LOS ANGELES – They were killed in Wisconsin, New York and California. Some were shot on the street. One was killed in a Wal-Mart. Another died after being placed in a chokehold. All died at the hands of police and all have been united by one thing: the killing of Michael Brown.
Details may differ, circumstances of their deaths may remain unknown, but the outrage that erupted after the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of the unarmed, black 18-year-old by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., has become a rallying cry in protests over police killings across the nation.
While there’s been nothing approaching the violence seen in the St. Louis suburb, demonstrations fueled by a sense of injustice and buoyed with the help of social media have rolled across cities, regardless of whether the shootings took place last week or last month.
The spark, said Garrett Duncan, an associate professor of education and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, was how Ferguson police bungled the aftermath of Brown’s killing, leading to rioting and looting in the face of a heavily armed police force and, later, the National Guard.
“When you leave an 18-year-old boy’s body in the street for four hours in a Missouri summer, that’s going to trigger something,” Duncan said. “The reason it’s politicized is we still don’t know what’s going on. The boy is buried and we still don’t know the circumstances.”
“Folks exploit these things for one thing or another,” he said. “Whether to loot – or get their 15 minutes of fame.”
In a culture where the 24/7 news cycle dissects events and often fills the information void with opinion, the topic of police shootings has become polarizing – from the White House to cable shows to Asia.
Brown’s name and Ferguson have become synonymous with police killings. They have been splashed on signs by protesters, added to hashtags on Twitter and referred to on T-shirts that sport the refrain heard in the city: “Hands up! Don’t shoot.”
In Albuquerque, N.M., a city facing federal-ordered reforms over excess police force, protesters have begun invoking Brown’s name at rallies connected to the city’s string of police shootings.
David Correia, a critic of city police, said protesters invoked Brown’s name because they believe minorities have been targeted in some excessive force cases. Around half of the 41 police shootings involved Hispanic suspects in a city where about half of the residents are Latino.
“Although it is true that many of the victims of police shootings here have been the homeless and those struggling with mental illness, that element of racialized police violence is there,” Correia said.
Brown’s name has been spoken loudly in Los Angeles where demonstrators peacefully marched, held vigils and confronted police leaders over the Aug. 11 killing of Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old unarmed black man who family members said was mentally ill.
Police said he tackled an officer and reached for his gun. News media have reported witnesses did not see any struggle.
With L.A.’s long history of racial tensions between police and the black community – including the deadly violence that followed the acquittal of officers who beat Rodney King – the Los Angeles Police Department has taken a more proactive approach, releasing information and holding public forums.
“They’ve gone on a charm tour with the community,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. Still, he said, the same tensions that boiled over in Ferguson lie just beneath the surface in Los Angeles.
“While you didn’t see the looting and mass demonstrations that you saw in Ferguson, the hostilities, distrust and mistrust between the African-American community and LAPD is still there,” he said.
Brown’s death has refocused attention on race in some killings or renewed interest in older cases.
The Aug. 5 shooting of a black man holding an air rifle in an Ohio Wal-Mart didn’t become a racial issue until after Ferguson blew up with violence. The family of John Crawford III has since called on the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a civil rights probe.
In Milwaukee, demonstrators have taken to the streets three weeks in a row to call for federal officials to investigate police brutality against minorities after Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a white Milwaukee police officer four months ago.
In New York, the City Council will review police procedures after a black man suspected of illegally selling cigarettes on the street died after being placed in a chokehold by a white officer.
Gina Thayne’s nephew, Dillon Taylor, 20, was fatally shot by Salt Lake City police within days of Brown’s death. Protesters decried the use of lethal force in Taylor’s shooting and others, including Brown’s, as well as the outfitting of officers around the nation with military-style gear.
Thayne said she participated in the demonstrations, but was reluctant to make a connection between the two cases.
“I just want to find out the truth, no matter what it is,” she said.