What’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri is not unprecedented. Police violence in the US has been escalating for years. Given the context of Nixon’s war on drugs, crack’s urban proliferation following the CIA’s funding of cocaine-dealing Contras, and the post-9/11 world of heavily-armed storm troopers kicking ass on Main Street, it’s not difficult to understand how tensions explode between a population and its police force.
Just a few months ago, Albuquerque reached a similar boiling point when citizens squared off with their city council over the killing of an unarmed homeless man. Amateur videos depicting police aggression are posted to YouTube on what seems like a daily basis. Go a few more years back and you have one of the biggest riots in American history, inspired by the brutal beating of Rodney King at the hands of the LAPD. Pockets of unrest pop up all the time, but few of them attain the widespread recognition Ferguson has.
In Ferguson, the stark imagery of protesting citizens facing a stern, militarized police offensive demands attention. The cops in Ferguson are a truly menacing vision, nearer to a dystopian supervillain’s henchmen than they are to Andy Griffith. Their battle armor and weaponry would be the great envy of the world’s ragtag terrorist ensembles. That they regard themselves as keepers of the peace makes them all the more frightening – in their mind, what they do is right simply by virtue of who they are. It’s a dangerous and deadly mindset that gridlocks openness and change.
Race has so far driven the media’s discussion of Ferguson. The harshness with which police treat black Americans is well-known and comprehensively documented – they harass, arrest, shoot, maim, kill, and otherwise make life miserable for a disproportionate number of already disadvantaged black Americans. The Onion even released a poignant how-to guide on navigating the streets of America as an unarmed black man.
Although race undeniably played a crucial factor in Michael Brown’s killing and police response to the ensuing protests, the racial media narrative sometimes overlooks the widespread reality of police militarization. We’re all in the same boat of seeing our streets militarized, and it’s already born catastrophic consequences that reach far beyond racial divisions. This is, perhaps, the single-most important domestic issue facing America today.
The media is desperate to exonerate Ferguson police and Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson. A ridiculous Washington Post headline (above) recalls the vile propaganda of uncontrollable black men and reefer madness, failing to note the number of bullets (six) but making a special point of acknowledging the “marijuana in his system” as though the two go hand-in-hand. CNN also tried to fault Brown for his own death, referencing a supposed eyewitness account given to a local radio station by a woman named Josie who “identified herself as the officer’s friend.” CNN notes the woman’s story is “‘accurate,’ in that it matches what Wilson has told investigators.” That Josie’s preposterous account matches the officer’s is wholly unimpressive – in the week since Brown’s death, Wilson surely had time to get his story straight with friends. Meanwhile, all the compelling evidence – including a recently released statement from the store Brown allegedly robbed that no one there called the police – points to an act of cold-blooded murder.
It’s an absolute disgrace that the media is busy fussing over the specifics of Brown’s death while remaining cavalier about police automatically using the most lethal method of diffusing a situation. Even in the most preposterous scenarios apologists have invented to fault Brown for his own death, police guilt remains incontrovertible. Did Wilson not have mace? Or a taser? Did he receive any training at all in subduing a suspect with nonlethal means? According to Brown’s autopsy, released Monday, he was shot six times. Multiple corroborating eyewitnesses allege some of those shots were fired after Brown surrendered with his arms raised. Might a single shot have been enough to subdue Brown for the alleged crime of… what was it… walking in the street?
Surely, the citizens of Ferguson feel they have little recourse. Promises of an “investigation” do little to convince anyone justice will be served. Even if Darren Wilson is convicted, it won’t take heavily armed police off Ferguson’s streets – or the streets of America. Little wonder, then, that some protests have devolved into rioting and looting. Those who have done harm to their neighbors in the name of protesting police violence should be ashamed; community solidarity is essential right now in Ferguson.
But the media’s six/half-dozen comparison of citizen violence to police violence is ridiculous. Frankly, it’s insulting to police to hold them to the same moral standard as an angry mob. If the citizens of Ferguson are acting violently toward the cops, it means something very important: they don’t want them there. That wish should be honored. Instead, it’s beaten back by an increased police presence, tear gas, armored vehicles and riot shields.
One of the media’s greatest misconstructions is that the police presence is a reaction to the looting and chaos. They’re stating the proposition precisely in reverse – citizen violence is a reaction to their streets being occupied by what looks like an invading force. If police want to dress and behave like an occupying military, they should expect backlash not unlike what comes from insurgents in Iraq.
Disorder and chaos are not the natural way of human societies. Ferguson does not need round-the-clock, militarized policing. In fact, police are directly responsible at every level for provoking the violence, and the most peaceful night Ferguson has enjoyed since Brown’s killing took place when police were off the streets. Despite this, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called in the National Guard on Monday to protect the Ferguson police command post so officers can “continue to respond appropriately to incidents of lawlessness and violence, and protect the civil rights of all peaceful citizens to make their voices heard.” (Are protestors really faced with a Nixon using the National Guard all over again?) As anyone who participated in an Occupy rally knows, the presence of armed police is anathema to democratic demonstration. Predictably, Nixon’s claim that the National Guard would bring about a more peaceable situation proved incorrect.
What Ferguson needs is not more law and order. It needs time to heal and figure out what course is best for its own future. For conservatives who talk so enthusiastically about states’ rights, communities’ rights ought to be a no-brainer. Communities have a right to dictate how they’re policed. Their values should govern the way the law is enforced. Clearly, a militarized police presence has not worked in Ferguson. In as many ways as they can muster, the people of Ferguson are making it clear they don’t want the police there. That police haven’t been automatically retracted and are, in fact, expanding their presence with great violence, is as clear a demonstration as any that U.S. “democracy” is a total myth.
If police want to stop violence in Ferguson, they should stop acting violently. Brown’s murder is only the most extreme example. Pointing a gun at a person, wearing battle armor and driving armor-plated machinery are all now-commonplace acts of violent aggression on Ferguson’s streets. They’re used by police to enforce even the most frivolous of laws, from home poker games to barbering without a license. Even jaywalkers are unsafe from an officer’s hot pursuit of an easy ticket.
It would certainly be unfair to say that all cops are “racist, power-hungry pigs,” as a contributor to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze put it. Unfortunately, until the cops who aren’t do more to weed out the ones who are, it’s a stereotype that is destined to stick around. Police unions are incredibly tight-knit, adhering to the “Blue Code of Silence” even if it endangers the communities they’re sworn to protect. In case after case of police misconduct, superior officers insist their men acted appropriately. Therefore, it’s easy for one rotten apple to poison the whole barrel.
Ferguson protestors are to be commended for their bravery in standing up to the militarized police. It can’t be easy to stare down an armored cop’s gun barrel every night, but black Americans are more used to it than anyone else. If police violence is to be reined in, it can only be done with mass public demand. That’s why there is such a heavy police response – power understands the threat that democracy poses. Convincing police to realign with communities and restrain their use of deadly, militarized weaponry won’t be easy, but the citizens of Ferguson are taking an important first step. They remain undeterred by state violence, and it’s a lesson for us all.