It took less than a day after a police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo. shot and killed unarmed, African American teenager Michael Brown before the loosely-organized hacktivist collective Anonymous got involved.
Labeling its action OpFerguson, the group not only pledged to carry out cyberattacks on the city government, but also vowed to do one thing law enforcement officials weren’t willing to do themselves: release the name of the officer involved in the shooting.
We are in the process now of making a final confirmation on the name of Mike Brown’s murderer. It will be released the moment we receive it.
— Operation Ferguson (@OpFerguson) August 12, 2014
Typically, the name of the police officer involved in a fatal shooting is made public, but Ferguson officials have declined to do so in this case because, they insist, the currently unidentified officer has been receiving death threats on social media.
“This is one of the instances where the value of releasing the name is far outweighed by the risk of harm to the officer and his family,” Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told KDSK.
Mother Jones traded emails with a member of Anonymous involved with OpFerguson, who explained that the group was very close to releasing the name of the officer. “I can only tell you that our source is very close personally to the officer who killed Mike Brown, and that this person is terrified to be our source,” the activist explained, noting that the source allegedly reached out the group and not the other way around.
Ferguson is located about 10 miles north of St. Louis. While the majority of the city’s residents are African American, both its police force and elected officials are overwhelmingly white.
Anonymous initially tried other, significantly more coercive, means of convincing law enforcement officials to release the officer’s name. On Tuesday, one Anonymous-affiliated Twitter account demanded St. Louis County Police Department Chief Jon Belmar, whose office is handling the investigation into the shooting, release the officer’s name within the hour or else his daughter’s personal information would be released online, presumably to facilitate a torrent of harassment.
The threat instantly provoked a strong backlash from other Twitter users, even among those who were also vocally supportive of identifying the officer. The account backed off of its threat and left the girl out of it—although, members of the group did make Belmar’s home address and personal phone number public.
Releasing the officer’s name isn’t the only demand Anonymous has placed on Ferguson police. In a video posted to YouTube over the weekend, Anonymous members called on the people of Ferguson to rise up in protest and said they would levy cyberattacks against the city’s computer infrastructure if protestors were harmed or prevented from demonstrating.
Only a few hours later, a protest in the area turned into a destructive riot. A number of stores were looted and 32 people were arrested following the deployment of hundreds of riot police. Just as promised, hackers had taken the city government’s entire email system entirely offline by the following morning.
Anonymous aren’t the only people pressuring for the release of the name. At a press conference on Tuesday, civil rights leader and MSNBC talk show host Rev. Al Sharpton joined with Brown’s parents to call on police to be more open with how they’re handling the situation.
“The local authorities have put themselves in a position—hiding names and not being transparent—where people will not trust anything but an objective investigation,” Sharpton said at the event, which was held at St. Louis church.
Wednesday afternoon, Anonymous members behind the OpFerguson campaign released what they say is a recording of the St. Louis Police Department dispatch at the time Michael Brown was shot. Dispatchers were alerted to a gathering crowd, but say they learned of the shooting from a news report. (The relevant information starts at approximately 9:40.)
Early Wednesday morning, Ferguson police reportedly shot another citizen, who is said to be in critical condition.