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How Michael Brown’s death stirred a Missourian to action

Protesters march in the street as lightning flashes in the distance in Ferguson, Mo. on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014. On Aug. 9, 2014, a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year old, in the St. Louis suburb.

Jeff Roberson/AP

Bearing Witness: 2014 — The Globe and Mail looks back on the cataclysmic news events of 2014 through the eyes of the people who were there – be they bystanders, participants or journalists. Their accounts shaped our perceptions, while their witnessing the events changed their lives.

When Justin Hansford heard about the death of Michael Brown – actually, when he saw the images of the dead teen's body – he immediately embarked on the 15-hour drive home to Missouri from Washington, where he was attending a conference.

The assistant professor at the St. Louis University School of Law first saw images of Mike Brown's death on his social media stream. The unarmed 18-year-old had been shot in Ferguson, a town just northwest of St. Louis, on Aug. 9. His killer was a white cop named Darren Wilson. For Prof. Hansford, who had worked in activist circles well before Mr. Brown's killing, there was something about the visual aspect of the shooting's aftermath – the immediacy of seeing exactly what such a shooting looks like.

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"Seeing that body and finding out how long the body had laid there was really what set it apart," said Prof. Hansford. "There have been stories about police brutality for who knows how long in the black community, but one of the things that's causing the sea change in reaction is that now you actually see it."

But there was something else, too – a disturbing parallel to a barbaric practice from America's past. For Prof. Hansford and many members of the black community in Missouri and beyond, the shooting of Mr. Brown followed what the law professor described as a decades-old pattern: A black man commits a minor infraction, is not submissive enough in his response to authority, is killed and his body is left out in public – in Mr. Brown's case, on the street for 4 1/4 hours.

"One thing you always see in these killings is a public display," said Prof. Hansford. "In the case of lynching, they would put [the body] high up on the tree."

Cutting his trip to D.C. short, Prof. Hansford rushed back to St. Louis. He immediately drove to Ferguson, where protesters (as well as the national media and police) had begun to amass in large numbers. There was an electricity in the air, a pointed tension brought about not only by anger over Mr. Brown's killing, but also by the seemingly militarized police response. Images of cops and National Guard troops with riot gear, tear-gas canisters and armoured vehicles have since become synonymous with the Ferguson protests.

"It was like nothing I'd ever seen in terms of people's willingness to stand up to the police," said Prof. Hansford, who spoke at the United Nations about what he witnessed.

"I still get chills when I think about it. People had to stand up to tear gas and rubber bullets and tasers and pepper spray, but these people were out there because they were sick of what was happening to them from a racial injustice perspective. They were willing to be tased; they were willing to be tear-gassed. They were not going to go home."

Prof. Hansford joined the protesters – and was tear-gassed in the process.

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For the most part, the demonstrators were young and unaffiliated with many of the well-known, older civil rights groups whose membership had come of age during the marches and demonstrations of the 1960s.

"A lot of those groups tend to be old – they haven't been connected with the grassroots for a while," he said. "The reality is that those organizations would not have been able to take those risks – they wouldn't have been out there at midnight violating curfews."

Omar El Akkad is The Globe's technology reporter, based in Portland, and a frequent contributor to The Globe's foreign coverage.

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