have been unusual, what parent hasn't contemplated the pros and cons of extracting a napping baby from a car seat just to dash into a convenience store? Leaving a kid in a locked, parked vehicle in the shade is usually pretty safe. However, it's definitely a bad idea to leave your kid unattended in a car for more than a few minutes on a hot day. Last year, at least 39 children died from heatstroke in vehicles; 21 have died so far this year. The interior of a car left in 80-degree heat with the windows rolled up can reach 120 degrees in less than an hour. Cracking the windows doesn't always cool the car down. Small kids more easily succumb to heatstroke, which can kick in when the body's internal temperature reaches just 104 degrees.
Whether leaving a child unattended in a car is a crime largely depends on where you live. Twenty states have laws addressing the issue. Only Louisiana, Maryland, and Nebraska outright ban the practice, though they differ on the definition of a child and a suitable guardian to stay in the car. Kids can remain in unattended vehicles for no more than five minutes in Hawaii, Texas, and Utah; you get 10 minutes in Illinois and 15 minutes in Florida. Laws in several other states, including California, specify that children can't be left in a vehicle in dangerous conditions such as hot weather.
Here's a map of all the current kids-in-cars laws:
Where is It Illegal to Leave Your Kid in the Car?
20 states have laws about leaving children alone in a car. Click any state for details.
No existing law
Illegal or unlawful under certain conditions; click state for details
States without kids-in-cars laws still may prosecute parents under child endangerment statutes, which can be interpreted in wildly different ways. A New Jersey appellate court recently found a woman who'd left her 19-month-old in her car for less than 10 minutes (with the windows cracked) guilty of child abuse. "A parent invites substantial peril when leaving a child of such tender years alone in a motor vehicle that is out of the parent's sight, no matter how briefly," wrote a three-judge panel. The ruling, which was mocked in a Newark Star-Ledger op-ed as an embodiment of the "Busybody State," will be reviewed by the state supreme court.
"The assumption is that any time a child is unsupervised, they are going to die, and that goes 20 times for a kid in a car."
Lenore Skenazy, the author of Free-Range Kids, argues that public concern for the safety of unattended kids has escalated to the point of hysteria. She has heard dozens of stories of parents chastised by onlookers for, say, stepping away from a car full of kids to drop off a letter, return a shopping cart, or grab a cup of coffee. "The assumption is that any time a child is unsupervised, they are going to die," Skenazy says, "and that goes 20 times for a kid in a car."
Ideally, police would arrest parents in such situations only if their kids are clearly in serious danger. But that's not always what happens. It's not clear how many parents are arrested for leaving their kids unsupervised in cars, but a search for stories published in the past two years turned up dozens of cases like these:
Bastrop, Louisiana/February 2013: A teenager left an infant in a car on a "cool day" for approximately two minutes while shopping at a clothing store, according to the Bastrop Daily Enterprise. He was arrested and charged with child desertion.
Bettendorf, Iowa/June 2013: A mother left an infant in a car during an early morning exercise class. According to the police report, the woman repeatedly stepped out of the hourlong class to check on the child. She was arrested and charged with child endangerment.
Yorktown, New York/October 2013: A father left a two-year-old boy in a car at a CVS parking lot for "several minutes," according to the Daily Somers Voice. He was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a child.
Columbus, Indiana/June 2014: A father left a one-year-old and seven-year-old in a car with the windows cracked and the sunroof open for about 10 minutes while shopping at Kroger. He told an officer that he'd left the kids behind because the seven-year-old wasn't wearing shoes. He was arrested and charged with child neglect.
Jacksonville, Florida/July 2014: A father left a seven-year-old boy in a car parked in the shade with the windows down outside a furniture store where he was a janitor. He was arrested and charged with child neglect. (Florida's kids-in-cars law only applies to children younger than six).
While some of these news stories might have omitted important details, a pattern clearly emerges of parents arrested for behavior that falls far short of what's usually considered child abuse. The risk of a child succumbing to heatstroke when left in a car under normal conditions for 10 or 15 minutes is vanishingly small. "I could not find any instance of any person dying in the car in the course of a short errand," says Skenazy, who has scrutinized kids-in-cars arrests for years. And adults who intentionally leave their kids in their vehicles for longer periods are not even the biggest problem: 80 percent of kids who die in parked cars were forgotten by their parents or entered the car without their parents' knowledge.
A child has a much greater chance of getting struck by lightning than being snatched from a parked car.
Adults who park their kids in the shade and roll the windows down or leave the air conditioner running with the keys in the ignition may be accused of leaving tempting targets for kidnappers. But arresting a parent for ignoring the hypothetical risk of a child predator, as happened in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, makes about as much sense as jailing her for feeding a kid solid food, letting him ride a bicycle, or allowing him to walk down a flight of stairs. In 1999, the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available, 115 of America's 72 million children were kidnapped by strangers. (That's all kidnappings, not just from cars.) That puts the risk of a child getting kidnapped in any given year at 0.0002 percent. A child has a much greater chance of getting struck by lightning at some point in his lifetime.
These arrests seem doubly unfair when they involve parents struggling to make ends meet with no better child care options. Is the seven-year-old son of the janitor in Jacksonville better off now that his dad is in jail? How about the baby left in a car at 8 a.m., shielded from the sun, with the windows cracked and sunroof open, while her mom took a final exam for cosmetology school? Or the mother who left her two kids in the car while she donated blood plasma to get gas money? Arguably, these arrests represent the criminalization of the working poor—though more affluent parents aren't immune to getting cuffed in the course of buying lattes or picking up the dry cleaning.
Skenazy sees many kids-in-cars laws as counterproductive. "The risk is so tiny that to start legislating on the basis of it would mean that you have to start legislating on everything," she says. "We focus on the danger of the kid in the parked car, and nobody ever goes through the same paroxysms of fear and hand-wringing and anger when the mom or dad puts the child in the car to drive somewhere, even though that is the No. 1 way children die. It's in moving cars while they are being driven somewhere by the parents who love them. Why don't we say to parents: 'Why did you take them with you? Couldn't you have found a babysitter and then gone to the grocery? Couldn't you have had your groceries delivered by a neighbor?'"
"We're not really concerned about the real ways kids die," she adds. "We're concerned about being mad at parents who don't believe they have to be with their kids every single second of the day."
So what is a reasonable onlooker supposed to do when confronted with an unattended kid inside a parked car? Consider the context, Skenazy says. Is it a grocery store parking lot where the parent will probably soon return, or an office park where everybody goes to work for the day? Is there another option short of calling the cops? "A Good Samaritan is looking out for the child. But they are also looking out for the mom," Skenazy says. "They are not the KGB."