Peace prevailed last night in Ferguson, Missouri—for the most part. There were a few bottles hurled at the cops, and dozens of arrests, but no gunshots, looting, tear gas plumes, or fusillades of rubber bullets. Largely to thank for this turn of events are the Peacekeepers, a group comprised of mostly of Ferguson and St. Louis locals who've been physically inserting themselves between police and rowdy protesters over the past few days in an effort to diffuse tensions.
The Peacekeepers' unofficial leader is Paul Muhammad, a linebacker-sized guy from St. Louis who favors fatigues but reportedly speaks in the soft tones of a therapist. Little is known about Muhammad, who did not immediately return a call from Mother Jones. "If you are going to be out here all night, I will be out here all night. Let's just go home," he told a teenager with a red bandanna over his face last night, according to Newsweek's Robert Klemko. A few minutes later, someone from a fringe group of onlookers hurled a water bottle and police moved in to disperse the crowd.
Members of the Peacekeepers have been active during the late-night protests since at least Wednesday, when Renita Lamkin, an African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor, was shot with a rubber bullet while attempting to mediate between police and protesters:
Over the next few days, Lamkin helped form the ad-hoc Peacekeepers group. Many volunteers turned out in response to a call during an August 12 church service by Rev. Al Sharpton for 100 men to step forward to be "Disciples of Justice" to keep the peace in the area.
The idea to make "Peacekeepers" shirts to help differentiate the group from other protestors was Muhammad's, Lamkin told me. He posted a request on his Facebook page and the next day the shirts arrived. They're now worn by about 10 to 12 people who conduct the nightly patrols. Here's Lamkin in hers last night:
Pastor Renita Lamkin
Lamkin sees the Peacekeepers as a critical way to protect both police and protesters. "We don't want police officers injured and we don't want our young people's lives altered," she told me. "I often tell young people: "Don't make permanent decisions in a temporary place. In this one moment, don't do something that is going to result in a permanent decision for your life."
The Peacekeepers have learned a few important lessons since last week. Since Sunday night, when Lamkin got pushed into side streets by police and cut off from her car, the group now keeps someone "on the outside" who can pick up people who've been cordoned off from the action. On Tuesday night, she ferried several loads of people back to their own cars.
When people ask Lamkin whose side she's on, she replies that she's "on the side of life." Her goal, she clarifies, is "preserving life" so that "everybody goes home."
"The people trust us and they know that we care about them," she says. "So there's the difference: It's the difference love brings to a situation."
"I ain't expecting the police to love on folks; they're there to do a job," she adds. "Our job is to bring the love."
"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."