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A St. Louis Suburb Jailed Nearly 2,000 People for Not Paying Fines

Mother Jones

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On Wednesday, a federal judge approved a $4.7 million settlement with nearly 2,000 people who were thrown in jail illegally in a St. Louis suburb, a practice legal advocates had likened to a “modern debtors’ prison.”

The plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit alleged that the city of Jennings, Missouri, had jailed people who were unable to pay municipal fines and fees, keeping them in overcrowded, unsanitary cells where they were routinely taunted by jail guards and staff. The settlement, preliminarily approved in July, comes more than a year after the Jennings municipal court signed a separate agreement to eliminate cash bail for nonviolent offenses, dismiss “failure to appear” charges and forgive fees in cases before March 12, 2011, and establish a way to assess a person’s ability to pay. It also agreed to use civil debt collectors to obtain payments from fines instead of issuing warrants and immediately release people on first arrest on bond.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs claimed that Jennings “built a municipal scheme designed to brutalize, to punish, and to profit.” According to the complaint, the city issued more than 2.1 arrest warrants per household in 2014 and nearly 1.4 for every adult, adding that if the rest of the St. Louis area generated revenue at the same rate as Jennings, cities would have made more than $670 million in five years.

In recent years, civil rights groups have taken cities to court to compel changes to their operation of so-called debtors’ prisons, where those who cannot afford to pay fines are jailed until their debts are paid off. The practice was first barred under federal law in 1833. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that the act of imprisoning someone unable to settle their debt unconstitutional. Yet lawsuits and a federal investigation into policing and court practices in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown shed light on how municipal courts locked up poor residents who couldn’t pay off their debts as a way to generate revenue. Beyond Jennings, federal lawsuits are under way against Ferguson and 13 other cities in the St. Louis area over the alleged operation of modern-day debtors’ prisons.

“One thing that has been revealed over and over again in the Ferguson investigation and these lawsuits is that the worst practices tend to arise when courts and other officials perceive a financial necessity in funding their operation through fees and fines,” says Larry Schwartztol, executive director of Harvard University’s Criminal Justice Policy Program. “That creates conflicts of interest and distorts the justice system.” William Maurer, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, told Mother Jones in July that small towns around urban areas “have municipal infrastructure that can’t be supported by the tax base, and so they ticket everything in sight to keep the town functioning.”

Here’s a look at some similar recent cases across the country:

Biloxi, Mississippi: In a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in last October, attorneys alleged that poor residents in Biloxi who couldn’t take care of their debt were “routinely” arrested and tossed in jail without receiving a court hearing to determine whether they would be able to pay such penalties. The lawsuit alleged that the city relied on the fines and fees for a substantial portion of its budget and enlisted the help of for-profit probation companies to collect the money. In March, the two sides agreed on a settlement and adjusted it in September. The city agreed to stop using private probation companies to collect payments, to adopt a “bench card” for judges as a reminder of how to not send people to jail who are unable to pay, and to provide alternatives to debt repayment, such as payment plans, job training programs, mental-health counseling, and community service. The city, its police chief, and a district judge named in the complaint also admitted no wrongdoing as part of the resolution.

Colorado Springs, Colorado: Hundreds of impoverished people in Colorado Springs who were fined for a minor infringement of the city’s ordinance had a choice: Pay the debt in full, or settle it for time in jail at $50 a day. Last October, the ACLU of Colorado sent a letter to the city’s attorney and a municipal court judge, alleging that the court had ordered the “pay or serve” sentence in more than 800 cases since January 2014. In May, the city agreed to pay $103,000 to 66 impoverished residents, or $125 for each day they were behind bars. Municipal judges and city-contracted attorneys also underwent training on the rights of indigent citizens.

Jackson, Mississippi: For impoverished Jackson residents, the Colorado Springs case sounds familiar. Those arrested for misdemeanor cases were forced to navigate Jackson’s “pay or stay” system, according to complaint filed last October. If someone failed to pay all or a large portion of their debt at the time of their hearing, they were sent to jail in Hinds County. Once behind bars, they “were told they could ‘work off’ their fines at the rate of $58 per day,” according to the complaint. Those who couldn’t work were left to “sit out” their fines at $25 a day. In June, the city of Jackson settled and created an alternative monthly payment of $25 or an hourly credit for community service. The city also eliminated a requirement for people to post a money bail when arrested for a misdemeanor and to instead be released on the condition they appear for a future court appearance.

