For the past several days I, like many of you, have been watching with increasing concern the events in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. On Saturday, August 9, an young African American man named Michael Brown and a friend were stopped by the police in Ferguson for walking in the street. Michael Brown was unarmed. Within a few minutes, a shooting occurred and Michael Brown was dead. On Sunday morning, St. Louis County Police Chief Joe Belmar holds a news conference in which he says Brown physically assaulted the officer, and during a struggle between the two, Brown reached for the officer’s gun. One shot was fired in the car followed by other gunshots outside of the car.
Now I don’t know what happened between the stop and the shooting and no one else really does at this point. One reason we don’t is that the police in Ferguson are being uncharacteristically tight lipped about details, including even the name of the officer involved. But, taking what they say at face value, Michael Brown was unarmed and several shots were fired, both inside the police car and outside. Anytime an unarmed person is shot by the police, it raises many concerns in the community. In this case, it also raises the question of why, when the officer obtained or regained control of his weapon, he felt justified in shooting an unarmed man. It also raises the question of why he felt the need to fire multiple shots at an unarmed teenager. Obviously the officer had control of his weapon, or he could not have fired it multiple times. These are legitimate questions that are not being answered.
Later Sunday, a candlelight vigil for Brown is held and eventually turns violent. Looting ensues and more than a dozen business are damaged or burned down. Thirty people are arrested. On Monday morning, several hundred people protest at the Ferguson Police Department, demanding answers. Seven People are arrested. That evening, a prayer vigil is held by the local NAACP chapter. A couple of hours later, several people began congregating on the street. The police respond by dispersing the crowd with tear gas. And, that is apparently when all Hell started to break loose.
For four consecutive nights, there has been mayhem and clashes between protester and police. The tension is obviously thick. I want to say upfront, there is no excuse for looting and violence. And it appears that there have been some less than civil conduct directed toward the police by a few protesters. But the big story here seems to be the heavy handed, military level response by local police directed against the protesters. Apparently there is a long history of enmity between the local citizenry and the Ferguson PD. Watching their response to the current protests, it is easy to see why.
While the police are expected to keep the peace and protect the lives and property of those they serve, they also answer to the communities they serve. They are not, or are not supposed to be a military style force. They are not an occupying army. But, the response of law enforcement in Ferguson seems to be a large part of the problem.
There has been an unsettling trend in this country for the past 10-12 years regarding the militarization of local police. The government seems to have a lot to do with it. For several years, Washington, in the name of homeland security, has furnished surplus military equipment to local law enforcement. And, what local police chief or sheriff is going to turn down really cool, totally free toys. It makes fiscal sense for departments strapped by thin budgets. But it has led to a situation where local law enforcement agencies, big and small, have acquired military hardware and weapons that are far beyond the scope of what most of us consider law enforcement. Some of them have been turned into small armies. As a Popular Mechanics article said in 2009,
“Soldiers and police are supposed to be different. … Police look inward. They’re supposed to protect their fellow citizens from criminals, and to maintain order with a minimum of force.
It’s the difference between Audie Murphy and Andy Griffith. But nowadays, police are looking, and acting, more like soldiers than cops, with bad consequences. And those who suffer the consequences are innocent civilians. “
A good deal of this has been driven by the idea of whatever “war” local police have been deployed in. The War on Terrorism, the War on Drugs, The War on Gang Violence, The War on Whatever. The problem with that is when you bring war to suburban America, there are a lot of law abiding, innocent people who live in the war zone. But, to paraphrase a line from the Vietnam War, apparently sometimes you have to destroy a neighborhood to save it. So, now in a Mid-America suburb of St. Louis, it starts with this.
There are a lot of disturbing things in that picture. It was the first clash between Ferguson PD and the protesters on Monday evening. First, it appears that the protestors who were causing trouble were just a handful. There were a lot more cops than out of control protesters, which would indicate that a normal show of force would have been sufficient. But, they decided to confront the citizenry they work for with an armored vehicle, tear gas and heavily armed officers in camouflage tactical gear. Another disturbing thing is the fact that the officer on the roof is actually pointing his weapon a crowd of unarmed people. Walter Olson of the Cato Institute said it this way:
“Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo. so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of , the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards? (“‘This my property!’ he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”) Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone”?
