- AP Photos
- Protesters in Saint Louis call for reforms after police shot and killed Michael Brown and, ten days later, Kajieme Powell.
As you may remember, the August 9 death of Michael Brown after he was shot by a police officer in the Saint Louis suburb of Ferguson was followed—ten days of nationally covered civil protests later—by another police shooting in Saint Louis proper. Our understanding of Brown’s death is at best translucent—police saying one thing, witnesses another. But Kajieme Powell, 25, was videotaped by an amused bystander who’d noticed him on the sidewalk acting “crazy.” We could watch Powell die for ourselves.
When I saw the video a few days later I was amazed that the protesters and (therefore) the media were still preoccupied by Brown. The Powell video was that compelling.
A police car drove up to a curb and two white officers jumped out with their guns drawn. Powell approached them, and if it’s hard to make out the knife police say he was wielding, there’s no reason to doubt that he did. But Powell didn’t attack the two officers; he didn’t come close to stabbing distance.
But they shot him down and made no mistake about it; firing squads do their jobs with fewer bullets.
The two shootings took place about four miles apart, and as anyone in Chicago can tell you, four urban miles are roughly equivalent to halfway across the country. Brown and Powell weren’t shot in the same municipality or even in adjacent municipalities, and my first thought was that Powell’s death was getting dragged into the media spotlight because, after all, what better tenth-day angle than a fresh shooting to chew over?
When the Powell story quickly dropped from sight I assumed it had been sunk by its own irrelevance. I stopped thinking that after I watched the video.
The chief of police of Saint Louis released the video to the media, along with video from a surveillance camera of Powell apparently shoplifting from a convenience store just before his death. Brown had also been caught on camera apparently shoplifting from the same kind of place—pushing the owner aside on his way out the door—and if that incident had nothing to do with Brown’s death, in Powell’s case it was the shop owner who called the cops.
A spokesman for the local police union called the Powell videos “exculpatory,” and maybe you will too. What puzzles me is why the video of his being shot didn’t throw gasoline on Brown’s very hot coals. Did the video make what happened to Powell too clear? (Maybe we get most upset when we first have to convince ourselves we have a right to be.)
A black Saint Louis alderman said his city is not Ferguson because blacks in Saint Louis have representation and “faith in government.” Was that difference real and decisive? Or possibly the protesters who’d gathered along West Florissant Road in Ferguson and commanded the media simply did not take up Powell’s cause because they did not intend to let the injustice that united them get away from them.
I asked a couple of the smartest people I know in my hometown why the death of Kajieme Powell was a one-day news story. Win Gifford, an old friend, said the chief of police smartly got in front of the story: he “quickly released the video of the shooting and he was immediately hailed for being ‘transparent,’ somehow thus exonerating him and his officers from scrutiny and criticism.”
And to media it was one death too many. “I do have the sense,” Gifford wrote me, “that the Powell coverage was strongly reduced by the existing gut feel that North County and the North Side of the City were in a delicate tinderbox state and new 24/7 cable coverage of another shooting could have an incendiary effect.”
“Friends and I have batted this around,” replied Bill McClellan, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, when I e-mailed him asking why the Powell shooting had so little impact. “The city police chief, Sam Dotson, was pro-active. He was right there explaining things. Of course, it seems he overstated the police case. I did not think the video backed up his contention that the officers were in danger.
“Sometimes it seems the media and the public have an attention deficit disorder problem. We can only concentrate on one thing at a time. This Ferguson thing has been all-encompassing, yet overblown in some ways. If you were to visit the scene of the unrest on West Florissant Avenue, you’d be taken aback, I suspect, at the limit of the damage. The Quick Trip is a burn-out shell now and some windows are boarded up, but the damage is confined to a small area. You wouldn’t know it from the coverage. But it certainly swept over Powell’s case.”
How small an area? I asked.
“Maybe a long block, two short blocks,” McClellan said. “Mostly one side of the street, but some on the other.”
A far cry from Chicago’s riots of 1968, when vast swaths of the west side were trashed and torched and more than 500 persons were injured. Twenty years later the Chicago media managed to have forgotten those riots occurred—or that, if they did, they signified anything—and the anniversary passed unobserved. Sometimes small is better, and later—by this point Americans regard each new urban protest with the connoisseurship of Louisianans discussing hurricanes—beats sooner.
Ferguson had itself a very modern racial uprising: small, contained, and as we can see from the death of Powell, extremely focused. And perhaps all the more effective for that.
(Here are the Post-Dispatch‘s recent reflections on the two shootings.)