Benton County, Washington: A woman named Jayne Fuentes was sent to county jail for more than three months to work off $3,229 in “legal financial obligations” from 2010 and 2011. A complaint filed last October by the ACLU alleged that people like Fuentes who couldn’t pay off their debt were either sent to jail or forced to work on the county’s work crew as part of “partial confinement.” In June, the county and ACLU reached a resolution. The county agreed to stop issuing warrants to arrest those who didn’t pay off their debts. Beyond that, district court judges were also required to ask about a person’s ability to pay at hearings, and county public defenders and prosecutors would receive training on the assessment and collection of court-imposed fines.

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A St. Louis Suburb Jailed Nearly 2,000 People for Not Paying Fines

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Murder Is Up, But Don’t Blame Ferguson Yet

Mother Jones

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Earlier this year, the news was full of reports about cities in which the murder rate had increased 30, 40, even 50 percent since 2014. Was it the fault of Ferguson, which prompted so much anti-police animus that cops started pulling back, afraid to do their jobs for fear of being the target of angry mobs and the evening news?

That’s a hard question to answer, but the first order of business is to figure out if the murder rate has really gone up in the first place. The FBI won’t have official figures for a long time (they’re still working on 2013), but a couple of months ago the Brennan Center took a crack at this and estimated that the murder rate for all of America’s largest cities was up 11 percent this year. That’s a lot less scary than 50 percent, but it’s still a pretty sizeable increase. Heather Mac Donald is unhappy that liberals are trying to downplay it:

Good policing over the past two decades produced an extraordinary 50% drop in crime. America isn’t going to give all that back in one year. The relevant question: What is the current trend? If this year’s homicide and shooting outbreak continues, those 1990s violent crime levels will return sooner than anyone could have imagined.

….Cops making arrests in urban areas are routinely surrounded by bystanders, who swear at them and interfere with the arrests. The media and many politicians decry as racist law-enforcement tools like pedestrian stops and broken-windows policing—the proven method of stopping major crimes by going after minor ones.

….To acknowledge the Ferguson effect would be tantamount to acknowledging that police matter, especially when the family and other informal social controls break down. Trillions of dollars of welfare spending over the past 50 years failed to protect inner-city residents from rising predation. Only the policing revolution of the 1990s succeeded in curbing urban violence, saving thousands of lives. As the data show, that achievement is now in jeopardy.

First things first: no one thinks that “good policing” is responsible for the massive drop in violent crime over the past two decades. It may be part of the reason, but it’s certainly not the whole reason, or even the main reason. And pedestrian stops and broken windows are the subject of intense controversy. They’re the farthest thing from “proven” you can imagine. This is true whether or not you believe that gasoline lead played a role in the big crime drop of the 1990s. MacDonald is engaging in absurdities when she suggests otherwise.

Nor have “family and other informal social controls” broken down. Not in any way that affects the crime rate, anyway. The evidence against this hypothesis is overwhelming. It needs to die a decent death.

Finally, it’s worth noting that because the number of murders is relatively small, it’s not unusual to see fairly large annual changes. We won’t know for years whether the murder rate really went up 11 percent in 2015, but even if it did, it wouldn’t be that surprising. Between 1985 and 2012, the FBI recorded five years in which the murder rate in America’s largest cities increased or decreased by more than 10 percent.

That said, an 11 percent spike is still substantial. If it’s real and persistent, it deserves attention. No one should pretend that it’s just a “modest” increase or a “small blip.”

My recommendation: Both sides should cool it. Mac Donald is right to be concerned that this year’s increase could be bad news if it marks the beginning of a trend. We should keep a close eye on violent crime data—not just murder rates—over the next year or two. At the same time, liberals are right to be skeptical that the “Ferguson effect” is a long-term problem. Most likely, everyone will either adjust to it or forget about it by this time next year. And both sides should be concerned about finding the right policing balance in an era of ubiquitous cell phones and body cams.

Waiting too long to acknowledge a problem can sometimes be disastrous, but a few months is a pretty short time and murder is a pretty small sample set to draw any firm conclusions from. Everyone should calm down a bit and wait to see what the next year or two bring.

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Murder Is Up, But Don’t Blame Ferguson Yet

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The Pentagon Just Realized It Gave Too Much Military Equipment To The Ferguson Police

Mother Jones

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As new clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri revive concerns about the growing use of military-type gear by local cops, the Pentagon has ordered Ferguson to return two Humvees that came straight off the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan.

But it’s not because of the way Ferguson police have responded to the demonstrators, government officials say—it’s a paperwork issue.