Not surprisingly, the citizens of Ferguson have not taken lightly police tactics where they are being treated as the “enemy”.
While there may be a time and a place for special tactics, it might not be when people think they are exercising their First amendment Rights. When asked about that, the police chief denied that they were using military tactics. It was just officers dressed for and using SWAT tactics. Most people in Ferguson responded by saying “You could have fooled me”. Which brings up another issue: the over utilization of SWAT units. Make no mistake about it, the people in the streets in Ferguson are, with a very few exceptions, unarmed. So why do you need SWAT for crowd control? SWAT units were originally formed for specific purposes, to adequately confront situations beyond the capability of regular police operations. Those situations generally fell into several distinct categories: confronting heavily armed criminals; performing hostage rescue and counter-terrorism; high risk arrests; and entering armored or barricaded buildings. None of that in Ferguson, but hey, if you have all this whiz bang equipment, you need to use it at some point, right?
And it just gets worse. The Ferguson and St. Louis County Police Departments have not done themselves any favors in how they have dealt with the situation. They have not backed off. If anything they have escalated. This thing started with the shooting of an unarmed man. And the overwhelming visual image that has emerged is that of a large number of heavily armed police, with sniper rifles and sub-machine guns, confronting unarmed people who are walking around with their hand in the air, chanting “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!”
The images coming out of Ferguson are not something that promotes racial harmony or engenders public confidence. They have tear gassed crowds, including children. There are plenty of photos and videos of officers training weapons on unarmed civilians.
Even the military could not get away with that in Iraq or Afghanistan.
They have fired rubber bullets into crowds, injuring several people.
It didn’t seem like it could get any worse. Then came Wednesday night.
People all over America were horrified to see crowds being tear gassed and and bombed in scenes that looked like something from Gaza. The police were using a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD),that emit harmful, pain inducing tones and sometimes cause permanent hearing damage; the same equipment that was used in the Iraq war. Then they started arresting journalist who were trying to cover the story. They actually fired tear gas at a news crew while it was filming. Then, after the crew fled, the officers moved to their video equipment and pointed it toward the ground. So, they used tear gas to keep a TV crew from filming.
As if that was not bad enough, they also arrested two reporters, one each from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. It is still no clear what, exactly, their crime was. They were in a McDonald’s in Ferguson. Not in the middle of a riot. Not a closed McDonalds or a looted a McDonalds, but one that was open for business and in which they had just bought food. Apparently, the police decided that they needed to empty the restaurant for “security reasons”. The reporters were complying, albeit not quick enough for the cops. But what actually prompted the arrests was when one of them pulled out a camera and started video taping the encounter. Can’t have that now can we? And, in addition to tear gassing the TV crew and arresting print reporters, the Ferguson PD was also calling the local stations and telling them they needed to pull their mobile units out. So much for the First Amendment and transparency.
That got a response. The coverage, which was not very friendly to the Ferguson PD to begin with, quickly turned vicious. Here is a word of wisdom. You should never get into a war of words with people who buy ink by the barrel and own the TV channels. So endeth the lesson.
By that point it had become clear that what was going on in Ferguson was not about keeping the peace or public safety. It was about us vs. them and about intimidation in an attempt to force people to bend to the will of the powers that be. Fortunately by Thursday, cooler heads started to prevail. While everyone was bracing to see what Thursday night would bring the Governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, stepped in. He basically relieved the local police from dealing with the protests. He turned that responsibility over to the Missouri Highway Patrol and a seemingly capable commander in the person of Capt. Ronald Johnson. The situation seemed to decelerate almost immediately.
As I am writing this it is about 9:00 p.m. Thursday night. Things seem different. News reports seem to indicate that the streets are still full of protestors, but things are peaceful and non-violent. No rocks, no bottles. No tear gas and rubber bullets. Perhaps part of the reason is that when the Missouri Highway Patrol moved in, in force, they came in ordinary police cruisers, wearing regular police uniforms and carrying their usual police sidearms; not in armored vehicles, dressed in tactical gear and pointing weapons more suited for the battlefield than the neighborhood. Maybe they also came with the attitude that they were there to protect and serve the public, not to subjugate it. What a difference a day makes.