A few weeks ago we discussed the alarming changes in America’s police forces over the last few years. From approachable guardians of law and order too many of our cops seem to have been transformed into paramilitary assault squads festooned with DoD-surplus weapons and backed up by armored vehicles more suited to Fallujah than Ferguson. As recent events in Missouri show these new-model police don’t seem to be any better at preserving the peace than the old sort were. In fact all the signs are they’re a lot worse.
We won’t go into the actual shooting of Michael Brown; the picture is getting complicated there, with new witnesses and CCTV footage showing that someone strongly resembling him had assaulted a store owner minutes before he was shot and that he may have assaulted Officer Darren Wilson immediately before he was killed. It’s hard to get at the truth while tempers on all sides are high, but some other facts are obvious to anyone who looks and they raise some very serious questions about modern American policing.
Peaceful protest is a legitimate response to anything that concerns citizens in America. Rioting and looting isn’t, but deploying rifle-toting cops in armored Humvees was only ever going to inflame the situation. Police departments do need tactical teals to deal with (thankfully rare) high-threat incidents such as hostage-taking or terrorist attacks, but to deal with a street full of angry people? The image of a line of men in military-style gear aiming military rifles at American citizens raises ominous echoes of the Boston Massacre. The police are supposed to be part of the citizenry, not an army of occupation. By all means use force where it’s needed to prevent a crime but threatening slaughter is not the way policing should be done in a free society, and that was the message behind this show of force.
Heavy-handed bully boy tactics on the street were perfectly complemented by indecisiveness and weak leadership at the top. The St. Louis city police didn’t agree with the tactics the county police were using in Ferguson. State governor Nixon didn’t seem to agree with either; on Thursday he handed over control of Ferguson to – wait for it – the Highway Patrol, the police agency with about the least experience in dealing with public disorder. HP captain Ron Johnson, an African American, managed to calm things down by marching along with the demonstrators in a show of community solidarity, but the new softly-softly approach has tipped the balance too far in the other direction. Now, instead of overwhelming force aimed at the people, there’s no force aimed at the looters and radicals who’re trying to exploit the situation. As politicians call for martial law and a curfew is imposed – a curfew, in a peacetime American city! – store owners are being forced to rely on their own arms to defend their property. Meanwhile rioting continues and at least one more person has been shot.
There’s fault on both sides here; many people are too quick to form up on racial lines instead of looking at the facts of what’s happened. Peaceful protest is legitimate; looting businesses never is. Many of the people of Ferguson should be asking themselves if they’ve really acted in a way they can be proud of. But there’s no doubt our new-style police, militarized and remote from the citizenry they’re supposed to serve, have done their fair share of pouring gasoline on the fires.