The Guardian, which broke the story, reports that the government is repossessing the vehicles because Missouri’s state coordinator for the Pentagon’s controversial 1033 program gave Ferguson four Humvees when it was only authorized to give two.

Established in the 1990’s, the 1033 program has stocked local police arsenals with $5.6 billion in combat equipment leftover from two foreign wars. Protests in Ferguson over the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, thrust the program into the spotlight last summer after officers responded to the demonstrators with a militarized show of force, including mine resistant vehicles, combat-style assault rifles, and gas masks.

At protests to mark the one-year anniversary of Brown’s killing, the police show of force has been only a little less aggressive.

Civil liberties advocates have called for curtailing or ending the program, and for cutting off other, larger funding streams that help local cops buy combat equipment, as a way to strengthen the line between police and soldiers. But the Pentagon’s move to take away two war-ready Humvees is does not demilitarize Ferguson’s police force. Ferguson acquired four Humvees through the 1033 program; the Pentagon is only forcing the return of two vehicles. And the Pentagon is not suspending or expelling the city of Ferguson from the 1033 program, the Guardian reports.

What’s more, officers are streaming into the community from law enforcement agencies all over St. Louis County, bringing with them their own departments’ combat gear.

The Obama administration has announced several changes to the controversial 1033 program since the chaos of last year. Civil rights advocates hope that a new White House requirement—for police to receive community approval before acquiring an armored tactical vehicle—will stanch the flow of some of the most intimidating vehicles. Mine resistant, ambush protected trucks, for example, are routinely made available through the program.

But the changes do not apply to weapons, equipment, and vehicles that are already in police armories across the country. And as Radley Balko, the top reporter covering police militarization today, noted in the Washington Post last year, very little of Ferguson’s military-type vehicles, assault weapons, and protective gear actually came from the 1033 program:

Most of the militarization today happens outside the 1033 Program. As the Heritage Foundation reported last year, few of the weapons we saw in those iconic images coming out of Ferguson were obtained through 1033. That program created the thirst for militarization, but police agencies can now quench that thirst elsewhere. Since 2003, for example, the Department of Homeland Security has been giving grants to police departments around the country to purchase new military-grade gear. That program now dwarfs the 1033 Program. It has also given rise to a cottage industry of companies that build gear in exchange for those DHS checks.

Communities that decide on their own to get rid of 1033 program equipment often have a lot of trouble doing so. The Pentagon technically has a process for returning unwanted equipment. But in reality, as I reported last year, police departments across the country have found that process doesn’t always work.

Online law enforcement message boards brim with complaints that the Pentagon refuses to take back unwanted guns and vehicles—like this one, about a pair of M14 rifles that have survived attempts by two sheriffs to get rid of them.

“The federal government is just not interested in getting this stuff back,” says Davis Trimmer, a lieutenant with the Hillsborough, North Carolina, police department. Local law enforcement officials and Pentagon liaisons interviewed by Mother Jones all agree that the Defense Department always prefers to keep working equipment in circulation over warehousing it. Trimmer has twice requested permission to return three M14 rifles that are too heavy for practical use. But the North Carolina point person for the Pentagon insists that Hillsborough can’t get rid of the firearms until another police department volunteers to take them. Police in Woodfin, North Carolina, are facing the same problem as they try to return the town’s grenade launcher.

Ultimately, police and sheriffs have found, the easiest way to offload their combat gear is to transfer it to another local law enforcement agency—an option that obviously troubles local officials who wish to get rid of the gear on principal.

In fact, the Pentagon has already said that the two extra Ferguson Humvees may go to another police department in Missouri. And they could end up with one of the many departments sending officers and equipment to scene of these protests—meaning these very same vehicles could roam the streets of Ferguson once again.

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The Pentagon Just Realized It Gave Too Much Military Equipment To The Ferguson Police

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The St. Louis County Police Department Just Released Video Of The Guy They Shot On Monday

Mother Jones

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The St. Louis County Police Department released surveillance footage Tuesday that they say shows Tyrone Harris pulling a gun out of his waistband. Harris, 18, was shot by police in Ferguson on the night of August 9 after he allegedly fired at undercover officers.

The day marked the first anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and demonstrations throughout the day were peaceful. That evening violence erupted.

“The video shows Harris grab a handgun out of his waistband once shots are fired during the protest in the W. Florissant corridor seconds prior to the officer involved shooting,” says Shawn McGuire, media relations officer for the St. Louis County Police Department. Harris was in critical condition after the shooting, and was subsequently charged with several felonies, including 1st degree assault on law enforcement officers. McGuire says police are still investigating the incident.

