Protests and Riots: Do Ferguson Police Confuse Them?

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Protesting can be angry work sometimes. It can be pained and painful; it can be hot and explosive. It can also — and often does — lead to inappropriate backlash from law enforcement without provocation, which sometimes leads to an almost defensive response from individuals. In the heat of the moment, with someone bearing down on you or hurting you while they arrest you, things become complicated at times. But sometimes beyond simply that, protesting and rioting become blurred categories, especially in the news, and especially for the police. That gray area where no one is certain where the line is and whether or not it has been crossed is a major problem.

Protesting needs to be distinct from rioting; being unclear as to what civilian behavior consists of invites police to use force when it’s inappropriate. If one segment of “protestors” is violent, another segment may be denied its right using the former as an excuse — i.e. violent rioters make all protestors look bad. Of course, half the definition of a riot is that it’s out of control, violent, and ruled by more emotion than principle. So arguing that rioters make it easier for police to justify silencing everyone indiscriminately won’t necessarily dampen angry youths throwing Molotov cocktails out of frustration with racism and an unfair power hierarchy.

Why Ferguson Is Especially Important

This is a particularly important topic given events in Ferguson, Missouri. Both riots and protests have seen a strong reaction from law enforcement there. Ferguson is especially at risk; the public’s relationship with police has already been strained by the initial shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, which witnesses say Officer Darren Wilson did without reasonable provocation.

Ferguson is an especially difficult situation as these protests are about subject matter that inherently instills distrust of enforcement in civilians and a defensiveness in police. When protestors are screaming outside the White House, outside a big business, police are on scene to control and monitor, but they aren’t the subject of the protests and anger.

Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press

Politicians — President Barack Obama included — have made a number of statements on Ferguson, and all of them have a very similar structure. They emphasize the need for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and the importance of violent activity, looting, and riots not being hidden behind the guise of peaceful protests.

The rhetoric is familiar. It’s similar to what politicians said at the start of riots in Ukraine. Now, I make the comparison not because events are about to spiral outwards, or even that the situation in Ferguson is even remotely as dire and corrupt as it has been in Ukraine. But the fact of the matter is, often where there are violent protests, something is rotten in Denmark. The violence is still problematic, but it’s important to recognize that it’s likely a symptom, and the illness deserves as much attention as the looting. It’s also important to note that police response has been heavily militarized — something Twitter and John Oliver have done a good job addressing.

That said, the violent side of Ferguson’s street activity is certainly detracting from the rights of others, and that’s a problem too. It’s also a problem that journalists are being detained. Two journalists were arrested without cause at a McDonald’s close to protests — one, from The Washington Post, wrote about the experience. Since then, scores of reporters have been detained, shot with beanbags, and arrested. Justification for these arrests was that journalists were in the way of locations police needed access to. Perhaps not a strong enough justification for loss of freedom of the press during a crisis such as this.

Riots

Looting and Molotov cocktails have been a problem in Ferguson, as have number of shootings. Earlier this month, it was reported that someone was taken to the hospital to treat a gunshot wound, and Tuesday saw further problems. Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol told The Washington Post that “our officers came under heavy gunfire” and that two civilians were shot and taken to the hospital. He noted that none of the police at the scene shot back despite the danger, and that fires had been started in the area as well.

Captain Johnson requested that protestors make their message heard during the day and clear out at night. Rather unusual — given a curfew was canceled — to ask that a non-enforced one be kept to regardless. What was the point of calling in the National Guard otherwise? “All of these criminals at night that are masking themselves and hiding themselves behind peace, let them come at night so we can identify them, so we can take them away from our community and put them away and make our streets clear,” said Johnson. This sets up a time period as definition of citizens’ intent — not an appropriate decision to make as police faced with freedom of speech issues.

Again, the issue is that following police advice, when police have become the enemy — fairly or not — is a rather unattractive option for an angry public, especially a youthful one. Asking “good people” to protest at a specific time comes across as somewhat patronizing. Feigned support of peaceful protestors, when the police are what’s being protested, comes across as disingenuous.

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