Obviously, what’s been going on in Ferguson, Missouri (here’s a recent article if you haven’t been paying attention) has been one of the biggest news stories of the week.
In short, there was yet another case of an officer in a heavily white department shooting an unarmed young black man in a mostly black community. There are conflicting reports of what exactly happened, but no one disputes this point. (That the police department doesn’t seem to be too eager to release information suggests that the truth may not be on their side but we haven’t seen much evidence yet.) In the wake of the shooting, there was a lot of anger within the community, leading to protests and some rioting/looting/vandalism. The police responded in an absurdly heavy-handed manner, bringing in military surplus equipment, including weaponry, armored vehicles, and camouflage uniforms. The police’s attempts to gain control of the situation – including arresting journalists and even local officials – appear to involve a plethora of constitutional violations. I’ll leave the legal issues to the lawyers, but I think it’s probably safe to say that the lawsuits and investigations will continue for years to come.
Much of the commentary identifies two main issues leading to events like this.
The first is what’s been termed the “militarization” of the police. Many police departments appear to increasingly regard the general population as some kind of enemy force that must be contained. SWAT teams are sent to respond to protests and even to carry out arrests or searches when no violence is expected. Many have pointed to programs such as those where the Pentagon sells surplus or outdated military equipment to police departments as an important cause of this. The hypothesis is that once a department has fancy toys like armored vehicles and heavy (for police) weaponry it will feel compelled to use those toys in order to justify the purchases. I use the word “toys” intentionally because that is exactly what these things are. The vast majority of police departments have absolutely no need for something like an armored vehicle.
In this case, it appears that the police were more interested in playing soldier than actually doing their job. Putting on such a ridiculously militaristic display only serves to intimidate the protesters, who have a constitutional right to protest, as well as the general populace who will feel under siege regardless of whether or not they are involved in the protests. The police department’s response to the initial protests and rioting has clearly only served to inflame the community’s anger.
The proliferation of military hardware in the hands of police does not explain why the community is so enraged. I don’t know the exact situation of Ferguson, Missouri, but it has been reported that there’s been tension between the police and the community for some time. However, this is something that we’ve seen before. Too often we have seen seemingly trigger-happy police unnecessarily fire their weapons and injure or kill someone (innocent or otherwise). Far too often the victim is a young man from a minority group and, in particular, a young black man, as in this case.
While the hostile attitude shown toward the people by some police departments is seen as a symptom of the militarization of law enforcement, I would argue that this isn’t really true. In some sense law enforcement has always been militarized against marginalized communities. When the NYPD stops and frisks an average young black man at least once a year (and Hispanics don’t fare much better) even though that is a wildly inefficient policy, it certainly seems like the police are at war with minority communities. This feeling is only magnified when you consider the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the brutalization of Abner Louima, and the lack of any real consequences for the officers in many such cases. When the Albuquerque Police Department kills as many people as the NYPD (from a city over 10 times as large) or when the Maricopa County police spend their time harassing anyone who maybe isn’t a citizen and investigating the president’s birth certificate instead of prioritizing real crimes it seems like the police in those cities are at war with the people as well. When the LAPD can beat Rodney King half to death on video and get away with it, why would anyone in the black or Hispanic communities (the urban underclass) have any trust in law enforcement or the justice system? What about when the East Haven police sit outside Hispanic/Latino-owned businesses to harass and threaten their patrons? Or when a BART officer shoots a handcuffed Oscar Grant, tries to cover up what he did, and is then only found guilty of involuntary manslaughter? These aren’t incidents from the distant past. These happen all the time throughout the country. The fact is, almost no one from a marginalized group, particularly a marginalized ethnic minority, has any reason to place their trust in the police and the justice system. Too often justice clearly never happens.
Given this context, and given the apparently already simmering tensions between the community and the police in Ferguson, MO, the community has every reason to distrust the police in their handling and investigation of the shooting. Furthermore, the police have an obligation to allow peaceful protests expressing this anger while doing what they can to prevent rioting and vandalism. Imposing a type of quasi martial law on the town only confirms the community’s feelings about those who are supposed to “protect and serve” the people.
So far, this case seems somewhat different. The president has responded, though he can’t be too forceful lest his opponents use that to discredit the very real emotions of the community (and also due to needing to avoid the damaging stereotype of the “angry black man”). The federal government is investigating. The state has relieved the local police of control in an attempt to defuse tensions. People from across the political spectrum, including many that are normally expected to hold rabidly pro-“law-and-order” views, have called for finally rolling back the militarization of the police and for police to do more to earn the trust of those who rightfully question their actions and motives. Hopefully this righteous anger will last and lead to real reforms, but honestly, I expect that things will go back to normal quickly.