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The St. Louis County Police Department Just Released Video Of The Guy They Shot On Monday

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Heavily Armed Oath Keepers Showed Up to Ferguson Last Night

Mother Jones

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As demonstrators gathered in Ferguson to continue commemorating the one-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on Monday, five heavily armed men belonging to a vigilante group called the Oath Keepers were spotted patrolling the streets. According to reports, the Oath Keepers said they were on the scene to provide voluntary protection to a journalist working for the site InfoWars, the conspiracy mill run by noted lunatic Alex Jones.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called the group’s presence on Monday both “unnecessary and inflammatory.”

Their arrival came amid 23 arrests last night. The police said those arrested in the largely peaceful protests were throwing bottles at law enforcement officials and “unlawfully assembled.”

During the same time last year, Oath Keeper members took it upon themselves to guard the city’s rooftops with assault rifles. Police officials eventually ordered the group to leave, saying their presence was inciting fear and suspicion in an already tense situation. However, no members were arrested.

The mysterious group, who called themselves voluntary “patriots,” primarily consists of heavily armed white men dressed in military uniforms. Many of them are former soldiers and police officials. For more on who they are, read our in-depth investigation, “Oath Keepers and the Age of Treason.”


Heavily Armed Oath Keepers Showed Up to Ferguson Last Night

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Justice Anthony Kennedy Just Saved a Major Civil Rights Law

Mother Jones

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Congress passed the Fair Housing Act (FHA) to end pervasive segregation against the backdrop of urban race riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. On Thursday, mere months after riots exploded in Ferguson and Baltimore, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the law’s most powerful tool for fighting segregation.

The decision was a welcome surprise to civil rights advocates who had feared that the conservative-leaning court under Chief Justice John Roberts—the same court that struck down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act two years ago—was set to undo another major civil rights law.

In a 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court’s liberal wing to uphold so-called “disparate impact” liability, preserving the law’s authority to root out policies that have a discriminatory effect on minorities. Under the FHA, policies that have a harmful effect—a disparate impact—on minorities are illegal, even if that harm was unintentional. For decades, disparate impact has been vital to fighting segregation in housing because of the difficulty in proving purposeful discrimination.

“I can’t help thinking that recent events in places like Ferguson and Baltimore must have had some impact on Justice Kennedy’s approach to this case,” says appellate lawyer Deepak Gupta, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of current and former members of Congress that urged the court to uphold the disparate impact standard. “We have de facto segregation in lots of places in the country. And if the only way to remedy that in the legal system is to prove that somebody did something on purpose and said so, then the civil rights laws are a lot less powerful in combating these problems.”

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Justice Anthony Kennedy Just Saved a Major Civil Rights Law

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More Racist Things Ferguson Officials Did

Mother Jones

Today the Justice Department released its scathing 105-page report on Ferguson’s pervasive discrimination against black residents. The report included references to blatantly racist emails from local officials: One said Obama wouldn’t last in office because he’s black; another attached a photo of bare-chested group of women, apparently in Africa, captioned “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.” The DOJ found plenty of other evidence of racial bias; below are a few examples. (We’re making our way through the report and will add to the list.)

One black Ferguson resident told Justice Department officials about his interaction with a Ferguson police officer, in which the officer told him “N*****, I can find something to lock you up on”:


Ferguson city officials and police interviewed by the DOJ “nearly uniformly” said that it was due to a lack of “personal responsibility,” not the failure of the law, that African-American members of the Ferguson community were disproportionately targeted by law enforcement:


The DOJ found that Ferguson officials commonly dismissed tickets for friends, showing a “double standard grounded in racial stereotyping”:


Ferguson police routinely used Tasers “where less force—or no force at all—would do.” Almost 90 percent of the time cops used force, it was against African Americans, and often they used unnecessary force against people with mental health disabilities:


All of the police canine attacks reviewed by the DOJ targeted black residents, including a 14-year-old boy who was hiding in a storage closet. The dog bit his arm, causing puncture wounds:


The DOJ called out the following emails sent by Ferguson officials as “illustrative” of racial bias:


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More Racist Things Ferguson Officials Did

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Terrifying Video Shows Black Man "With His Hands Raised" Shot To Death By New Jersey Cop

Mother Jones

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A newly released dashcam recording shows a New Jersey police officer fatally shooting a black man whose hands were raised in the air.

