ST. LOUIS (AP) _ EDITOR’S NOTE _ A year ago, most Americans had never heard of the St. Louis suburb called Ferguson. But after a White police officer fatally shot a Black 18-year-old in the street, the name of the middle-class community became virtually a household word. From the first hours after Michael Brown’s death, Associated Press reporter Jim Salter watched as a neighborhood protest launched a national movement. What follows is an excerpt of the introduction to “Deadly Force: Fatal Confrontations with Police,” an upcoming book published by The Associated Press (www.ap.org/books ).
Until August 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, wasn’t the kind of place that generated much news. It was a mostly quiet suburban town of 21,000, a mix of beautiful old homes and working-class neighborhoods. Like a lot of communities in north St. Louis County, it had seen significant White flight and was now two-thirds African-American.
My wife’s grandmother lived in Ferguson until she died in 1991, so I spent some time there as a young man. But since joining the St. Louis office of The Associated Press in 1993, I had never been to Ferguson as a reporter.
On Aug. 9, I returned home from a bike ride to learn that a young Black man had been fatally shot by a White Ferguson police officer. By that humid Saturday evening, hundreds of people were congregating near the scene where Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson. The crowd was angry. Some witnesses said the 18-year-old had his hands up in surrender when he was shot.
The next day, as Ferguson police prepared for a news conference to explain what happened, I was among a crowd of reporters who heard distant chanting. As I walked toward the noise, I could see in the distance hundreds of people, many holding signs. The chant soon became clear: “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
That would become the rallying cry in the unrest that followed. It was also the first evidence that Ferguson would be a far bigger story than we initially imagined.
Shootings by police are not uncommon, a sad reality of urban life. In April last year, about four months before Brown died, a mentally ill man was shot in a Milwaukee park. A few days before, a man waving an air rifle was killed in an Ohio Wal-Mart by police.
So what was different in Ferguson? Brown and Wilson had their fatal encounter in the middle of a street surrounded by apartment buildings. It was almost noon on a Saturday, and many people _ residents, construction workers, visitors _ were outside.