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Officials in St. Louis County and the tense town of Ferguson, Mo., remain mum nearly three days after an unidentified
police officer shot an unarmed black teenager to death. But a young man who says he was with the victim at the time of the shooting has described a virtually unprovoked attack in which the officer fired repeatedly—even after the victim raised his hands and begged him to stop shooting.
In an interview with MSNBC, Dorion Johnson, 22, said that his friend, Michael Brown, 18, was walking in the street when the officer ordered him to the sidewalk. When Brown did not immediately comply, the officer put him in a chokehold. The young man struggled to free himself, and the officer pulled his gun and fired.
Wounded, Brown tried to flee, but was shot a second time in the back. That’s when he turned with his hands raised, Johnson said. “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting!” he said, but additional shots were fired.
Johnson’s version of events entered an information vacuum created by the silence of city, county, state and federal officials. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said Monday that information concerning Brown’s death would be released by noon on Tuesday. But as the deadline approached, a department spokesman announced a change of plans. The officer involved will not be named, nor will authorities commit to a timeline for releasing autopsy results and other details of the investigation.
Citing threats lodged on social media, Ferguson Police spokesman Officer Timothy Zoll said, “we are protecting the officer’s safety by not releasing the name.”
The St. Louis County police were also mum. Their investigation into the shooting continues, said Officer Brian Schellman, “but it is not for us to release the officer’s name. It is a personnel matter. It is up to the Ferguson police.”
At a press conference on the steps of the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis Tuesday, Rev. Al Sharpton and Benjamin Crump, a civil rights lawyer representing Brown’s family, said they are considering suing the Ferguson Police for the release of the officer’s name. Citing community distrust of local law enforcement, Crump called for the Justice Department to take over the investigation.
This investigation has been more complicated than most, as police have been pressed into a struggle to maintain peace in a restless and angry community. On Sunday night, peaceful protests erupted into a chaotic scene of arson and looting. Since then, parts of Ferguson—an incorporated working-class suburb of some 21,000 residents roughly 12 miles north of St. Louis—have been patrolled by scores of armored police officers with tear gas at the ready.
“This isn’t what Ferguson is about,” said one resident, Shante Duncan, 33. “This is a good community. There are lots of people on the ground doing good work but you never hear about any of it.”
Generations of racially mixed families have lived in Ferguson, some dating back more than a century, with ancestors among the slaves who were sold at auction houses on the Mississippi riverfront. Today, its residents comprise roughly two-thirds African-Americans and one-third Caucasians. Race relations, often harmonious among neighbors, are frequently tense between black residents and the mostly-Caucasian city officials.
“Ferguson is notorious for being prejudiced against blacks,” said George Chapman, a 50-year-old African-American who has lived in the town most of his life but said he recently moved because he was “tired of the police.”
“The police stop us all the time,” Chapman said. “…The police show us no respect. They treat us like we’re nothing.”