Skip to main content

Ferguson and the lessons from Trayvon Martin

By Mark O'Mara
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests. Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests.
HIDE CAPTION
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark O'Mara: Response in Brown killing shows we didn't learn enough in Trayvon Martin case
  • He says social media played big role this time in driving national conversation on Ferguson
  • He says cops blew it with military-style response that disrespected black community
  • O'Mara: Governor too slow to react; protesters, President, media acquitted themselves well

Editor's note: Mark O'Mara is a CNN legal analyst and a criminal defense attorney. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I believed we had learned lessons from the George Zimmerman case in how to better handle cases like the Michael Brown shooting. Zimmerman, you'll recall, was charged with shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Sanford, Florida, in 2012. I was Zimmereman's lawyer. That case caught national attention for the shooting itself, but almost more for the way law enforcement was perceived to have mishandled it and for the racial animus it exposed over how young blacks are treated in the criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure that all of the right people have learned all of the right lessons from that case. Now, as the days drag on in Ferguson, Missouri, it seems that some involved, particularly in the law enforcement hierarchy, are not handling the Michael Brown case better than the Zimmerman case. In fact, this time it's being handled worse.

Mark O\'Mara
Mark O'Mara

Some observations on Ferguson:

The social media response has been amazing. An event these days -- whether it be the Michael Brown shooting, the Donald Sterling uproar, the questionable death of Kendrick Johnson in Georgia -- gains a life online via social media, keeping it in the forefront of our national conversation. Though there are down sides, one of social media's strong positives is that it allows for an open, quick and national discourse. With the crackdown on the press in Ferguson this week, it was citizens with cell phones who provided pictures and helped set the editorial agenda.

The Ferguson Police Department has fallen far short of expectations. While we still don't know -- and likely won't for a while -- what exactly happened and why the officer fired those fatal shots, the way the Ferguson police department reacted was poor and made matters worse, not better. A sensitive response -- informed by an awareness that this shooting would lead to a powerful, communitywide reaction—would have acknowledged the trauma inflicted on the entire black community.

While I still maintain that the integrity of the investigation is paramount (if charges are being considered, we must make sure that the witnesses were not tainted by leaked information or coached in their answers to the perceived events), the police mishandled the situation in important ways, and in ways that undermined or destroyed the black community's faith that this would be handled properly.

Critics rip police tactics, use of military equipment

The name of the officer who shot Michael was finally released Friday. He is Officer Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the department. It was time to do this. At least now that point of frustration has ended. But the decision also to release the videotape of the previous robbery event in which Michael Brown was suspected was a further insult to the sensitivities that exist in this now cultural event. If it had to be done, it should have been well separated.

We shouldn't forget that the law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation, from the Justice Department and the FBI to the St. Louis County Sherriff, had already had the officer's name, his background, his disciplinary record, his medical records--and are still gathering the other information necessary to begin drilling into who he was before this shooting and what happened to him during it. The coordinated interaction between these agencies is a good definition of transparency, not piecemeal distribution of snippets of information.

The police chief's decision to come out with a statement early in the investigation defending his officer was a poor decision, as it polarized an already tense environment and was insensitive to Ferguson's African-American community.

Missouri state troopers take over security in Ferguson

How the police reacted to the civil unrest is a mixed bag. While law enforcement agencies have both the right and the obligation to maintain civil order and peace, they must do so in a way that is sensitive to the issues that are being addressed in protests.

Startling video from shooting scene
Who is Darren Wilson?
Raising black boys

I do not have a concern with an appropriate police presence, and I believe police should act to stop destruction of property or the use of the protest for personal gain or profit, such as looting stores. That said, nothing justifies use of an aggressive police presence without proper cause. There was no basis for a military-style response, even though the law enforcement could justify it by looking at their textbooks. This did not warrant a textbook response. This warranted -- demanded -- a response that carried the respect appropriate in such difficult times. We also now know that a lesser response, as has happened since estate police took over, worked to lessen tensions.

5 things to know about the Michael Brown shooting

At the very least, I sincerely hope that the police agencies involved maintained their own video log of events witnessed and reacted to by law enforcement. If those actions were necessary in response to threats or inappropriate actions from protesters, I would give the department deference. But they are going to have to justify tear gas and rubber bullets, and that will be tough to do in a situation as socially charged as this one.

There will be and should be, a review of police activities in response to the shooting; not to place blame, but as a learning tool. We were dangerously close to a meltdown in Ferguson. We now look back at how Seminole County, Florida, handled the Zimmerman matter and must acknowledge they did a better job than Ferguson.

The protesters, setting aside for a moment the looters and hooligans, have acted in a very appropriate and responsible way. Our country was built upon the concept of seeking appropriate redress of actions by our government. It is not only allowed and appropriate, but it is ingrained in our national fabric and the nation would be weaker without it.

The people who take advantage of a situation that allows them to loot and steal -- which they continued doing early Saturday -- should face significant consequences. Not only have they committed individual crimes by their actions, but they have desecrated the very purpose of the respectful protesters and in doing so damaged the national perspective of the protest itself. Their actions distract attention from the important, underlying reasons for the protest and threaten to turn the process into a dangerous, counterproductive battle between themselves and the police presence.

Looting, tensions dash tenuous peace in Ferguson's streets

The response Friday night and early Saturday by law enforcement was restrained; they deserve credit. Even more so, the protesters who tried to block the looters stand as testament to the true purpose of their involvement: peaceful pleas for change.

The governor of Missouri should have taken stronger action and done so much sooner. While he may have hoped that this incident could be addressed properly at the local level, Gov. Jay Dixon should have realized that wasn't going to happen by the end of the first 24-hour period. At that point, having an elected official unconnected with the police department involved would have given the proper appearance of impartiality and would have put the strength of the entire state behind this event.

I'm very glad that Dixon finally became involved in the process, and I believe his presentation to the church affirming the state's commitment was necessary. His promise to handle this matter to the end, in a transparent way, and to seek justice wherever that may lead, was the right position for the governor to take. (P.S.--Don't try to make jokes about how you look on camera when you're dealing with a national tragedy.)

President Barack Obama should have a voice in the public reaction to this event, but he needs to be circumspect in his presentation. I have, in the past, expressed my chagrin that Obama injected himself into the Zimmerman matter -- not because he involved himself with a national tragedy, but because he took a side in a pending case where he should be very reluctant to do so. I appreciate his more inclusive and tempered response to this troubling shooting.

Opinion: Obama, can't you see black anger in Ferguson?

Traditional media have handled this case well. Across the board, media outlets have presented a number of well-balanced reviews of the relevant issues. The traditional media learned a good deal from the Zimmerman case: Reporting on the Michael Brown shooting has been much better founded in both the rules of evidence, the rules of the court and the statutes that deal with such issues as self-defense, "imminent fear of great bodily injury," and police procedures. The media have learned to understand the subject and the applicable statutes before commenting on the case.

Full coverage on Ferguson shooting and protests

There has also been a greater level of fairness in reporting, and also a necessary acknowledgment that precious few facts are available yet. The media have asked the right questions, but have hesitated to fuel speculation. And that is the essence of responsible reporting.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT