The Internet crashed at City Hall here on Tuesday morning. Ferguson’s website went dark. The phones died.
City officials didn’t say what happened — only that a flood of traffic aimed at the City Hall website “just kept coming.”
But an international group of unnamed computer hackers had warned it would happen. In the hours after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer, the group, Anonymous, urged residents to the streets.
And the hackers vowed retribution if police harmed protesters.
“We are watching you very closely,” Anonymous’ distinctive electronic voice rasped in a video posted Monday on Twitter. “If you abuse, harass or harm the protesters in Ferguson we will take every Web-based asset of your departments and federal agencies offline.”
The hackers would also, the video continued, begin publicly releasing police officers’ personal information.
Then they did.
Early Tuesday morning, someone posted the home address and phone number of Jon Belmar, the relatively new chief of St. Louis County police. And that was just the beginning.
The Ferguson protests have been informed, if not fueled, by a stream of moment-by-moment posts, largely on Twitter. Published instantaneously via cellphones by residents at the scene, the messages have told the world when crowds amass, when police line up, when tear gas flies.
But Anonymous hackers have reached beyond the Web.
Anonymous has been operating for nearly a decade. It’s hard to even call it a group — those insiders who have spoken publicly about the organization describe it more in terms of each individual mission.
“It is an anarchist collective of autonomous individuals,” wrote one hacker who responded to an email from the Post-Dispatch. “Most of us are friends and work together, but we are not responsible for anything anyone else in the global collective does.”
That team member, who declined to be identified but said he was out of the country, said the core Ferguson operation is run by about a half-dozen Anonymous operatives, invited by St. Louis activists, with thousands of “Anons” from about 75 different countries “joining in to help.”