Ferguson Riots: History and Impact

Police fire tear gas at demonstrators protesting the shooting of Michael Brown on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
Police fire tear gas at demonstrators protesting the shooting of Michael Brown on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson / Getty Images

The Ferguson Riots were a series of peaceful and violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which began on August 9, 2014, after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by white police officer Darren Wilson. The protests continued through November 2014, after a grand jury ruled that Wilson would not be charged in the shooting.

The murder of Michael Brown, along with the handling of the incident by the police, fueled an ongoing nationwide debate over the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement, police brutality, and the use of military-style force against civilians by police.

Fast Facts: The Ferguson Riots

  • Short Description: Protests and riots in reaction to the deadly shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.
  • Key Players: Police officer Daren Wilson; teenager Michael Brown; St. Louis County, Missouri, Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch
  • Event Start Date: August 9, 2014
  • Event End Date: November 29, 2014
  • Location: Ferguson, Missouri, United States

Michael Brown Shooting

On August 9, 2014, unarmed 18-year-old black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a town with an African American majority population, but a white-majority police force with a confirmed history of racial profiling. The events leading up to the shooting were well documented.

Around 11:50 a.m., Brown was recorded by a store security camera stealing a pack of cigarillos from the Ferguson Market & Liquor and shoving the clerk in the process. At 12:00 noon, Officer Wilson, while responding to an unrelated call in the area, encountered Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, walking in the middle of the street near the market and asked them to return to the sidewalk. When Wilson noticed that Brown fit the description of the suspect in the recently reported robbery of the Ferguson Market, he maneuvered his police SUV to block the pair.

Police officers in front of the Ferguson Market & Liquor during the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
Ferguson police officers are seen outside a storefront as demonstrators protests outside the Ferguson Market and Liquor. Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images

At this point, witnesses say Brown reached into the open window of the police SUV and began punching Wilson while grabbing for the officer’s gun. As the fight escalated, Wilson fired two shots, one striking Brown’s right hand. Brown then fled, pursued on foot by Wilson. When Brown stopped and turned to face Wilson, the officer fired his pistol multiple times, hitting Brown at least six times. Brown died on the scene at approximately 12:02 p.m., less than 90 seconds after having first encountered Wilson on the street.

A forensic investigation found that injuries to Wilson’s face, the presence of Brown’s DNA on his uniform, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s hand indicated that Brown had acted aggressively during their initial encounter. In addition, multiple eyewitnesses contradicted protesters’ claims that Brown had been shot with his hands up while trying to surrender. According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, some of the witnesses had been hesitant to testify, with one referring to signs posted near the scene of the shooting warning that “snitches get stitches.”

Riots and Unrest in Ferguson, Missouri

By the evening of August 9, local residents, many of them upset and angry, had gathered around a makeshift memorial created in the street at the scene of Brown’s death. Crowds were further angered when a St. Louis County Police Department officer reportedly allowed his police dog to urinate on the memorial.

People attend a memorial service to mark the anniversary of Michael Brown's death on August 9, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri.
People attend a memorial service to mark the anniversary of Michael Brown's death on August 9, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson / Getty Images

On the evening of August 10, the first riots broke out in Ferguson as protesters vandalized cars, looted stores, and sparred with police. At least 12 businesses were looted, and a QuikTrip convenience store and a Little Caesars Pizza were set on fire. Some 150 police officers equipped with full riot gear and armored vehicles responded, arresting 32 individuals before containing the scene. The protests added fuel to the Black Lives Matter movement formed in 2012 after the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch member who shot him.

On August 11, the FBI said it was investigating Brown’s death. The same evening, police in riot gear fired tear gas and bean bag rounds at protesters, who had gathered at the burned-out QuikTrip store.

On August 12, hundreds of protesters carried signs while shouting "Hands up, don't shoot,” referring to reports that Brown had been trying to surrender when he was shot. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd when some protesters threw rocks and bottles at them.

On August 14, the Missouri State Highway Patrol replaced Ferguson and St. Louis County police after pictures from the protests showed their officers riding in armored vehicles and pointing assault rifles at protesters. The next day, police released the surveillance video showing Brown taking the cigarillos from the Ferguson Market. The release of the video angered protesters who called it an attempt to turn public opinion against Brown.  

Police officers in riot gear stand outside city hall as demonstrators protest the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Police officers in riot gear stand outside city hall as demonstrators protest the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Joshua Lott / Getty Images

On August 20, a St. Louis County grand jury convened to begin considering evidence to determine whether Wilson should be charged with a crime in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Throughout September and October, peaceful protests and violent skirmishes between demonstrators and police continued. On November 17, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in anticipation of reactions to the grand jury’s findings.

On November 24, violence returned to the streets of Ferguson after it was announced that the St. Louis County grand jury had voted not to charge Wilson. Protesters burned and looted at least a dozen buildings and several police cars were flipped and set on fire. Police officers were pelted by rocks.

On November 29, officer Wilson resigned from the Ferguson Police Department.