The fatal encounter stems from a routine traffic stop on December 30, in which Bridgeton officers Braheme Days and Roger Worley pulled over a vehicle for running through a stop sign.

While questioning the two men, Leroy Tutt and Jerame Reid, the video shows Days suddenly shouting to his partner, “We’ve got a gun in his glove compartment!”

“Show me your fucking hands,” Days, who appears to recognize Reid as he his heard calling him by his first name, warns. “He’s reaching for something!”

As the situation intensifies, Reid can be heard telling the officers, “I’m not reaching for nothing. I ain’t got no reason to reach for nothing.” He then tells Days, “I’m getting out and getting on the ground.”

Reid gets up and exits the car with his hands raised. Then the two officers fire at least six shots, killing Reid.

“The video speaks for itself that at no point was Jerame Reid a threat and he possessed no weapon on his person,” Walter Hudson of the civil rights group National Awareness Alliance said Wednesday.

According to records, Reid was in prison for 13 years for shooting at a state trooper when he was a teenager.

On Tuesday, the Bridgeton Police Department expressed its disappointment over the video’s release “out of respect for the family.” An investigation into the fatal shooting is being conducted.

The recording comes amid reports the Ferguson police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown will be cleared of federal civil rights charges. The August shooting sparked massive protests around the country with the chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot” serving as a symbolic call for justice in Brown’s death.

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Terrifying Video Shows Black Man "With His Hands Raised" Shot To Death By New Jersey Cop

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BREAKING: Federal Prosecutors Set to Clear Ferguson Cop Who Shot Michael Brown

Mother Jones

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The Department of Justice is reportedly preparing to clear Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown last August, of civil rights charges. According to the New York Times, which broke the news Wednesday afternoon, federal prosecutors are in the process of finalizing a legal memo recommending no charges be made against Wilson. The Times notes, however, a final decision has yet to be officially announced.

A broader federal investigation into possible civil rights violations by the Ferguson Police Department continues.

The report follows November’s decision by a grand jury declining to indict the officer in Brown’s death. Brown was 18-years-old and unarmed at the time of the shooting. From the Times:

Three law enforcement officials discussed the details of the federal investigation on condition of anonymity because the report was incomplete and Mr. Holder and his top civil rights prosecutor, Vanita Gupta, had not formally made a decision. Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Benjamin L. Crump, a lawyer for Mr. Brown’s family, said he did not want to comment on the investigation until the Justice Department made an official announcement. “We’ve heard speculation on cases before that didn’t turn out to be true,” Mr. Crump said. “It’s too much to put the family through to respond to every rumor.” Mr. Crump said that at the end of last year that the Justice Department had told him that it was still investigating.

The lawyer for Mr. Wilson did not return calls for comment.

The shooting prompted massive demonstrations across the country with protestors demanding charges be brought against Wilson.

This is a developing story.


BREAKING: Federal Prosecutors Set to Clear Ferguson Cop Who Shot Michael Brown

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Here Are the Places Ferguson Protesters Have Shut Down

Mother Jones

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Since a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson early last week, thousands have taken to the streets around the country to protest, with some using tactics aimed to disrupt: They’ve marched onto freeways in traffic, chained themselves across commuter train cars, and staged “die-ins” in malls on the busiest shopping day of the year.

In downtown Dallas, Interstate 35 was shut down in both directions for two hours last Tuesday night, after protesters carrying signs that said “Black Lives Matter” climbed in front of traffic. In the St. Louis region, three malls experienced significant disruptions on Black Friday, with one closing three hours early. And in Oakland, a handful of young activists chained themselves in a line across the West Oakland BART station, intending to keep the station closed for four and a half hours, the amount of time Michael Brown’s body laid in the street.

A protester refuses to move in front of the police on Interstate 44 in downtown St. Louis on Tuesday, November 25. Protesters occupied the flyover lanes in both directions for about a half hour until police made several arrests, including this man, and forced the protesters to leave. J.B. Forbes/AP/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Protesters block all lanes of Interstate 75/85 northbound near the state capitol building in Atlanta one day after the grand jury decision. David Tulis/AP

Protesters stage a “die in” inside Chesterfield Mall, on Friday, November 28, in Chesterfield, Missouri. Jeff Roberson/AP

Protesters block Interstate 580 in Oakland, California, on Monday, November 24. Noah Berger/AP

A demonstrator is arrested on Tuesday, November 25, after a large group of protesters attempted to march onto Interstate 93 in Boston. Christopher Evans/AP/Boston Herald

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Here Are the Places Ferguson Protesters Have Shut Down

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