When Is Police Power Counter-Effective? Ferguson Offers an Answer

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Scott Olson/Getty Images

For those unaware of events happening in Ferguson, the protests and subsequent police reaction will likely shock you. The enforcement reaction has been unexpectedly strong, violent, and the impetus racially charged. Protestors, mostly peaceful, have been gathering in anger against police in the town of Ferguson — a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. The protestors tote signs, sing, shout, and are generally angry and saddened. But, importantly, they are also generally non-violent.

That said, Business Insider does report that some have been seen throwing Molotov cocktails, rocks, and bottles, but there’s also evidence of strong militant police reaction to gatherings that refused to disperse. Though officers with loudspeakers told protesters that their “right to assembly is not being denied,” according to BI, they told the crowd they needed to go home and later set off tear gas and fired rubber bullets when a bottle was reportedly thrown at police. Officers demanded people shut off cameras.

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

Two journalists were arrested without cause at a nearby McDonald’s, including Wesley Lowery from The Washington Post, who wrote about the experience . He was given no explanation for his arrest other than that he was trespassing at a McDonald’s.

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

What Set the Whole Thing Off?

Michael Brown, an 18-year-old local, was repeatedly shot by a Ferguson police offer. Reports of the shooting conflict in their accounts. Police claim Brown did not stop when told to, and pushed the officer in question before attempting to grab his gun, at which point the officer shot him.

However, multiple eyewitnesses say Brown did not reach for the gun but was shot without cause. Dorian Johnson, the 22-year-old friend of Brown who was with him at the time, said the officer fired off multiple shots without cause, reports MSNBC, after the officer began the interaction by telling Brown to “Get the f— onto the sidewalk.”

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

Rioters and protesters are saying the attack is comparable to the case of Trayvon Martin, a racially motivated murder rather than a legitimate police response. The officer in question was put on paid administrative leave and the FBI and Justice Department have gotten involved in the case to ensure, as Attorney General Eric Holder said, a “thorough, fair investigation.”

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Criticisms

Given the public outcry, the distrust, the concerns over racial tension, and a potentially racially charged tragedy, the police response is counter-effective. Heavy handed is putting it lightly. Tear gas, rubber bullets, SWAT teams, and large police vehicles — none of these things imbue an already combative public with the sense that they’re being treated fairly or empathized with in any way. It sets the police up as a force against which to protest, rather than a part of the community with which to work.

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

The enforcement response has led two former military members, a retired Navy Chief, Dan Bramos, and CNAS Military, Veterans, and Society Research director Phillip Carter, to tweet critiques in recent days:

Even AG Holder seemed concerned about the message being sent. “The law enforcement response to these demonstrations must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them,” he said. “At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

President Barack Obama & Gov. Jay Nixon

President Obama made his own comment on the events, emphasizing the heartbreak resulting from Brown’s death, noting that the authorities have a “responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death.” He hit on the importance of a calm and collected public, stating that Brown’s death must not be used as “a cover for vandalism or looting” but also emphasizing that police must allow civilians to freely enjoy their First Amendment rights, and journalists must be allowed to cover events un-harried. He also noted Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s involvement and eventual arrival in Ferguson.

The worsening situation in Ferguson is deeply troubling,” said Nixon for his part, repeating Obama’s insistence that law enforcement must be respected but that “we must also safeguard the rights of Missourians to peaceably assemble and the rights of the press to report on matters of public concern.”

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Bigger Picture

The first SWAT teams came about after police sought military aid in handling public protests and outcries in Los Angeles in 1965. Since then, they’ve been used in countless instances, and there are countless instances of riot control going to far, or SWAT force being used in entirely inappropriate cases. Take for example the Dallas SWAT team that raided the Veterans of Foreign Wars poker game; part of a pattern of breaking up gambling games. “Elderly players were terrified — one urinated on herself,” noted Evan Bernick, of the Heritage Foundation. Cue the example of pregnant protestors slammed to the ground in Ferguson.

Yes, it’s important to control public chaos fueled by emotions that are sometimes violent, and other times give rise to a powder keg atmosphere. But adding fire to a powder keg rarely results in a calm night of mourning, or even a loud, but non-confrontational night of venting. Video footage hardly shows a calm, collected, or non-confrontational police force.

Military personnel should not be comparing law enforcement reaction to protests to their patrols in militant and dangerous postings overseas. But they are. When a public sees law enforcement as the enemy, suiting up and creating a battle front, that has a way of confirming the “us against them” viewpoint. Shooting rubber bullets and sending out tear gas for angry comments from protestors cements it.

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