After three months of uneasy peace, violence erupted again on March 12, 2015, when two St. Louis-area police officers were shot in front of the Ferguson Police Department during a demonstration by protesters. Three days later, a 20-year-old black man was charged with first-degree assault in the shootings. After being found guilty, the man was sentenced to 25 years in prison on March 17, 2017. 

Investigation and Grand Jury Hearing

In a press conference announcing the grand jury’s decision on November 24, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch stated that while there was no doubt that Wilson had shot and killed Brown, the grand jury “determined that no probable cause exists” to indict Wilson. “It doesn’t lessen the tragedy that it was a justifiable use of self-defense,” McCulloch added.

Protestor wearing a “Is My Son Next” T-shirt during the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
Demonstrators protest in front of the police station on March 12, 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The grand jury was made up of three black and nine white jurors, roughly reflecting the racial makeup of St. Louis County. During its three months of deliberations, the jury examined more than 5,000 pages of testimony from 60 witnesses. All evidence and testimony presented to the grand jury was made public.

Prosecutor McCulloch himself was accused of harboring a personal bias favoring Wilson. Attorneys for Brown’s family argued that McCulloch’s police officer father had been killed during a shootout with a black suspect. Both McCulloch and Missouri Governor Nixon rejected claims of bias in the grand jury process.

Several witnesses were also interviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). As often happens when multiple eyewitnesses describe the same set of chaotic events, their recollections of key details varied, sometimes contradicting each other.

In reviewing the grand jury documents, the Associated Press found that the testimony of several witnesses had been “inconsistent, fabricated, or provably wrong.” One witness who had told police she had seen Brown put his hands up admitted that she had not even seen the shooting. Other witnesses admitted they had altered their testimony to match what they had heard in news reports. Several witnesses reported that their testimony had been influenced by a fear of retaliation from the neighborhood if they backed Wilson.

In its investigation, the DOJ found witnesses backing officer Wilson’s account of the shooting to be more credible than those who contradicted his account. The report found that the claims of witnesses who said Brown was trying to surrender were not supported by the physical evidence or with the statements of other witnesses. In some cases, witnesses supporting Brown were found to have contradicted themselves, giving different accounts of the events in different interviews. In the end, the DOJ found that none of the statements of witnesses supporting Wilson’s guilt were credible and that Wilson had shot Brown in self-defense.

Justice Department Finds Pattern of Racial Discrimination

Demonstrators raise their arms and chant,
Demonstrators raise their arms and chant, "Hands up, Don't Shoot,” as they protest the shooting death of Michael Brown on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

On March 4, 2015, the DOJ announced that while it would not prosecute Wilson, it had found evidence of racial bias in how Ferguson area police and courts treated black people. In its scathing 105-page report, the DOJ found that the Ferguson Police Department had shown a pattern of discrimination against the black community by profiling, or applying racial stereotypes, in a “pattern or practice of unlawful conduct.”

“Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.

Aftermath

When Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Wilson, the predominantly African American city of Ferguson was largely run by white politicians overseeing a police force commanded by a white man. Today, the seven-seat city council, which had just one black member at the time, has three African American members. In addition, the then overwhelmingly white police department has added several black officers and a black chief of police.

Since the Ferguson riots, public opinion about police activity remains divided along racial lines. Despite promises of reform from city officials, deadly police shootings have continued, with few officers facing prosecution. Even with most police now equipped with body cameras, the justification for the use of deadly force is often questioned.

In August 2019, five years after the Ferguson protests, a study conducted by the National Academies of Sciences showed that black men still face a 1 in 1,000 risk of dying during an encounter with police, a much higher risk than that faced by white men. “For young men of color, police use of force is among the leading causes of death,” stated the report.

Sources and Further Reference

  • “Number of people arrested, injured continues to rise in Ferguson.” KMOV 4, St. Louis, August 14, 2014, https://web.archive.org/web/20141202024549/http://www.kmov.com/special-coverage-001/Reports-Ferguson-protests-turn-violent-270697451.html.
  • Alcindor, Yamiche; Bello, Marisol. “Police in Ferguson ignite debate about military tactics.” USA Today, August 19, 2014, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/14/ferguson-militarized-police/14064675/.
  • “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.” United States Department of Justice, March 4, 2015, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf.
  • Mathis-Lilley, Ben. “Police Handler Let Dog Urinate on Michael Brown Memorial the Day He Was Killed.” Slate.com, Aug. 27, 2014, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2014/08/ferguson-police-dog-urinated-on-michael-brown-memorial.html.
  • Peralta, Eyder. “Ferguson Documents: How The Grand Jury Reached A Decision.” NPR, November 25, 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/11/25/366507379/ferguson-docs-how-the-grand-jury-reached-a-decision.
  • Mohr, Holbrook. “Ferguson grand jury papers full of inconsistencies.” AP News / Fox News 2 St. Louis, November 26, 2014, https://fox2now.com/2014/11/26/grand-jury-documents-rife-with-inconsistencies/.
  • Santhanam, Laura. “After Ferguson, black men still face the highest risk of being killed by police.” PBS News Hour, Aug 9, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/after-ferguson-black-men-and-boys-still-face-the-highest-risk-of-being-killed-by-police.