By Mick Krever, CNN
Tensions are high in the small American town of Ferguson, Missouri as people take to the streets to protest the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager last Saturday.
Stunning images Wednesday night showed police officers in full riot gear using military grade-vehicles and firing tear gas canisters towards crowds.
“I sat and watched snipers from the top of armored cars train their sights on demonstrators,” Jamelle Bouie, a staff writer for Slate reporting from Ferguson, told CNN’s Hala Gorani, in for Christiane Amanpour.
“When that happens, when people see it happens, it agitates them – completely reasonably. I don’t think there’s anyone, really, who could experience that and not come away from it a little shaken.”
Michael Brown was just two days away from starting college when he was walking to his grandmother's house with a friend on Saturday. Witnesses say a police officer confronted the two, and after a short verbal dispute shot Brown multiple times, even as he had his hands in the air.
Police dispute that account, and say Brown assaulted the officer, whom they are not naming.
The town has since erupted with protest and increasing violence.
“For the last twenty years, Congress had a program that allows police departments – local and state – to purchase military-grade weaponry from the surplus,” Bouie said.
“What that means is that countless little small towns like Ferguson … have tanks, they have armored vehicles, they have mine-resistant vehicles, they have assault weapons, they have helicopters, they have sniper rifles – they have a whole host of equipment that is really more appropriate for warzones than it is for small-town policing.”
“It makes people less likely to listen, it makes people want to confront, and then it leads to situations where the police feel that they have to use tear gas and use rubber bullets, which is a completely disproportionate response to what was a very peaceful demonstration.”
Ferguson, population just 21,000, is nearly two-thirds black. But you wouldn't know it from the town’s leadership. Its mayor and police chief are white, and of its 53 police officers just three are black.
Civil rights investigators at the Department of Justice are looking into the shooting of Brown, and even the president has been briefed on the matter.
“Places like St. Louis city and St. Louis County are very segregated,” Bouie said. “St. Louis is one of the most segregated areas in the country. And what segregation means in today’s America is that you have communities that are cut off from resources, cut off from jobs, cut off from opportunities, and then also are subject to an unbelievable amount of policing.”
“I’ve talked to quite a few young men here who say that on an average month they’re stopped five, six, seven, eight times by the police, which is just incredible when you think that most people in a year will never have any interaction, period, with the police.”
“One of the things that’s come across to me reporting here is that there are many people of color in Ferguson and St. Louis who don’t feel like they are stakeholders, who don’t feel like the police are here to protect them; rather, they feel that the police are here to protect others from them.”
“So I think first and foremost there needs to be representation; there needs to be a sense that everyone is in this together for anything to move forward.”